Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Saving Graces of Community Centers

I am not a fan of blatant sentimentality, a saccharine nostalgia that paints a pastel-shaded Technicolor picture of a glorious world impervious to danger and distress. We all know it isn’t so. Behind glossiest scenes, troublesome things happen sooner or later, in keeping with imperfect human living.

But be that as it may, to this day I enjoy warm and cheery memories of my hometown’s community center. And I generally believe they are warranted. I enjoyed top-notch youthful experiences within the red brick walls of Midland Community Center.

I began thinking of this after this place came up as a topic on a Facebook page to which I belong. There one can share pictures, information and minor social connection for Midland, Michigan’s  current and former residents. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to engage in sharing thoughts there, as I have not been there for anything other than my parents’ funerals in 17 years. Before that, a scant few times most years, then none at all for decades. This was due to circumstance as well as by design. I was not loath to leave mid-Michigan and that small city. My life needed landscapes beyond the flat, open vista, one contoured for months by about 6 months of intense winters; a more diverse population; and different opportunities. Still, I enjoy the tidbits both historical and social that I read from my home in Oregon. One of the most interesting has been the ongoing exchange of warm memories like mine of the city’s community center–by perhaps thousands of people.

A little history first: the first community center set up there was started in 1919, Wikipedia states, “in conjunction with the very first bowling alley in Midland.” Soon other sporting activities were added as more people came. In 1955–I was 5 and had lived in Midland 3 years–Dow Chemical Company covered the $1.5 million cost of a new and modernized center and site. That makes sense as the multinational Dow Chemical and Dow Corning were and remain headquartered in the city. The center has grown, having been enlarged several times. “In 2005, MCC recorded 900,000 member visits….equivalent to 2,465 persons participating every day or the year.” (In 1960 when I was 10, Midland’s population was about 27,000; in 2017, it was 41,000.)

I am not surprised; I popped in often during the ’50s and 60s. I can’t recall what it cost to use the facilities but it was minimal, affordable for most folks. Yearly memberships were available and likely my family had one, as all five of us kids loved to be active. It yet provides activities every season, nearly every day you might want to drop in or regularly participate in a series of classes or a special event. That has been important in a place where freezing temperatures can last for months. Parents, children and single adults have all enjoyed the options, and what was once a good sized two-story building on a large corner lot now takes up a 12-acre site. I can barely imagine such changes.

So what did I most appreciate about it? Having so many choices was one. There was a huge swimming pool with even a high dive board which I thrilled to climb up, then plunge from; swimming was one of my all-time beloved pastime for years, indoors or outdoors. There were also basketball, volleyball, badminton, the last two being favorite games for me. There was a billiards room (I worked on that with my brother) and one with ping-pong (table tennis) tables ( which I loved) and a fitness room. I took a preschool rhythmics class where I wore soft suede slipper-like shoes that felt wonderful and danced all about (I still do recall it) and then beginning ballet classes, plus a few art classes. There was also gymnastics, martial arts, fencing, yoga. I read there are music lessons offered but if they were offered back then, I studied music elsewhere. Along with the rest of several teen casts I rehearsed musical theater shows there for summertime productions.

As I recall, there were also workshops for health, product presentations, lectures, small music group rehearsals, art shows, holiday bazaars, community group and church gatherings. Rooms were likely rented cheaply, if they cost anything.

Grade school kids attended outdoor summer day camps sponsored by the MCC and greater city parks and recreation department. Rainy days we would do fun activities in the center, as well. I spent a few early years in Barstow Woods with other campers and our counselors, soaking up nature’s wondrous ways, playing games, singing songs, and in Central Park right by the center) I learned to swim better in the outdoor pool. These summer camps served a couple of my children, too, when they visited my parents

And there were the Saturday afternoon dances in the gym starting when I was 13. What had reeked of sweat during regular hours was transformed into a low-lit, music-filled space. I spruced myself up a tad, met up with friends. We chattered among ourselves tried to look cool,  in sync with the scene yet disinterested. In awhile we gravitated to the dance floor with each other, did the Twist, the Monkey and all the other crazy dances we knew. The music was emboldening as we responded to blaring rock ‘n roll records. In time, some of the guys would move closer to the clusters of girls and, at some point, one then another and another would ask someone to dance a slow dance or another fast and furious one. Reputations could be cemented there or dismantled so we had to watch ourselves. But it was a pleasure to move to the beats and practice wooing a boy from the protection of our groups that made the afternoon an adventure. It was an introduction to the new world of early teen-hood.

