I apparently am not the only person who is fascinated with the former College Avenue Baptist Church Sunday School & Athletic Building, located one block south of bustling Magnolia Avenue. When we posted a story on the building’s next incarnation as a small office/residential project, readers read, Tweeted, Facebooked and whatever else people do these days with online information. I was interested too, as the building played an integral part of growing up on the south side. Inside the three-story dark brick building built in 1925 was a gymnasium, swimming pool, game room and other assorted diversions. There may have been some other diversions for adults, but as a teenager I paid no notice.
The building was a mile or two from my home, so it was either a quick bicycle ride or walk there. Even though the location wasn’t in the best neighborhood, since it was associated with a church, it gave my parents some degree of comfort I wouldn’t be completely corrupted. I was there to play some basketball, raise minor amounts of mayhem and goof off. While there I interacted with a variety of different people from different economic and social backgrounds. I vividly recall a girl who came there to play volleyball and was dropped off by her grandmother driving a large Cadillac. Back then, I should point out, Cadillac was truly a status symbol. Her grandmother’s car even had electric windows. Did we do some things I’d still be a bit ashamed to admit to my parents? Yes, primarily the episode where we were able to climb on the roof. Why? I don’t know. I’m sure it seemed like the most important thing in the world at the time. No one got hurt, but I seem to recall some adult saying, rather loudly, that he was really “ticked off” at us and that he was “disappointed, damn disappointed” in us. Adults didn’t’ curse back then in front of kids, so that stood out. What happened at that gym may seem like unimportant but it’s not. In fact, that type of interaction has become key for modern urban design. Just ask Donald F. Gatzke, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington: “This is sort of the whole thing urban planners have been doing in designing urban villages, neighborhoods, communities and mixed-use developments – and even the new urbanists – have been trying to do with new urban design strategies.” Previous urban designs had taken us out of places where we could meet people from other socio-economic groups. I wouldn’t have met the girl dropped off in the Cadillac.
“We sort of got lost into these monocultures we’re evolving into – one socioeconomic group lives here and another lives there and you don’t talk to each other,” says Gatzke. “You end up thinking you’re all enemies of each other.” Much of that has been fostered by America’s car culture, he says. That’s true in my case. When I got my driver’s license and the accompanying 1961 Plymouth Belvedere fixed up in my grandfather’s junk yard, I was no longer dependent on my bike to take me to the gym. I didn’t go, or if I did, went to places much further afield. “In planning they’re now trying to foster that mix of people with different socioeconomic and life experiences,” said Gatzke. “Fostering that in the public arena, whether it’s on a street or in a gym, is very much what planners are after.” If you’re familiar with the work of urbanist William H. Whyte, he has some of the same ideas in mind stemming from his work studying human interactions in public spaces. I’m glad the College Avenue Baptist Church Sunday School & Athletic Building will be preserved in whatever incarnation. As for finding an eclectic mix of people with different backgrounds? A one block walk to the north puts one on Magnolia Avenue where eclectic is the norm.