The Meadowood Neighborhood Center opened its doors in the middle of the Meadowridge shopping center on Raymond Road at Whitney Way six months ago, and ever since, its popularity has grown steadily. A narrow room occupying the former Jacobsons Deli, the center does not have the luster of Princeton Club or even a local YMCA. But it seeks to become an invaluable resource to a part of town many are referring to as "troubled."
A joint effort between the city, the Community Development Block Grant office and Madison Schools and Community Recreation, the center is a direct response to concerns that the Meadowood neighborhood was becoming "the new Allied Drive." The death of an area teen this spring only compounded those fears, branding Russet, Hammersley and Balsam Roads with a dangerous reputation. Despite the stigma, the Meadowood Neighborhood Center sees plenty of optimism in local residents.
"I don't get the feeling that people are hiding out," says center director Cristine Reid. "The people still believe in their neighborhood."
An early morning visit to the Meadowood Neighborhood Center reveals a quiet exterior, while the inside is abuzz with activity. Toys line one wall, opposite a big-screen TV and stacks of teen fiction and videogames with posters and children's artwork covering the white walls. A large rubber floor serves as a playground for children's programs, or for any kids that may show up on weekdays for the free drop-in lunch. Local residents shuffle in for a 9 a.m. computer class, discussing the news, their children and what they cooked for dinner last night.
"It's about meeting, sharing and being able to chit-chat with your neighbors," Reid says. "People bring people they know to the center, and our numbers continue to go up. People are inclined to rally together."
With classes and programs ranging from basic computer lessons to family game night and high school drop-in hours, the center attempts to keep busy every night of the week. Many of the classes are free, and the center provides scholarships for the other programs. The noon-2 p.m. free lunch program for kids 2-17 is particularly popular in the summer months, and the middle and high school summer program provides another option for teens who would otherwise be unoccupied all summer.
"Parents say it's nice because they're reluctant to have their kids outside," Reid says. "The community wants the kids to know we are watching and we know what's going on."
In addition to programs for children and teens, the neighborhood center has opportunities for adults and retirees alike. The center offers meditation, strength training, yoga and Latin dance-themed Zumba, as well as creative writing groups and knitting circles. The Orchard Ridge, Green Tree and Meadowood Neighborhood Associations hold their meetings at the center as well, and the center will soon ally with "Joining Forces for Families" to provide job search and resume-building workshops to locals seeking practical career help.
If the July 21 community dinner is any indication, Meadowood Neighborhood Center's increasing role in the community might be outpacing optimistic expectations. Despite the torrential wind and rain that peppered Madison's west side that night, attendance at the dinner was double what organizers were expecting, and as the center hit capacity, Reid had to order fifteen additional pizzas to feed the masses.
Father Frederick Janecek, a 29-year Meadowood resident who attended the meal, is not alone in seeing his neighborhood changing. He advocates embracing the positive change, and he thinks the Neighborhood Center can play a guiding role.
"The people coming in, we have an obligation to be hospitable to them, and to reduce violence and antagonism," Janecek says. "This stuff fits into the center in many ways."