“We need a new spirit of community,
a sense that we are all in this together.”
On January 1, 2023, the venerable Community House entered its “Centennial Year” full of hope, optimism, and excitement for a planned yearlong celebration of this 100-year-old, nonprofit, charitable organization – which has truly, truly stood the test of time. What a wonderful legacy our forefathers and foremothers left behind for us. Free of tax dollars, free of millages, free of reliance on others’ regular support, with a roadmap of serving all who enter our doors regardless of their ability to pay. Self-sufficient. Free. No strings attached.
While we have stayed true to the vision of our founders – we have over the years, pivoted to special “societal needs” of the day; wars, caring for wounded soldiers, economic collapse, stock market crashes, decades-old unemployment/employment services, navigating disease and pandemics…and so much more? But, never have we lost sight of those that we serve in the community and beyond. Or what our founders prescribed to us.
Recent plans to expand The Community House, to serve more, do more, be more – never made it off the ground. Mired in red tape, unable to get past rezoning of our 100-year-old, privately-owned parcel of land, to enable our expanded second century of dreams for the Community House to come true – for the communities and the diverse citizens we serve, our proposed project was sadly torpedoed in the initial rezoning stage. We knew it would be a challenge, but, with the blessing of neighbors, key stakeholders, surrounding businesses – we thought we had a fighting chance.
But, before we were able to even unveil/present our breathtaking, modern, state of the art plans, ADA-accessible, child-friendly, educational-centric facilities with hands-on teaching areas, added early childhood center classrooms, and a rooftop open air meeting space (to take the place of the unattractive, obsolete tent) all with a keen eye on the future needs of our young professionals – absent approval of that modest rezoning request, our project was virtually sent back to the drawing board. Just like the roadmap Ruth Shain and the St. James Altar Guild laid out for us. Free. No strings attached. Sadly, we had no choice but to “suspend” this beautifully designed, award-winning Saroki Architects stunning gateway project to the core business and residential mixed-use districts off of Chester Street. What a shame.
This experience reminded me and the loyal, most dedicated Community House staff ever that “you can choose to change with the times, take advantage of new opportunities in your industry and grow your business. Or you can fight the changes, refuse to adapt, and watch your business likely perish.”
The Community House in Birmingham must be preserved, valued and supported, maybe, just maybe, could have blessed/warranted some latitude – from within the city for which it was affectionately named for over 100 years ago. Community jewels and historical buildings are a fundamental aspect of a person's or community's identity. It shapes how individuals perceive themselves and their place in the world. Preserving one's culture helps maintain a sense of identity and belonging, which can contribute to overall well-being and self-esteem and sustainability of civilization.
“Culture is not just a set of customs; it's a vital part of who we are as individuals and communities. Preserving culture is essential for maintaining cultural diversity, fostering identity and community cohesion, passing on knowledge, and promoting understanding and tolerance in our increasingly interconnected world. It contributes to the richness and vibrancy of our global society.”
Culture encompasses traditions, customs, rituals, and practices that have been passed down through generations. These traditions connect people to their ancestors and provide a sense of continuity with the past. Preserving cultural heritage ensures that these traditions are not lost.
“Preservation of cultural knowledge helps maintain a sense of identity and continuity within a civilization. Culture is a dynamic and multifaceted force that plays a crucial role in the continuity and sustainability of a civilization. It provides the glue that holds societies together, offers a reservoir of knowledge and wisdom, and helps people adapt to changing circumstances. Cultures also contribute to a sense of identity, inspire innovation, and guide behavior, all of which are essential for the long-term endurance of a civilization.”
During this almost two-year process, some have asked “is there really a need for a Community House in Birmingham?” Well…ask the “Grosse Pointe War Memorial and their constituents, donors, city government and supporters – like us - one of only 38 “Community Houses” across the nation – called the Affinity of Community Houses. The Birmingham Community House and the War Memorial are the only two in Michigan. How lucky are we. Please don’t take my word for it, I invite you to go to the (Grosse Pointe) War Memorial website to see what recent heavy lifting, a “it takes a whole village” mentality looks like. Stunning. Wanted. State of the art. Worth saving and helping it grow at all costs. Good stewardship. Delivering the same services as us – in an historic building, but add in a full-size public movie theatre, raised ballroom, radio station, Junior League onsite and work-out facilities to boot. Never looking a “gift horse” in the mouth…
A recent gift of $20 million (I am told with no strings attached) and the donation and the eventual sale of two multi-million dollar estates on either side of them, has grown their endowment to eight figures. Surely, we can compete with our east side friends or the other 36 around the country. I understand that their city government, War Memorial leadership, key stake holders, neighbors, donors, and supporters continuously come together to preserve, protect and expand their community jewel, to help it, support it and act as exterior stewards of their cherished nonprofit charitable organization situated within the core residential and mixed-use of Grosse Pointe. Just like the (Birmingham) Community House’s land and building was gifted by St. James Church in the mid 1900’s, the War Memorial land was gifted to them in the mid-1900’s by the Alger Family, and both developed and incorporated as nonprofit charitable 501 C 3 community organizations funded, created and stewarded by visionaries of their time. Surely, we can come together too. To preserve and protect the (Birmingham) Community House, it will take a village, the whole village. Everyone rowing in the same direction, without agendas, just importance, just charitable, just a champion of something special, something good. As a Birmingham native, I must remain an optimist. Call me if you want to learn more about our Community House, who we are, what we do. It would be my pleasure. We cannot do it alone. Let’s remember and preserve where are grandparents, parents, and where we came from. I do…Happy New Year! One hundred years strong.
William D. Seklar is President & CEO of the Community House Association and Board Chair, President & CEO of the Community House Foundation in Birmingham.