History & The Human Touch

Old School Square

Sometimes buildings stand for so much more than bricks and mortar.

Historic buildings contain stories. So many stories.

They tell the tales of their towns.  If only the walls could talk.

In Delray Beach, Old School Square has the best stories.

Stories of civic renewal.

Stories of healing after tragedy.

And stories of celebration after civic achievements.

So many important moments in the history of our town have happened within the walls  or on the grounds of Old School Square.

That should mean something. That does mean something.

I thought about that fact last week as I was watching a debate unfold over the future of the organization.

I think the conversation is long overdue.

But the tone of the conversation distressed me greatly. And it ought to worry you too if you care about this community and this institution’s role in our past, present and future.

The best “tough” conversations come from a place of love, where all parties understand that while there may be disappointments, grievances, hurt, questions and hard feelings— at the end of the day there is love and respect. For tough conversations to yield the most value, there needs to be a foundation in place.

Historic buildings are important, and they are often beautiful, but it is the people who inhabit and care for those buildings that make the difference. They animate our buildings and they make or break our community.

I would argue that the people who have supported Old School Square over the past 35 years are some of the best people you can find here or anywhere.

They aren’t perfect. They have made mistakes. But they have also done amazing things—transformational things that have had an outsize importance to our city.

But before we talk about some of those amazing feats, here a few particulars:

  • The three buildings on the campus are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  •  The oldest, which used to be a two-story story public school, was built in 1913.
  • The second building, once a high school, was built in 1926 and enlarged in 1937.
  •  The third building, a charming gymnasium, was built in ’26.

The second and third buildings were designed by Sam Ogren Sr., a legendary Delray architect. They were lovingly restored under the watchful eye of another beloved local architect, Bob Currie, who passed away a few years back.

Both are gone but not forgotten—at least that’s the hope and how it should be. Special contributors should never be forgotten. Want to know if your community is healthy? Ask yourself whether the elders  are held in esteem or if they have been put out with the garbage?  It’s a fool proof test. But I digress.

Back in 1988, when the buildings made the National Register, the block was surrounded by a chain link fence and a non-descript concrete sidewalk—no paver bricks in those days. To the west, there was a whole lot of blight, crime and despair. To the east, there was vacancy. Downtown wasn’t quite on life support, but it was close.

My friends, vacancy and blight are not recipes for charm.

But if you study history, you will understand that towns go through cycles. When you’re up, you can’t imagine being down. And sometimes when you’re down, you have a hard time imagining how things could ever turn around. “Ya gotta believe”, as Mets fans used to say.

When the original buildings were built in ’13 and ’26 things were looking up in Delray.

The Delray High School cost $12,000 to build in 1913. And when it opened on November 28 of that year the entire town was in attendance, according to the narrative you can find on the National Register of Historic Places website. Now I’m sure somebody stayed home, but you get the picture, the opening of the school was considered one of the most important events in the history of the town.

But time passes and by the 80s, the buildings and the campus were a mess. Can you imagine a rusty chain link fence at main and main?

And that’s where we pick up our story when a visionary named Frances Bourque looked at those sad buildings and saw something else—a brighter future. She rallied the community and before you knew it, the eyesore on Atlantic and Swinton became a source of civic pride and inspiration.

Pride and inspiration are two things that should never be given short shrift in a city. Civic pride enables belief and belief creates trust which helps you to get things done.

Trust means you can go to the voters with a bond issue and ask them to go into debt and raise their taxes because there is a need to beautify your town, fix your parks and pave your streets.

Trust means they will vote ‘yes’ in resounding numbers. But if you don’t have pride, if you don’t trust your local government to deliver, you won’t be able to pass that bond or turn that blight into Old School Square.

Inspiration is also critically important.

Old School Square’s renovation was a catalyst for downtown Delray Beach.  It inspired others to believe in the future of the central business district.

And because the downtown is the heart of our community when it came back to life so did Delray. I would argue that Old School Square is the singular civic achievement in modern day Delray history. It sent a message to everyone who cared to listen: this town is serious about bettering itself. This town is aspirational. And aspiration is the best economic development strategy you can ever deploy.

Frances Bourque’s dream (disclaimer: I adore her) was brilliant because it addressed our past, our present and our future. Very few ideas touch on all three, but Old School Square celebrates our history, informs our present and has the promise to educate, entertain and inspire future generations.

When the fence came down and the buildings were restored our civic pride came back. We were no longer “Dullray”—we were a city on the move with vision, dreams, hopes and a bright future. What a gift the project that is Old School Square has been to all of us. Some of that gift is intangible–for instance the value of having a place to convene cannot  be measured, but it’s important nonetheless.

Look around South Florida and you will see that very few communities have a place to gather. Old School Square is our place to gather.

It has been an important convening space since it was restored. It is where we’ve hosted Town Hall meetings, it’s where we gathered to welcome the New Year, to celebrate All America City victories and talk about the future of our city during our famous charettes. On the stage, we have seen music, dance and even ice skating. In the beautiful Crest Theatre we have welcomed foreign leaders, authors, thinkers, historians and even a Supreme Court Justice.

