For Dan Ford, the fight to save the Bridge Academy and Community Center is, in many ways, a fight he’s been in for decades — a struggle for opportunity and sense of place.
The Bridge, a collective of various community organizations located at the old Sargent Card-Clothing Building at 300 Southbridge St. in Worcester is in danger of vanishing. The building, which Ford is the property manager of, is under contract to a buyer. If it sells, Ford and others at the center say they’ll be forced out.
The Bridge was given two weeks to come up with $1 million to purchase the building. A community campaign, Save the Bridge, was formed to help fundraise that million dollars. As of the publication of this article, the Save The Bridge fundraiser has two days left and a little more than $50,000 raised.
“When I was a kid, I was in a bad way and my school system didn’t understand a kid like me,” said Ford. “Which was, more or less, I learned with my hands. So, I found myself on the street.”
While on the street, Ford met a man that owned an auto shop. He told Ford to come in whenever the street was “hot.” He didn’t require anything from him other than that he watch how the garage works and learn.
That opportunity changed his life, Ford says.
Just a couple of years later, Ford found himself off the street and the owner of his own auto shop, East Coast Autowerks, on Washington St. in Worcester.
“It just shows that you can make a decent living with your hands, with the technical background,” said Ford. “I’ve had my shop for over 20 years now. I’m doing so well that I find myself wanting to give back to the neighborhood.”
While working at his garage, Ford found himself offering the same sort of mentorship and teaching that helped guide him in his teenage years. He quickly realized that having a dedicated space for teaching would be more impactful.
And then he had a chance encounter with an old friend, Benjamin Mantyla, who just so happened to be part of a trust that owned the old 19th-century mill building that was in need of upkeep and a renter.
The two worked out a deal where Ford would manage the property and get to use the space for his community work. He got to work right away cleaning up and breathing life back into a building that had sat lifeless for years, harboring trash and debris.
“I took maybe 10 30-yard containers of trash out of that place,” said Ford.
And it was when a friend needed a place to stay that Ford saw the full potential for the more than 3,000-square-foot building, which is known as the “The Bridge.”
“The plans are to create a bridge between the divide,” said Ford. To do that, Ford began reaching out and connecting with other community organizations to unite them as one central collective at 300 Southbridge St.
Today, the building has come to be known as The Bridge Academy and Community Center. Inside, Ford’s vision of various community organizations coming together to help local youth to learn and pursue their interests has come to fruition with nine programs already, or planning, to call the building home.
Those programs include The Bridge Academy, Crash Course Creations, Jubilee Career for the Performing Arts, Inc., Worcester Youth Cooperatives, El Salon, Side Note Programs, Worcester Free Fridge, R and R Jerk Chicken and StandUp for Kids. Lots of other individuals and groups are involved, too, such as Worcester Bike Life, Worcide, artist group Cop JuJu and more.
The community of artists, educators and craftspeople find themselves at risk of losing the space they’ve worked hard to make their own.
The building’s owner Benjamin Mantyla, who is a member of the Talbert family trust and represents the Talbert family, recently told Ford that a developer had made an offer to purchase the building, and in the interest of family and other members of the trust, they were going to accept it unless the collective could purchase it themselves.
Several attempts by MassLive to reach Mantyla for comment were unsuccessful, but Kelleher & Sadowsky, the real estate company that has listed the building for sale, confirmed the building is under contract.
One of Worcester’s iconic diners, Miss Worcester Diner, also sits on the 300 Southbridge St. property and would be part of the sale if finalized. Owner Kim Kniskern says there are three possible outcomes for the diner if the property is sold. One, the new owner would continue to let the Kniskern lease the diner. Two, the diner would be sold to her. Or three, she is bought out of her current lease by the new owner.
“I’m hoping to continue to lease it or buy it straight up,” said Kniskern. “I want to see the Bridge get the funding and money that they need. And then they would turn around and sell me the deed if they come up with the funds to take over the building.”