The community center made a significant difference in other ways. I could get away from my house and the life lived there. Away from constant classical music, which I adored but my mind and heart were sometimes over-full. Away from the bungalow were stuffed with not only my siblings, parents and our friends, but students of my musician/ teacher father’s. And sometimes customers who came for my mother’s part-time seamstress and milliner creations (who also taught elementary school). The doorbell and phone were always ringing. Even though I knew nothing different and could concentrate well amid the controlled if cacophonous chaos, I yearned for private space and coveted quietness. Too, I just liked other sounds, scenes and kids who played games or learned new things with me. It was about a 4 block walk from our house to MCC and since the streets were safe, overall, I was free to ride my bike or walk alone there and back by the time I was 9 or 10. It was a good bet, however, that my friends might be going there, as well so we could meet up and head out.

I didn’t just learn to play indoor sports better, swim or dance better. Education for the young occurs in subtler forms socially. All socioeconomic and cultural groups were represented. I might not be good friends with Wally or Leslie at school but there we’d swim with each other, share a good game of volleyball or table tennis. It was far more egalitarian than most places. And I could better blend in with a number of groups and even just goof around. Not be My Father’s Daughter (a public man in several capacities) with high expectations to meet. I could also compete and work hard to win without hard feelings if my opponent or I lost–and the rules of fair gamesmanship counted. It all held more friendly neutrality than if we played in a school setting. And if there was ever a rousing argument, it was settled soon by the staff; fights were extremely rare in the MCC and those too boisterous were ushered out with warnings. Those who came wanted this to be a respite, a fun time, a place of peaceful and congenial interactions. I think not even swearing was tolerated. Clear respect for one another was, and likely remains, key.

I remember window seats. I don’t think there were cushions on them by the big wide windows but they were brick seats, nonetheless, where many could rest or wait for rides home, perhaps. There was an area beyond the front desk, a large rectangular room used for family get-togethers, meetings, catered dinners and other events. But often it was empty and still. I would take my notebook, sit with legs pulled up and write in my notebook on top of my knees, staring out the huge window now and then as I cogitated, dreamed, observed, recorded. I liked watching the weather change beyond fingertips pressed on glass: dramatic thunderstorms, blurring mini-blizzards, autumnal palettes, spring’s delights. I liked to see the people coming and going, teens walking arm in arm or parents with fussy children or an adult rushing in for a relaxing break before heading home again.

The community center was a central meeting ground of my town with its mix-and match events and numbers and kinds of people and multiple experiences on any given day or night.

An environment that is safe is important for any child or youth. It was crucial for me because I did not always feel safe, spending a fair amount of time trying to avoid, and too often failing, a (non-blood) pedophile during some earlier years. At MCC there were responsible, trustworthy adults with name tags and there were enough that every area was nicely covered. If someone got hurt, there were people to help. And the other youths were mostly those I genuinely enjoyed seeing, yet could easily avoid if I chose–the place was big and choices many. I could breathe easy, never felt lost or bored. Surely this is true of the other children that attended on a week-end afternoon or for after-school hours of fun. It was a haven for any and all as well as recreational center.

I never worked there but at least one sister and brother did. By the time I was of age to do so, other things were starting to hold my attention and I spent less time at MCC. But it helped inform who I was becoming, provided healthy pleasures, a sense of security and  instruction across a few disciplines.

I have been to a community center here and there since then. Some have been good, some are not very welcoming or useful. But all are working to bring together a variety of people–for improvement of health and welfare, to strengthen communal spirit and encourage personal growth. People coming together: so needed more and more. And saving graces, all, amid the often empty hustle-bustle, the multiple hazards of the world. For my old hometown of Midland, Michigan’s enriching community center I remain grateful, hold close rewarding hours of those times. I was fortunate to engage in opportunities for play and learning all at once.

Now I need to more often avail myself of similar community offerings in my current city–and I encourage others to do the same. Check it out. I wish you a happy volleyball or basket ball game, or swan dive off that goose bump-inspiring high board–make a big splash!

5 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Saving Graces of Community Centers

  1. There is something to be said for nostalgia. That wispy blur of edging, that doesn’t mean “rose-colored” more amber colored from a setting sun when you know you have to make it home before it turns the next color in the nightly setting of a day of fun. Beautiful.

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