March 28, 2006

Brick House turns 1: Community center in Old Louisville is thriving despite technical difficulties

The building that houses the Brick House, at the corner of Second and St. Catherine, still needs some aesthetic work, just like it did last year. Ceilings are caving in a few places; there are holes in walls; you have to manually open the toilet stopper to flush it; there are black burns of mold in some places. At a staff meeting last Wednesday, Meg Stern and Kristen Shelor hawk-eyed bulges in the acoustic tiles as Juliya Pogrebinsky cranked the main water line back on, hoping they didn’t see an errant stream. The water has been off nearly the entire winter, and there’s no heater.When you’re a non-profit community center surviving solely on grants and donations, you cut corners where you can. A 48-percent increase in LG&E costs this year was too ugly to bear; thus, it’s cold in here.To the left of the main hallway is a kids’ room, with toys, a couple stacks of board games and books. To the right is the library, an impressive array of book stacks, magazines and zines, many of which recall Louisville’s underground past: There are back issues of Brat and Superhero, for instance.The “Free Store” is a few paces down the hall, like a thrift store where nothing costs money. On down is the bike workshop, which staff members say is the Brick House’s smash hit. It’s packed full with old frames, tires, handlebars, rims, cranks, pedals and the ephemera that would accompany a bike shop. A neighborhood kid can theoretically come by on a Saturday afternoon, learn how to build a bike and ride it home, without paying a penny. Everything that comes into the Brick House is a donation, as is everything that goes out.The grand vision of the Brick House — formerly BRYCC House, for Bardstown Road Youth Cultural Center — is that of most community centers: to service your neighborhood by providing a place where functional needs meet cultural ones.“ to instill a value of self-reliance and sustainability in people,” said Stern. “Part of what we do just by existing within ourselves is to show people that anybody can do anything.” A focus on teaching individuality may seem counterintuitive for a community-oriented operation, particularly one that governs itself by consensus. “Independence is a false notion,” said Pogrebinksy. “There are so many structures in place that help you along” — schools, businesses, government and so forth. The nuance is in how one finds balance, which is where the Brick House believers want to help. The center is politically passive, although it’s considered an “oppression-free” place. That ideology is considered for every aspect of what the Brick House does.In the back of the building is the event space, where shows happen. Shows were the lifeblood of the old BRYCC House — in fact, the place practically became an exclusive hangout for Highlands punks. All that has changed.Since the BRYCC idea began its genesis at 1055 Bardstown Road in 1999, Jamie Miller has been involved. It was the intention of the original collective to buy that building, which became another uninspiring victim of corporate America (Buffalo Wild Wings), and renovate it. Miller said that as soon as it became clear they wouldn’t be able to afford it, they left. A $5,000-a-month rent check is tough to cope with, particularly when federal grant money is redirecting in radical mass to a post-9/11 New York City (and many hinterland locations with well-connected Congressional reps). Further, after the city-county merger, BRYCC’s major political supporter, former alderman Bill Allison, didn’t win a seat on Metro Council.With their assets in storage and the BRYCC ideal conforming to economic reality, they set out for a smaller space. What they eventually found — 1101 S. Second St. — was in something of a state of disrepair. “That’s what we could afford, a crappy building,” Miller said. So it began again, this time an admittedly more ambitious project, with considerably less overhead cost: to build a community center in the truest sense of the term. “If there’s a community here, we can’t just invade it,” said Pogrebinsky. “And if there’s not, we can’t just create it.”The Brick House plans to apply for a grant to cover its $20,000-a-year operational expenses, which would allow the staff — a rotating cast of eight or so unpaid volunteers, most in their 20s — to focus more on programming than fundraising. Then there’s the radio station. Brick Radio, WXBH-FM, is an ambitious community radio project wrapped in the Brick House motif. The idea has massive community support; however, the common theme emerges: money troubles. Miller estimates they could get the station up and running with $10,000; right now, they’re not too far short of that. However, their goal is to raise $70,000, simply to ensure it’s a professional outfit. “I wish I could devote myself full-time to this project,” said Miller, a high school teacher who’s married with an 18-month-old son. “A lot of the volunteers are in the same position. We’re all doing a lot of things. As much as we really want this to happen, there are just not enough hours in the day. For that reason, we really need other people to step up and reach out.” Money and time are the ways to do it. For more information on the Brick House, or how to donate your money (tax deductible!) and time, log on at www.brickhouse.cc. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com