A vibrant mural—clouds, mountains, colorful flowers—adorns its walls, and in front stands a large tree made entirely of recycled materials, the product of a months-long collaboration between the Santa Fe Art Institute and the community to create a “Pachamama,” or Mother Earth symbol.
For years, this little house was where community members went to study, learn English, relax and interact.
“It was just a place for the community to get together,” John Brambl, a former English as a second language teacher there, says of the former El Centro Comunitario. “It bridged the gap between [different] groups,” bringing together longtime Santa Feans and newer migrant populations in one of the city’s poorest sections, Brambl says.
But last month, El Centro went quiet. The only classes that still take place there are sewing workshops for a neighborhood women’s group, Soledad Santiago, the center’s director, tells SFR—and even those are looking for a new site.
In part, that’s due to the brand-new community center that opened this June right behind the old center. Both sites belong to the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority, which first solicited designs for a new community center in 2006.
On a sunny weekday morning in July, the new building hums with activity. A flock of young boys runs excitedly from the gym to the water fountains, greeting new arrivals at the door. In the computer lab, Pat Rivera teaches a United Way-sponsored class in Spanish, guiding students through the English words on their Dell laptops—“save,” “save as,” “new”—while Santa Fe Prep graduate Annai Burrola amuses their children with Chutes and Ladders. Both Santa Fe Community College and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Fe now offer educational programs at the new center—and community members tell SFR they’re very happy with the professional classes and the new space.
“I worked for two years to get [SFCC] to give official classes,” Santiago says. At the old center, she explains, “we just weren’t equipped to handle that.”
For Santiago, the center’s success hinges on utility—and with 75 to 80 kids a day in the Boys & Girls Clubs’ programs, things look good.
As Diane Karp, the director of the Santa Fe Art Institute, puts it: “A new building that has clean bathrooms, a working kitchen and computers—you can’t argue with it. This is the first time this community has been acknowledged in terms of need and possibility.”
But for Karp, there is still a remaining piece of the puzzle. The building—blocky and unremarkable from the outside—“doesn’t feel or look like a community center,” Karp says. “It doesn’t reflect the architecture of Santa Fe; it kind of looks like a police station.”
She’s also bothered by SFCHA’s decision to award the building contract to Portland, Ore.-based Pavilion Construction—the same company currently building SFCHA’s new housing development on West Alameda Street—instead of a local firm.
Civic Housing Authority Director Ed Romero says Pavilion subcontracts some work locally and that SFCHA solicited community input during the design process in 2006. Later, the building’s appearance “changed dramatically” to keep costs down, Romero says.
There is one means of merging old with new: Relocate Pachamama.
“We’re really hoping and expecting that the Civic Housing [Authority] will see the importance of putting it somewhere that is publicly accessible,” Karp says—such as in front of the new center, where it could “soften the chill of that architectural space.” She worries the sculpture could end up off limits if the old El Centro reverts to single-family public housing.
Romero says he’d just as soon leave the sculpture where it is.
“Moving it would potentially be $600; it’s a big piece of art,” he says. “At that point you’d almost be better off having someone just build another one at another site.”
To Brambl, that wouldn’t quite cut it. “We’ve all put in tons of time and so much love, and at the end of the day, there’s a lot of migrants who look at this statue and say, ‘This is us. We did it.’”