Tacoma Community House’s “gymolition” Friday won’t be complete without Shrimps.
The 99-year-old Hilltop agency will demolish its 80-year-old gym next week, but not without a thank-you for its years of service.
From noon to 1 p.m. Friday, TCH leaders will host what they are calling a “gymolition,” a celebration of the building’s life. They’ve lined up people who learned Cambodian dance there, and volleyball players, and even some doctors who met there to organize what has become Community Health Care.
But they can’t find any Shrimps. They know they existed. They have a photo of 10 boys posing in TCH Shrimps basketball uniforms. On the back, “1950’s” is written in script. But there are no names.
It’s a beguiling photo of boys with a healthy sense of self. They may play for a nonprofit agency. They may be short on height. But they are fine with who they are: The Shrimps. Mighty crustaceans.
If the photo does, indeed, date from the 1950s, that was no small thing. The team members were black, white and Asian, playing together at a time when racial prejudice was a national norm. From the start, that kind of cooperation has been the hallmark of Tacoma Community House.
Founded as United Methodist Deaconesses mission, TCH has evolved from one rented room staffed by two young women sent to meet the needs of an immigrant neighborhood. The missionaries taught household skills and offered support with such success that the program grew to two rooms, then, in 1918, to a whole house.
It has shifted services as needs change, and now focuses on literacy, job skills and the path to citizenship.
The gym was a gem of a service when neighborhood kids needed a safe place to play and develop team skills. Before the gym, boys played basketball in the original Community House basement.
“When they shot, they caromed the ball off the ceiling,” said Candis Carbone, who works at TCH and is its unofficial historian.
The new gym, built in 1929, was multi-purpose to the rafters. The basketball court was on the main floor. Above it ran two balconies: one with a bowling alley, the other with a shuffleboard deck. Over time, pool tables migrated from the Community House basement to an end section of the balcony.
“They had Friday night dances here,” Carbone said. “Everybody came. They got pretty wild.”
“We have charters for Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops,” said executive director Liz Dunbar. “We had the first Girl Scout troop for African American girls, who weren’t allowed in other troops.”
During the 1960s, the Black Panthers ran a breakfast program. In the 1970s, refugees taught Cambodian dance, and VISTA volunteers ran summer recreation programs.
Dr. George Tanbara called a meeting of 50 doctors in that gym to form a clinic for low-income people. That idea grew into Community Health Care, which recently dedicated new headquarters in Salishan.
After the People’s Center opened on the Hilltop in 1978, TCH ceded recreation to the new facility and reconsidered the best use for the aging gym.
They tried using it for language classes, but the acoustics were unmanageable if more than one group used it at a time.
They teamed with Intel to run a computer training program. It ended, but stuff – from filing cabinets to table decorations – piled up as the ceiling and exterior paint flaked away.
Without a solid use, the deteriorating building does nothing for the neighborhood, or for the people who use Community House.
Better that it should come down before it becomes blight.
“Our initial idea is to create a space for our students to sit and have a snack when they have a break from classes,” Dunbar said.
Neighborhood council members have seen too many picnic tables co-opted by drug dealers, so they’re concerned about that plan.
“We are working to find a mutually agreeable use,” Dunbar said.
In the meantime, before the building is no more, they’ll hold that gymolition on Friday to celebrate its part in Hilltop history.
With luck, they may catch some Shrimps.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677
Are you a Shrimp? Do you know a Shrimp? If you’ve got crustacean connections to the former Tacoma Community House basketball team, please call communications associate Hana Kato at 253-383-3951. Shrimp or not, all are welcome at TCH’s Gymolition ceremony from noon to 1 p.m. Friday at 1314 S. L St.