Old School Square is also where we gathered to grieve and talk to each other after 9/11 , the Parkland horror and the tragic shooting of Jerrod Miller in 2005.

The beautiful spaces inside the buildings are where we held race relations meetings, where we had tough but important conversations and where we have seen 30 years’ worth of performances and art that has moved us. Yes, if only the walls could talk.

But luckily people do.

I have met local children who were inspired by performances and exhibitions at Old School Square. Some went to art school and one special young woman became a professional photographer after taking courses at the venue. This community came together and gave that young woman a scholarship—that’s what community is all about and it doesn’t happen without a place to gather.

A few months ago—in the wake of the gloom and stress of Covid– Jimmy Buffett—the legend himself– chose Old School Square’s amphitheater to re-launch his live music career. People loved it. They needed what Jimmy brought to us over four magical nights under the stars. Not everyone got tickets, but there were only 1,200 available. But he was here and some of the shows were broadcast on the radio. As Commissioner Adam Frankel noted last week that was a gift to all of Delray.

In a few months, Delray resident Max Weinberg, a member of the E Street Band and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, will host a concert and exhibit at Old School Square because he has fallen in love, like many of us have, with this town and our cultural arts center. Max, like many of us, has been inspired to serve and to give back.

Service and charity are what drives great cities.

You need good people to show up, roll up their sleeves and get to work. But those people need to feel supported and appreciated for their efforts. If they don’t feel supported, they will stay home or take their talents elsewhere. It’s just that simple.

Again, Old School Square is not perfect.

But it’s important to this town.

Old School Square has suffered, like every other arts organization, because of Covid. It needs our help and support now more than ever.

There is no doubt that many of Old School’s Square’s challenges pre-dated Covid and those challenges include funding, turnover among staff and board members and other organizational and financial issues. Some of those issues are really serious—nobody denies that.

As much as has been accomplished—and an awful lot has been accomplished—I think most agree that Old School Square can and should be even more. That’s not a knock on the organization, just an acknowledgement of its vast potential.

Last week, I heard some CRA officials bemoan the cost of Old School Square.

And it is expensive. No doubt about it.

But what about the return on that investment? That’s a good conversation to have and maybe that return can be better so let’s talk about that. But communities make mistakes when they only focus on costs not benefits.

Regardless, it’s important that the institution survive. Having a non-profit that raises private dollars and give citizens a place to volunteer and serve is a good thing. Can that non-profit improve? Absolutely.

It needs to.

Because if Old School Square thrives, Delray is a better place.

So it’s important for us to support the institution and to work together to fix its problems and realize it’s vast potential. Without giving you chapter and verse, the organization has hit a rough patch—rough enough that the powers that be realize the need for a broad conversation about the future.

The opportunity here is a huge one. It’s an opportunity to re-invent, re-set and build something even better. It is also an opportunity to improve how we handle things in this community when problems arise.

A long time ago, I sat on a dais with other elected officials.

For four of my seven years in office, I sat in the middle of that dais with a gavel and a nameplate that said mayor. It was a privilege and an honor and a responsibility. We saw ourselves as stewards. If a key segment of the community or a key organization had a problem, then we had a problem. We were in this together.

The people who have served this city have always viewed Old School Square as a treasured civic asset. They also viewed the relationship as a partnership and a collaboration. When things went right, we celebrated. When things got off track, we worked together to fix things to the best of our ability.

But we never lost the script, we were faithful to the basics. Healthy cities need places to gather. We were fortunate to have a great place to gather. Old School Square’s campus is beautiful, the buildings lovingly restored, the classrooms brim with possibility and the conversations that could be had within those walls are critical to our future.

Those are the basics, and they are awfully special.

We need to think about how we treat that place. And we also need to think about how we treat the volunteers who keep that place going with their time, money and talents.

There’s no doubt that we need accountability, there’s no compromising on that measure when public and donor dollars are at stake.  But we need sensitivity as well.

We need to remember that we are in this together. It is always better to help than condemn.

There is a great opportunity right now to re-invent and create a brighter future together.

 

Comments

  1. Mike Sneiderman says

    Bravo Jeff, what an important, timely and valued article! As you so perfectly pointed out, the Old School Square means so much to us in so many different ways. Thank you for your passion!

  2. Joe Gillie says

    Thank you for your wise words. For 23 years I proudly guided that incredible center, but I was NEVER alone. The partnership between the city, the community leaders, donors and the patrons of the Center was unparalleled and serves as a role model for other cities… my proudest legacy was the thousands of local kids who had their first arts experience at Old School Square. We touched so many lives snd partnered with the city to use the arts to enhance their failing reading scores. We honored our alumni and our new donors and we celebrated our community leaders past and present! Where is that partnership now? Where is the love for our community? We have an opportunity after this
    pandemic to rebuild and restore … Lets figure it out…

  3. Kerry Koen says

    Old School Square is not community “window dressing”, IT IS THE WINDOW from which we have viewed the pages of history called “Delray Beach” – from its early days to more recent ones. This isn’t “rocket science” folks. This is “family stuff” and it needs to be respected and nurtured as such. If there is a problem talk it out and fix it. Shouting at it will do nothing.

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