Jefferson School reopens as cultural community center

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YMCA Child Care Learning Center Director Ikeia Prince has been anxiously awaiting the move into five large classrooms at the Jefferson School City Center, and said it opens up entirely new possibilities for kids and teachers. Photo: John Robinson YMCA Child Care Learning Center Director Ikeia Prince has been anxiously awaiting the move into five large classrooms at the Jefferson School City Center, and said it opens up entirely new possibilities for kids and teachers. Photo: John Robinson

The new Jefferson School City Center officially opened its doors to the public on Monday, January 7, kicking off a costly and hopeful experiment to preserve local history and provide services for underserved communities close to Downtown. After a year-and-a-half of renovations, the center is offering an African American heritage center and other cultural, multi-generational nonprofits that the project’s organizers say the area has been lacking.

The large, two-story brick building was built as the city’s first African American high school in 1926—one of 10 black high schools in Virginia at the time—and over the next 75 years was converted to an elementary school and made a temporary location for students at schools under construction. Enrollment declined during Charlottesville’s turbulent integration in the 1960s, and Jefferson closed for good in 2002. A community-wide discussion over the school’s future rapidly ensued, and in 2004 a city-appointed task force recommended that the school be redeveloped as a civic project that would interpret and honor the black community’s past, and serve Charlottesville as a whole.

In 2011, the city donated $5.8 million to the project, and another $12 million was secured through tax credit investor funds and a loan from Union First Market Bank. The Jefferson School Community Partnership LLLP—a private group created to manage the available tax credits—has the next five years to raise more than $7 million to secure the tenants’ low rent in the building. If the money doesn’t come through by the end of the designated period, officials say, the nonprofits will not likely be able to afford to pay a commercial rate.

According to project manager LJ Lopez, “it remains to be seen what the loan renewal terms would be” if the tenants and partnership are unable to raise enough funds to cover the loan.

“In a perfect world, the foundation would raise enough money to acquire the building and reduce lease rates for all tenants,” Lopez said.

The goal is for the City Center to be self-sufficient, with enough funding coming through its programs to pay for itself. With only five years to pay off the loan, it’s a risky undertaking. But those involved are confident that because the nonprofits and their new services are addressing important needs in the community, from affordable childcare to healthy meals, the money will come.

One of the first tenants to move in and get started was the YMCA Child Care Learning Center. On December 17, a batch of kids moved into five spacious classrooms that were renovated with young children in mind. Last Monday, the YMCA’s first ever infants entered the brand new crib room.

“Aesthetically, it’s a dream for a childcare director. The space was designed specifically for our needs,” said director Ikeia Prince, who is looking forward to decorating the freshly painted white walls with age-appropriate art and decals.

The YMCA’s previous location on Westfield Road was old, cramped, and inconvenient for a number of parents. Prince said the center’s new home—with only a slight increase in tuition costs—has already attracted inquiries from new families.

Most exciting, Prince said, is the Intergenerational Learning Center, a collaboration with the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA)’s Mary Williams Community Center. Every week, children and seniors will gather around tables together for crafts and motor skills enhancing activities.

JABA’s presence in the City Center also includes the Vinegar Hill Cafe, a small restaurant with a cozy coffee shop feel that serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, 7am to 3pm. In addition to serving scones and paninis, JABA’s community planner and nutrition manager Judy Berger hopes the cafe will soon serve as an eclectic meeting place for poetry readings, musical performances, and community gatherings.

“I want to see every person of every age and color walk in and feel comfortable and welcome,” Berger said.

But what the cafe looks like years from now, she said, will depend on input from people who want to use the space.

“I’m not interested in dictating what the community needs,” Berger said.

The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, located on the second floor, is still in the furnishing stage. The first phase will open to the public in March, with an exhibit and interactive walking tour driven by recorded oral histories of local African Americans. Artifacts like old report cards, photos, and yearbooks will be on display, and eventually the 300-person auditorium will be up and running for lectures, film viewings, and cultural concerts.

They’re honoring and serving the African American community’s history and culture by bringing in predominantly black teachers and performers, but those involved say they want they City Center’s offerings to appeal to everybody in Charlottesville, not just the surrounding historically black neighborhoods.

Charlottesville native Martin Burks, who manages J.F. Bell Funeral Home in the Star Hill neighborhood, said he couldn’t be happier to see the City Center finally open.

As both a Jefferson School alum and chair of the Jefferson School Community Partnership LLLP, Burks has been invested in the community center and its growth since the beginning.

Martin said he and other partnership members recognized the fear and distrust the black community felt after the demolition of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s, and they want to address those concerns head-on.

“I’m chair of an organization that’s said it was going to get this done,” he said. “And we’re getting it done.”

He said his favorite aspect of Jefferson as a kid was that it doubled as a school and a community center—a place where families came to worship, host events, roller skate, and just hang out. Now, he said, the building has come full circle.

“There’s no other place in town with so many nonprofits under one roof,” he said. “You can go into one building and take a yoga class, have some lunch, and then head upstairs to the heritage center.”

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