A look back: The South End Community Center

Former building damaged in June 1, 2011 tornado

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – One of the last buildings in Springfield still yet to open following the June 1, 2011 tornado opens on Thursday.

22News looks back at the significance of the South End Community Center.

The former South End Community Center on Howard Street..

“This was a Godsend to make sure that the children of those immigrants, first generation, had positive ways to go,” Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said.

Springfield’s South End Community Center is more than a structure with four walls – it’s a special place in the hearts of generations of residents, dating back to 1939.

At the time, the center on William Street was a refuge for Italian immigrant children. But, the need for senior housing on William Street moved the center out.

In the early 1970s, State Representative Anthony Scibelli secured a new home for it in the Armory Building on Howard Street.

“It got cold in there,” Sarno said. “I mean you could literally hang meat in there if you had to.”

But it was massive.

“We had the drill shed floor that was 88 feet wide by about 300 feet long, about 5 basketball courts, a boxing ring,” said Skip Rousseau, Vice President of the South End Community Center Board.

Then in 2011, disaster struck.

Thirty-five children hid in the armory weapons vault as an EF-3 tornado destroyed the rest of the building around them.

“We had to find ancillary sites for the kids to still provide programming,” South End Community Center Executive Director Chae Swan said. “So the city did a great job, the school department helped us out immensely.”

Six years and ten million dollars in federal tax money later, this new facility on Marble Street, is finally opening, next to Emerson Wight Park.

This truly is a community center. It’s not just this gymnasium for kids to have fun after school. Upstairs, there are classrooms where during the day adults can take GRE and workplace development courses, and the C3 policing meetings will be held here.

“If we can keep one kid off the street then we’re doing our job,” Rousseau said.

The armory is now part of MGM Springfield…but the memories remain of what it used to mean to previous generations of neighborhood kids there.

“It kept me off the street, it really did, and a lot of my friends off the street, and I’ve got guys in there right now,” Fiore Grassetti, president of the Pioneer Valley AFL-CIO, said. ” I know a ton of guys that actually went to this facility as kids and here they are working on the project today.”

The South End Community Center opens at 11 this morning.