Creative heart keeps beating

The old schoolhouse is alive again.

Restored and retrofitted by the nonprofit Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, the school is getting dolled up for its reintroduction to West Seattle on Friday as the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center.

More than a dozen rooms share the space of the sprawling 25,000-square-foot ground floor of what used to be the Youngstown/Frank B. Cooper School, including a 150-seat theater, a movement studio, a recording studio, a media lab, a workshop and two classrooms.

Youngstown is just one of several arts complexes opening in the Puget Sound area this month, evidence that the trend of building new performance venues — dating to the 1990s with projects such as the Everett Community Theater and Bellevue's Theatre at Meydenbauer — is going strong.

The $6.75 million Lee Center for the Arts at Seattle University — with a 150-seat theater set to house the Empty Space Theatre and student productions — threw its grand opening on Valentine's Day. And the $8.8 million Northshore Performing Arts Center welcomes guests with a gala celebration at its 607-seat theater Sunday evening.

But unlike the others, the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center never rests. Lights peer out through a myriad of repaned windows, while eager voices skip down a long hall where the scent of fresh paint still lingers. With a creative heart that pumps 24 hours a day, the place remains inextricably tied to the people who live and work here.

The four-story building is home to an alternative school, a handful of arts organizations and even artists themselves. A hard rocker from New Jersey and a couple of trapeze artists from Seattle are among those who dwell in the 36 low-income studios atop the first-floor public space. Artists must earn less than half of the Seattle-area median income — — for a single person, that's $27,250 a year — to qualify, said Philippa Nye, former project manager of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center.

Paul Fischburg, executive director of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association — which purchased the property from the school district last year — moved into the neighborhood 12 years ago.

"I think the unique thing that we bring to the mix is creating a sense of community that's beyond the building, that's beyond the arts," he said. "We have a school for kids that dropped out of the traditional school system; we have nonprofit arts partners whose mission is to create an opportunity for young people to find their voice; and we're a community-based organization that's trying to engage the larger neighborhood to come together."

Some may find similarities between the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center and ArtsWest, a theater and gallery complex that sits in Junction, another West Seattle neighborhood. But executive director Alan Harrison sees the new venue as "a community center [for] underserved educational organizations that have an arts bent." The Power of Hope, a nonprofit whose motto is "youth empowerment through the arts" and Arts Corps, which provides free art education to school-age kids, are two organizations that relocated to this old school.

"It's not in competition with ArtsWest at all," Harrison said.

Founded in 1907, the wooden Youngstown School served the families of millworkers. A brick building was erected a decade later to accommodate more children. And in the late 1940s, Thelma Dewitty, the first black teacher at a Seattle public school, taught here.

But despite its history, this giant brick building — one of the largest in Delridge — found itself standing empty and dilapidated with its playground in the clutches of snakelike vines and menacing weeds. Closed in 1989 because it was deemed seismically unsafe, the school sat boarded up for 16 years.

Delridge residents spurred its reincarnation by incorporating a renovated school in the 1999 Delridge Neighborhood Plan, and later affirmed the cultural-center plan with a vote.

And because the community wished to preserve the building, it's even listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"As somebody who's been on the neighborhood advisory board all these years, it's like a dream come true," said Pete Spalding, who lives in the Pigeon Point neighborhood above the old school. "What you're seeing now is the community's vision."

The center has already encouraged the intermingling of in-house artists and the neighborhood's residents.

Just three weeks after she moved into her studio at the beginning of January, Barbara Fugate decided to teach life-drawing classes on Tuesday nights. More than half of her class is now populated with those who live outside the center, she said.

A pedestrian bridge connects the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center with the Delridge Community Center, the Delridge Playfield and a social-service agency across the street, giving neighborhood residents even greater access to the new center.

And soon, through audio installations in the school's lockers, the voices of children from Iraq, Somalia, Cambodia and Latin America will fill the halls.

The renovation of the old school may inspire owners of nearby structures to fix up their buildings, and ultimately raise property values around town, said Nye, something the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association considered from the beginning.

"By creating affordable housing, we're hoping to help people that have always been in the community stay here rather than getting pushed away by gentrification."

Judy Chia Hui Hsu: 206-464-3315 or

Youngstown Cultural Arts Center

Upcoming Event: Grand Opening Celebration on Friday, 6-10 p.m.

Cost: Free

Location: 4408 Delridge Way S.W., Seattle

Information: 206-935-2999 or

Lee Center for the Arts

Upcoming Event: Molire's "Tartuffe," a production of Seattle University's Fine Arts Department, opens April 26.

Cost: $8 general; $6 students

Location: 901 12th Ave., Seattle

Information: 206-296-5360

Northshore Performing Arts Center

Upcoming Event: Opening Gala with Ben Vereen on Sunday, 7 p.m.

Cost: $49.50 for ticket only; $75 includes after-show reception with Vereen; $125 includes opening gala

Location: 18125 92nd Ave. NE, Bothell

Tickets: 206-632-8499 or

Information: 425-489-6018 or

Read more about Northshore Performing Arts Center in Friday's Ticket.