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Neighbors join forces to build community gathering place

By Mwiza Kalisa, Next Door Media Intern
Three years ago Briana Barrett moved into an apartment in the South end of Phinney Ridge, an area neighbors have called “SoZoo” (South of Zoo) for a decade. Pregnant and far away from home, she was eager to collaborate with neighbors on a project that would bring her community together.
With the help of five families, Barrett transformed her garage into a clubhouse. The community building project was inspired by her longing to live among neighbors with varied interests. The clubhouse, equipped with bulletin boards and neighborhood maps, hosts workshops and also functions as a research center.

Briana Barrett shows off the new clubhouse.
“I needed to express who I am uniquely, honor my neighbors, and find out how we could work together,” Barrett said.
Wanting to learn more about her community and to connect others, Barrett interviewed neighbors she knew casually. She prepared three interview questions about the neighborhood culture and what neighbors could offer each other. The response was so positive that Barrett gave nine months notice at her job.
“People were so happy that I was asking,” she said. “I love my job but I thought, this is my calling.”
In December 2009, Barrett quit her job as a pre-school teacher to focus on the clubhouse and other community oriented projects. The idea for the clubhouse was conceived after she passed out a survey at an annual Fremont block party, asking neighbors how they wanted to communicate with each other. The options included social media, personal invitation, a gathering place or an Internet site. Fifteen people took the survey and eight attended the first meeting, where they discussed the options.
“We couldn’t conceive of where this gathering place would be,” Barrett said. “People said it was a good idea, but we all shrugged. Within 12 blocks, where would we put a clubhouse?”
After much consideration and a visit from a neighbor who believed it was the best solution, Barrett offered to convert her garage into a clubhouse. The same neighbor couldn’t volunteer, but contributed to the project financially.
“That was visceral, because I was short on money and wondering how I didn’t have more neighbors involved the way she was,” Barrett said.
Barrett had some experience creating community spaces. She took part in a community building workshop through the Pomegranate Center. With new skills and help from volunteers, the gathering place was completed in September. The clubhouse features a family seating area, a mini-library, community pantry and wooden dance floors.
Cassandra Richardson, one of Barrett’s neighbors, said that Barrett shows how having support in the community is important.
“Briana has knocked on every door in this 12-block neighborhood and introduced herself,” she said. “I’ve known more neighbors since I met Briana than in the whole time I’ve been living here.”
Richardson, who has known Barrett for two years, admits that she was skeptical when she first heard about the project. Eventually Barrett’s good intentions and community spirit won her over.
“Briana has made a difference in my life and in other people’s lives,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it but she’s just a ray of sunshine. Everyone knows Briana and likes her.”
Barrett hopes that other neighborhoods will create similar projects. Her own work was inspired by the SCALLOPS (Sustainable Communities All Over Puget Sound) movement. She struggled with finances and criticism when the clubhouse was complete, but despite these challenges, Barrett continues to encourage friends who have the same goal in mind.
“I think that a neighborhood is an opportunity to find out what your neighbors’ intentions are and just honor them as you honor your own,” she said.
Today 50 neighbors know about the clubhouse and eight neighbors are scheduled to visit. A grand opening will be planned after the gathering place is introduced to a few individuals. Barrett says that the project has been a gift and through her involvement has recognized that other people have the same unspoken need to belong. She attributes the success of the clubhouse to her neighbors.
“It was the result of those interviews that confirmed to me that this neighborhood and any other neighborhood is very powerful,” she said. “It was worth my time and worth focusing on developing. The success of the clubhouse is due to those five families. Each of them have been as active as they could afford to be and have made an effort.”
Barrett never imagined that her garage would be a place for people to connect. She said that she didn’t expect a clubhouse and that it was only through the help of neighbors that she could fulfill her dream.
“The deepest thing that I learned from this project is a recognition of my hunger for belonging and a fulfillment of my need for community,” she said. “I’ve gotten a feeling of fulfillment that I didn’t have before.”