Members of the Bridge’s board say it will be a devastating loss if the building is sold, both for the folks involved in the Bridge and the larger Worcester community. But, they say, the work they’ve put in there will continue either way.
Vanessa Calixto, who is a board member for the Bridge and serves as director for El Salon, an “intentional and inclusive space for BIPOC creatives to feel empowered,” says the building has been an important place for Worcester artists.
“It was created because I saw the lack of diversity in the artist spaces here in Worcester,” said Calixto, speaking on El Salon. “… Children are artistic and creative and they should be able to enter institutions and spaces like that and feel that they are a part of that story, that their creativity matters and their ideas matter. That’s why El Salon was created. And we’ve been able to do so many events here through El Salon and through Dan’s good graces of just sharing the space with us.”
To board member Frankie Franco, the Bridge represents hope — it’s an amusement park of dreams, he says.
“There’s a lot of changes happening in Worcester and the Worcester I know and love is changing,” said Franco. “I feel like if we are able to purchase this building, it will bring a lot of hope, not only to myself, but to a lot of people who live in the community because we are able to keep some things that we know and love about Worcester within this building.”
And while people often say “youth are the future,” they are also the present, Franco says, and communities need to invest in their success, especially those who do not excel academically.
“Youth are going through stuff today right now,” said Franco. “And this place, the Bridge, will be a lot of help to them to try and navigate their own lives and try to gain the skills that they need in order to thrive in life, with whatever they want to do.”
If purchased, Franco says the collective will then focus on making repairs and renovations needed to operate a youth arts and trades school on site.
“We will renovate the building to meet the needs of the programs it houses and make structural and safety repairs as they are needed,” Save The Bridge posted in its fundraiser. “We will fund Community Services, Health Services, Educational Services and Student Boarding. We also will preserve the Miss Worcester Diner, all appropriate amenities and easements, for the current leaseholder and operator to purchase.”
A big part of the Bridge’s identity is the free fridge that sits right outside the building’s main entrance.
The program was set up by Lucy Barrett, a Clark University student, to help combat food insecurity in the city. According to board members, people come day and night to drop off and take food.
“I think it’s really important for this fridge to have a group of people that care about it,” said Barrett. “When I was originally looking for a host, I just wanted someone to say yes. But I have realized that it’s not possible for just one person to sustain this. There needs to be many moving parts and many individuals who really believe in this mission.”
Barrett says for those who look at the building and see a lot of empty space, it might be hard to understand why it’s worth saving. And in order to understand, one needs to experience the Bridge.
“We are this crazy tide pool between the development downtown, the ballpark and Kelley Square, and the neighborhood of Green Island,” said Barrett. I think that saving the Bridge is not just about saving this empty building and the community organizations that make up the Bridge, but it’s also about allowing Worcester to keep growing as a community that believes in and celebrates the people.”
Bridge board member John Powers says if all of the players involved, the trust, interested buyer and city, can see what’s at stake here, they might want to do a different project in the neighborhood — and still see economic development from the Bridge.
“We’re all aware, in this neighborhood, that it’s not going to be very long before all of these buildings are going to be up for sale, leveled and turned into market-rate condos,” said Powers. “We understand that the march of progress is on. We just want to be able to re-direct that momentum to provide for the community as well in a way that everybody profits.”
Powers says local and state leaders have caught the attention of the campaign and are throwing their support behind the movement.
“We’ve found quite a lot of money that’s available from both the state and several other public and private grant programs to partner with trades in their apprenticeship to make the repairs on this building in a timely and affordable way,” said Powers.
On Saturday, the Save The Bridge campaign will hold a rally to celebrate the Bridge and all those who have come together in support of the space, whatever its future may be.
To learn more about the Save The Bridge, or to donate, you can visit their campaign here.
- Save The Bridge needs $1M in two weeks to save Worcester’s vibrant community center
- Yes, it’s free: Fridges installed around Worcester offer food to any in need