The Dunbar Community Center has been a hub of culture, sports and social activities for Springfield’s African-American community for over 100 years. But it was almost shut down last year due to a mortgage dispute. The center appears to be getting a new lease on life.
The Dunbar, as it’s more commonly known, has been located at its current site in Springfield’s Mason Square neighborhood since the 1930s. The building’s original wing was a church, before it was converted into a community center, hosting basketball and boxing tournaments, dance and exercise classes.
It was also home to a studio that legendary dancer and choreographer Frank Hatchett operated from the late 1960s to the early ’80s before moving to New York City to teach Broadway performers and celebrities like Madonna, Savion Glover and Vanessa Williams. I was among the many students who attended his classes on the second floor of the Dunbar. I hadn’t seen the studio in more than when I paid a visit there recently.
“So, welcome back home,” said Reverend Atu White, senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church, which now owns the Dunbar. “A lot of youth spent days here. And the more I stay in the city of Springfield, the more I learn of the people who…grew on this green dance floor. So it’s a, as I call it, a sacred space. Because whenever you’re able to capture the imagination of youth and inspire them in ways, and challenge them in ways, it becomes a sacred space in their life.”
The church is hoping to recapture Dunbar’s reputation as a hub for the African-American community, although it’s been open to and served all.
That legacy appeared doomed when a Colorado-based lender announced last year it would foreclose after the center, still suffering from the great recession, had trouble paying off a mortgage for an expansion project. The city offered to buy the 44,000 square-foot property, but the lender ultimately agreed to Mount Zion’s bid to take over the mortgage for $705,000.
White said the church was looking for a space to grow its congregation and its impact
“Our community needs more spaces where they can grow and have a positive self-image, a positive self-worth,” he said. “Where you’re going into a building that’s owned by the same poor residents of the community. And there’s pride in that.”
A renovation plan would convert the original wing that includes the gym, three-story rotunda and Frank Hatchett’s old studio into a multi-use space with both a church sanctuary and performing arts space.
That brings some comfort to Estelle Early. She is a retired nurse who attends a chair exercise class for older adults who’ve dubbed themselves the Dunbar Divas. She grew up around the corner from the center but moved away to another part of the city. But when her church sponsored members to attend the class there a few years ago, she came back.
“I found myself retired but I wasn’t really active. Plus the camaraderie, the fellowship. We have a good time other than just exercising. All of us women have bonded,” Early said.
I asked Early what it would have meant had the Dunbar shut down.
“Oh, goodness,” she said. “If it had closed, I think we would have all been pretty much devastated, because it means so much to so many people who grew up here in Springfield and knew about the Dunbar and all that it offered to the young people, all the way up to our seniors.”
Since 2011, those programs, from teen pregnancy prevention, sport and academic support to adult exercise classes, have been operated by the Springfield YMCA under a lease agreement that runs through June. As to whether the Y’s presence at the Dunbar will continue beyond that date, president and CEO Scott Berg is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We’re going to see how the relationship is going,” Berg said. “So far, the church has been really good to work with. We applaud them for all their efforts. But the Y is a mission, and we made it very clear that we’re always going to be looking for space to expand our programs or to offer different programs. So just because we’re at one location doesn’t mean we’re going to be there forever.”
For his part, Mt. Zion’s Atu White said the Y is welcome to stay on if they choose, adding the church wants to expand arts, wellness and education programs for the area’s residents.
“We’re not a wealthy congregation. We don’t have endless money, but we have endless imagination,” White said. “And with that endless imagination we’re willing to work hard to provide a place for the next generation and generations to come to really grow and develop. And that’s the story of the Dunbar. The Dunbar was a place where a few generations really grew and developed.”
But first they’ve had to address more immediate maintenance problems typical of distressed properties. Part of it needed a new roof. And on my visit, crews were repairing a heating unit that had gone on the fritz.
White said church services at the Dunbar could begin as early as March, but that will depend on what other maintenance issues come up.