• Organizers see bright future in Downtown Youth Arts Initiative

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    Jequan Huff, 16, a junior at Edison, left, joins others in learning a song and dance performance piece at the Downtown Youth Arts Initiative teen arts center.

    Shaquille Payne used to spend hours at the Liberty Pole.

    He and a few hundred other students waited amid the chaos and fistfights for a transfer bus to take him to the School Without Walls in the morning, and back home in the afternoon.

    He’d wait, he said, because he had no place else to go.

    That changed in January when the Downtown Youth Arts Initiative — since renamed “Cypher” by students — opened in the basement of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Chestnut Street, and students such as Payne were given the opportunity to do something other than languish at the City School District’s bus transfer spot.

    “It’s safer, and there’s something going on  here,” Payne, 17 and a senior, said last week.

    Cypher’s directors are claiming measured early success as two professional artist-run programs have already been implemented, about 35 students have enrolled, and within weeks they will have three or four more programs or subprograms operating and nearly 100 students involved.

    Critics, though, have called the initiative a misguided effort to quell issues at the downtown meeting spot where, since Midtown closed in 2008 and downtown options for youth dried up, fights have been persistent and a massive daily police effort has been necessary to control disturbances by teens either waiting for buses or visiting with friends.

    “I think the genuine intention was there, but that is not the problem at Liberty Pole,” City Councilor Adam McFadden said of the youth arts center. “I can tell you the problems are still down there and it has not had an impact.”

    Organizers of the arts initiative and its programming agency, ArtPeace Inc., understand the skepticism, but say the center’s potential – and its influence on downtown issues – has yet to be fully realized.

    “You could ask what impact it’s having on the Liberty Pole and I think there isn’t any one answer,” said Heidi Zimmer-Meyer, president of Rochester Downtown D evelopment Corp. and the main catalyst behind the center. “It’s not going to fix all of what drives the volatility. It can’t, it’s not big enough yet.

    “But we know the cost of doing nothing.”

    Positive programs

    In the basement of the church last week, about 20 students sang and danced as part of a rehearsal for a musical they have created called “Can You Hear Us Now?” The Possibility Project-Rochester — an affiliate of a national program based on musical theater — oversees the production.

    As part of the program, students write scripts based on their own lives, they learn about acting and choreography, design scenes and eventually will perform the full musical theater production using original music and songs. A Garth Fagan dancer is overseeing the project, as well as a professional music director and artistic director.

    “It’s a serious commitment,” said Kristin Rapp, the founder and executive director  of ArtPeace. “They are here Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, and Saturdays for practice. … Another initiative, a Slam Poetry Team, consists of five students who write and perform their own poetry in competition in front of judges.

    Other programs have either just begun, or will be implemented within weeks, including:  Music writing: Students write lyrics for original songs and record them. Twenty kids can participate in the program which includes guitar lessons for some students and the formation of a choir. Digital media: With a focus on graphic design, photography, and videography, the group will develop a brand for the youth arts center. Capacity is for 20 students. Silk screening and painting: Between 20 and 30 students can participate. The program will be housed at the Salvation Army, at 60 Liberty  Pole Way. Much of the new programming could be held at alternate locations throughout downtown, Zimmer-Meyer said, and the arts center should be considered more of a concept than one specific location.The RDDC and its partners announced in December plans for the arts center to open under a two-year pilot program. Cypher relies heavily on a $50,000 grant from Bank of America Rochester, whose offices overlook the Liberty Pole and whose directors have had a front row seat for the activity there.

    The two-year budget is estimated at about $250,000, to be paid by private donations , fundraising and grants.

    All the programming has a common goal, Rapp said.

    “Our goal is social change, and the kids changing within themselves and then working together toward community change,” she said.

    Zimmer-Meyer and Rapp said the youth have been involved in the planning process and the design phases from the beginning, and several, such as Payne, are on the steering committee.

    Six youths have been hired to work at the arts center.

    “This was a way to create something that the kids really wanted, and something that would be different,” Rapp said.


    Both the students and the centers’ directors acknowledge recruiting and retention have been difficult. “We’ve got the center, now we have to get the kids, which has been tough,” said Kala Oakes, a 17-year-old junior at School of the Arts, and a member of the steering committee.

    That could take time.

    “I think it’s unrealistic to assume that there would be a parade over here right away,” said Gabrielle Lewis, 18, also a member of the steering committee and a senior at School Without Walls. “Kids are going to flock to it eventually, but there is also trepidation and I think they probably don’t trust it, yet. There are so many organizations that have tried to do other things but they haven’t worked. They have to know that we will be around to do the things that they want to do.”

    All the students are recruiters for the center, particularly at the Liberty Pole.

    Payne, who said he was once purposely “bumped” by seven people on his way from the Liberty Pole to the arts center, recently revisited the transfer spot on a recruiting trip armed with his own original poetry and a guitar-playing colleague.

    “You knew people were interested, but they didn’t want to come over,” he said of his  performance. “We’ve got to go out there and keep doing it, and keep doing it, and keeping doing it.”

    Rapp said the majority of the students at the center have been recruited directly from the Liberty Pole, a dynamic she tracks by having students fill out a registration form which includes the question: Do you use the Liberty Pole as a bus transfer spot?

    McFadden, while acknowledging the sincere intent of the center’s creators, said it won’t work unless the school district’s busing s ystem is changed and hundreds of students are not forced to transfer at the Liberty Pole.

    He recently called upon community members to act as adult supervisors two hours per day to help students get “safe passage” to and from school.

    The intention of the center was never to move everyone from Liberty Pole under one roof, said Rapp.

    “We knew that we couldn’t impact hundreds of kids all at once, but we’re not sure we want to do that, either,” she said. “That might just be moving the problems at the Liberty Pole from outside, inside. And that wouldn’t be effective.”

    As more programming is added the impact of the center will become more obvious, she said.

    “Where I see the impact the most is in the young people who have really gotten involved in the planning process, they feel a sense of ownership in this,” she said. “They are going out and recruiting their friends into this and generating a sense of excitement about it, and a groundswell of interest.”

    Written by JHAND@DemocratandChronicle.com