BRADENTON -- Demolition of the 13th Avenue Community Center building is underway to make room for new commercial development, but the historic nature of the site once considered "the center of community life for the black community" will be kept alive.
"There's so much education and history and community gatherings that took place there going back to the 1930s," said Rebekah Brightbill, manager of Bradenton's Central Community Redevelopment Agency. "That's too much rich history to let it be forgotten."
City officials and neighborhood residents who know the history of the area will get together and figure out ways to "memorialize" the site, Brightbill said. The developer of the planned commercial development is willing to partner and cooperate with the city.
"Many wonderful things have happened there," Brightbill said.
The Bradenton City Council approved plans two months ago to develop a grocery store and several other accompanying businesses in the triangular lot along 13th Avenue West and First Street. Cary Neil, manager for New Start Community Development, told the council at the time that groundbreaking for the project could be expected in August, and that the stores would be "up and running" by January 2013.
The 13th Avenue West site has been vacant since 2010 after the community center moved its operations to East Bradenton.
Demolition of the site is set to last until June 6. The eastbound lane on 13th Avenue West between First and Third streets will close from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. during this time.
Tom Green, now 73, went to the center as a child to play and for homework help.
"It was so valuable over the years," Green said. "It served to hold the families together, it was just fantastic."
Green works today as a crossing guard at an intersection near the proposed development. He's not "enthused" about the new development because of potential traffic jams, and is saddened by the planned demolition.
"I'll just look at it and think of what was there," he said.
Brightbill said the CCRA is identifying ways in which other communities have similarly commemorated sites, like naming a plaza after influential residents or using public art to display the history.
"It was a place that you could go and sit down and talk to each other and enjoy each other's friendship," said Elouise Bacon, 78. "Back then there was segregation, you couldn't go to the girl's club or boy's club. ... You couldn't go downtown and eat, you couldn't even use the bathrooms downtown. Ninth Avenue West and the youth center and church, this is where blacks had to go meet."
Though she has fond memories of the center, Bacon welcomes the new businesses because they will be within walking distance and convenient in the neighborhood.
"I hope we keep it up, keep it well lit, and remember that this is a part of our history," Bacon said. "Even if the site is demolished, it'll always be in our minds, in our memories."