Seconds after entering the new Benicia Community Center, I encountered a familiar face—hundreds of them actually. We entered the building from K Street, and there, completely intact, stood the walls of tiled self-portraits, complete with signatures and dates, of the many different Mills students who’d executed a craft project of surprising longevity. Some of the tiles were getting on twenty years old, a few indicating folks who now had elementary-ready children of their own. I recognized some of the tiles because I knew the person, but others were distant visual memories suddenly strengthened and brought to life: there was the blue kid with the square head, the mop-topped blonde fellow with the face-stretching grin, and the mysteriously bespectacled older lady. All these faces were friends of a sort to me once when I was a student at Mills Elementary School, a place so kind and loving that even the walls smiled one’s way.
Now, these faces will begin to regularly greet an expanded and more varied demographic as the former elementary school becomes a centralized community center primed to serve the entire city. The building may’ve had a shift in purpose, but its spirit remains the same.
Unsurprisingly, many of my fellow nostalgia junkies are disinclined to visit the new center and risk superimposing its image over memories of our old school. While it is to the great credit of our community center that it feels like an intentional and organic structure, remnants of the school are easy to find. Traces of the tricycle track still stand outside the former kindergarten room, the curtains in the auditorium are the same ones that parted for our Christmas recitals, and the clocks, those meticulous recorders of time and progress, are the same ones we watched when we were antsy for recesses.
But other elements of the school have (deservedly) vanished into another era. If you hadn’t attended Mills you wouldn’t have believed it existed; even my fellow alumni and I check our remembrances against each other to make sure they haven’t been exaggerated into mere dreams. Though sweet to its core, the school was rough around the edges. For example, whoever designed the playground pit decided that the wisest way to obvert the shoe-clogging, cat-inspiring messiness of sand and the tacky itchiness of bark was to fill the pit with the hard gray dusty stones which settled many more private gripes than our dear yard duties would have liked them to. During a tour of the building I bring up the playground with Mike Dotson, then assistant director of Benicia Parks and Community Services, who grins, nods, and says, “yeah, it was a little out of code.” Dotson collaborated on the project with Mike Alvarez, whom Dotson will succeed upon Alvarez’s retirement. Other artifacts of unruliness were likewise obliterated, including a sea green wall that flanked the field and was responsible for countless games of butts up—and the welts and tears the game caused. The wall and the playground were only the beginning of our wild time; later, Mills began exporting its older kids to Liberty High’s field for recess, and there, feeling a world away from our school, we’d get even wilder, tossing grass clods and battling with branches. When we did a reading unit on Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, we felt a strong kinship with the monsters.
These excursions seem now like plain fun, but they illustrated an important thing about Mills. Though as intimate and insular as a favorite aunt’s bear hug, Mills was never a bubble. It lay right in the middle of things, and drew heavily on its downtown location. And our long marches to the Benicia State Capitol or the City Park—mere shuffles with my present feet—seemed both epic and perfectly natural. A focus on community engagement was big in the school: there were regular ice cream socials, haunted houses erected by volunteers and music classes held in the neighboring district office. It served the economically disadvantaged, and multiculturalism was a reality instead of a mere rhetoric. And though not situated in a bustling metropolis, Mills was basically a downtown school, lined up perfectly with the post office, City Hall, and the police station. Before it was shuttered in 2005, Mills was the longest standing neighborhood school in town (it opened in 1951 and its fiftieth anniversary triggered a fifties themed celebration with doo-wop and poodle dresses).
The closure was tough on a lot of people. The folks in the school district (which is currently led by a former Mills resource teacher) had it especially hard. As though the pain of its shuttering wasn’t enough, district officials didn’t have the option of putting it out of their mind. They looked at it every day they went to work.
For over five years, the old Mills building wasn’t much to look at. Acquired by the city for a $10K per month fee paid to the school district, the school endured the physical pangs of idleness. The asphalt that used to scuff up kids’ shoes collected windblown trash, the molding for the windows was left to expand and contract at the will of the elements, and bowed-in fences greeted the neighborhood instead of the welcoming smiles of old.
Now the Community Center is ready to make good on the site’s convenient location and unique structural arrangements, and quite possible to use its presence to increase the parameters of Benicia’s downtown. City Council member Mike Ioakimedes, whose children attended Mills and whose mother-in-law once ran the kitchen, feels the center could be instrumental in bringing forth an “Eastward expansion.” Ioakimedes, who lives only a few blocks away, notes that, “once you get past Maria Field there’s only residential, nothing in the old civic mode.” He feels the new center could attract the kind of pedestrian traffic and community attention that would liven up the town, creating a social plaza shared by a variety of different age groups, from the kids heading off to Scout meetings (the scouts have their own wing), to retirees enjoying the shade of the circular benches on the beautiful wooden deck.
Ioakimedes attended the July 6th ribbon cutting ceremony, and having visited the site during the early days of construction, he was very impressed with the results. “I was surprised by how well they were able to use the existing space and layout. I didn’t get the feeling that this is a remodeled school, I got the feeling that this was a cool community center.”
Part of this impressiveness doubtless comes from the cool technology and clever design wizardry on display. The Heating and A/C for the whole building is operated by a large computer, the two dance studios have hardwood floors and floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and there are nifty projector screens in every room. The parking lot, built at the base of the old playground, has its spaces demarcated with flat strips of stone rather than painted lines, and all spaces line up a against a long stretch of concrete that will soon boast solar panels.
One of the most iconic things about Mills was what Lyn Hannafin (a former Mills mother who now works at the district office) calls “the long sloping hallway,” a ramp that connects the different wings of the building and runs from K Street to L Street. “I’ve always wanted to take a skateboard down it,” she says, a feeling in keeping with the bounding and bouncing method kids used to descend the declivity. It’s an architectural eccentricity, but removing it would’ve required a total teardown. Instead, they’ve made it an asset, with an attractive color splashed around each flat section.
Hannafin attended the grand opening as well, and while it was bittersweet, she’s very optimistic about the center’s future. “We always had those [community] services in different places and spread out in old buildings…having all the programs under one roof gives it such a positive energy… instead of it being piecemeal or patchwork.”
Still, the connection to the old school is a real one, and she’s glad, as we all are, that those connections remain. “I’m pretty sure I found my daughter’s tile on the wall,” she says, before chuckling. “Her handwriting looks the same.”