Dania Hall in Cedar-Riverside drew thousands of immigrants during its 114-year history. Danish, Somali, Korean and Ethiopian people were among the ethnic groups to flock to the gathering hall for food, folk dancing and theater.
Now the only things flocking to Dania Hall are illegally parked cars. A February 2000 fire destroyed the hall, leaving an empty gravel lot.
But just a few blocks away in an old garage, a group of local residents hold a workshop, hoping to reclaim the Dania Hall site by building a mosaic pillar.
The two-foot-wide, nine-foot tall column, slated for completion this fall, will display 15 cultural symbols of past and present West Bank immigrant and counterculture populations. It will be erected during an October dedication ceremony on the spot where Dania Hall stood.
Many patrons of the former community center talk about it like the hall was nothing short of a flesh-and-blood neighbor. Posters on the garage's wall - one is a photograph of the hall with the words "I always thought I'd see you one more time" - suggest a wake is being held instead of a workshop.
But residents insist the spirit of Dania Hall isn't dead.
"(The pillar) is a step toward keeping that idea of a house full of nations alive in the community," said John Pitman Weber, a Chicago-based muralist, painter and printmaker commissioned for this project to give advice on creating a mural. Doris Wickstrom, project coordinator for the West Bank Community Development Corporation, said the her organization hired Weber because of his background in community art. He headed similar public art projects in Iowa and Chicago.
Although in town to help only a few days, Weber, along with local muralist Marilyn Lindstrom, taught dozens of interested West Bank residents how to break colored squares of tile into shards using a "nipper," or pliers, and how to arrange the pieces on outlines of the cultural symbols.
The goal is to complete the pillar before the first frost, Weber said. Once temperatures start to drop, it becomes difficult to plant the base of the pillar into the ground. "There is some time pressure here," Weber said.
Finishing the project on time might require increasing the number of days slated for the project from three per week to five per week - if funding allows, he said.
Completion of the project might be hurried, but it's difficult to find any anxiety among workshop participants. One table of residents seemed to be meditating, the silence interrupted only by the cracks of their pliers.
Another table consisted of a group of school-age kids laughing as they chopped up their squares of tile. Ninth-grader Jerry Syume, one of the most exuberant members at the table, became shy when asked what she thought about the art project. "It's pretty," she said.
Although most residents take a few days making "practice" murals to hone their skills, Korean immigrant Chong Shin was quickly promoted to work on the pillar-bound version of her chosen cultural symbol, the Korean flag.
Shin said she has never worked with tile in this manner before but did win first place in a ceramics contest 26 years ago - four years after she moved to the United States. "I like to do this," Shin said as she quickly reduced a tile square into several jagged pieces. "I like to try everything."
Other residents chose other symbols for their cultures. Jeanette Duprey decided on an ancient rock carving of a frog native to Puerto Rico, her homeland.
"It's the way the Taimo Indians symbolized the frog. I got it out of a Puerto Rican cookbook," said Duprey, who moved to the United States for college 19 years ago.
Although residents and project leaders take pride in the construction of the pillar, they say they hope it won't stay on the Dania Hall site long. They'd rather see a new gathering place built.
But none, they admit, could replace Dania Hall.
"(The West Bank) has always been an entry point for newcomers. They bring life, vitality and a chance to show their culture. That's what Dania Hall represents," Wickstrom said. "Dania Hall was like a jewel on the avenue - and it's gone."
Sarah Brouillard covers West Bank
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