Como Community Center Gives Neighborhood a Hub To Match Its Dreams
By Julieta Chiquillo
All year long, the Como Community Center in Fort Worth is a whirl of sporting events, after-school activities and community celebrations.
But the center does more than offer recreation. It’s the heart of a small and proud historically African-American neighborhood with a trove of traditions — the place where community groups gather to discuss politics and cemetery upkeep, where kids and seniors nourish friendships and where alumni of a segregated high school that no longer exists can still reminisce about their classmates and admire their sports trophies.
Nearly five decades after opening, the spartan Como Community Center is worn out. Its walls are pulling apart, its ceilings are warping, and the floor of its basketball court is peeling. Supplies and half a century of mementos are crammed into every nook and cranny.
HKS partnered with the city of Fort Worth and residents of the Como neighborhood to design a new center with a welcoming porch and larger indoor spaces for kids, seniors and center staff. The new Como Community Center sits on top of a hill, where everyone driving down the main road that crosses the neighborhood can see it. Its perch offers sweeping views of Fort Worth — a perk for a tiny landlocked community that can feel invisible amid its wealthier neighbors.
“We wanted to make it not just a metaphorical centerpiece but a physical centerpiece of the community,” said Douglas Mullen, the HKS project designer. “We wanted to make it prominent, and we wanted to make it visible — something that could inspire future generations and be a source of pride to the community that everyone could look to.”
Home to about 4,000 people, Como has working-class roots that date to the early 1900s, when African-American families settled on affordable plots made available after a luxury resort went bust in west Fort Worth. Many of those residents worked as maids and country club waiters for the upscale enclaves that sprouted all around Como. But that prosperity from next door never spilled into Como, which has long struggled with isolation and low incomes.
Still, there’s a fierce sense of belonging. Though Como High School closed in 1971, kids who were toddlers at the time are considered unofficial alumni, assigned to a class for the year they would have graduated, even though they attended other schools.
The new community center was designed as a tribute to that enduring community spirit, starting with the front porch. It will display glass panels by artist Adam Neese, whose multilayered artwork will feature text from the former Lake Como Weekly, images of the Como landscape and silhouettes of current residents.
The HKS design team worked with the city’s modest budget to give the new Como Community Center a roomy feel and a sophisticated look using durable, affordable materials and multifunctional spaces. When center staff move into the facility in January 2020, they’ll no longer have to scramble for hours to transform a humble basketball gym into a banquet hall.
“They’ve been making those kinds of miracles happen with little resources, so imagine what they’ll be able to do at the new facility,” said Estrus Tucker, a workforce diversity, equity and inclusion consultant and longtime Como leader.
Room to Play
During the school year, the Como Community Center bustles with more than 100 children ages 5 to 13 who participate in its afterschool program, a partnership with Fort Worth ISD. But space is tight at the community center. The staff packs much of the action into a simple multipurpose room, an old basketball gym and two former pre-K classrooms.
Afternoons are fun but chaotic, with kids dashing to dance practice, computer lab, nutrition lessons, chess club and a slew of other activities depending on the day. Many of the students in the program also play in a sports program and suit up at the center before a parent or a bus driver picks them up for practice.
Clara L. Kirby, the Como Community Center coordinator, said the facility tries to meet the varied needs and interests of its families, from basketball to Scrabble.
“There’s going to be somebody that that’s their niche,” said Kirby, who grew up in Como.
The new Como Community Center features a large multipurpose room that overlooks a courtyard, its tall windows flooding the space with natural light. On one end, the room is outfitted with full-length mirrors and a ballet barre. The design team also provided flooring with additional underlayment to make it suitable for dance lessons. This multipurpose room can be divided into three smaller rooms for different activities.
Across the hall, a demonstration kitchen with stainless steel appliances and warm-colored cabinets anchors another large room. That space can be used for cooking classes and parties and has a movable wall that can split the room in two.
The new basketball gym was designed with a regulation-size college basketball court — much larger than the junior high court at the old center. The gleaming court can be partitioned to host two separate basketball or volleyball games. HKS designed the gym with columns that can be removed if the city of Fort Worth chooses to expand the space in the future.
Across the center’s front porch, a manicured field will give kids another place to play.
Como boasts an active senior adult community. About 60 seniors gather in a standalone space at the old Como Community Center, which forces them to go back outside if they want to use the fitness room or go to a party in the main building.
Seniors can be as busy as the children. They enjoy weekday meals delivered at the center, and they celebrate birthdays once a month with lunch and cake. They also attend events about a variety of topics, from avoiding financial scams to preventing falls.
HKS designed a special wing for seniors at the new community center that gives them the privacy they seek while keeping them connected to the hubbub of the facility. The seniors have their own entrance on the west side of the building. Their space includes two separate rooms connected by a door: a smaller one with a TV to gather for movie screenings or card games and a larger one that includes a kitchenette and coffee bar, as well as storage space to stow walkers and supplies.
Being a teen—making the transition from childhood into adulthood—a time in life characterized by emotional and physical change and uncertainty. For teens and young adults with cancer, it is even more so.
The senior wing also has its own door to the state-of-the-art fitness center, where Como’s older residents can work out alongside other community center guests.
Seniors’ desire to have places to people-watch also informed the design.
“When you go into the new center, they can see outside,” said Monique Hill, district superintendent in the city of Fort Worth’s Neighborhood Services department. “That’s really great for them. And they also have windows…so they can see who’s walking through the hallway.”
The senior wing has its own porch along the west wall, with a garden where seniors can grow flowers or herbs in raised planters or sit on a bench and talk with friends.
Just over a single square mile, Como is the kind of place where neighbors know each other well. That sense of camaraderie is something that Como takes pride in, but in the close quarters of the old Como Community Center, the lack of privacy has been a problem for struggling families that come in for help with food or their electricity bill. It has also been an issue for social services staff who have had to share one office with other center staff.
“They’re literally on top of each other,” Hill said.
The HKS team designed more offices and tucked them into the building, giving staff quiet, discreet spaces to talk with clients. The new center features a roomy reception desk, and across from it, a comfortable lounge where parents can wait for their children or chat with neighbors. Next to the lounge is a game room where families can play pool or read books.
Como leaders said the new center will make it easier for the neighborhood’s many groups to meet without having to displace others.
“We’re always having a need to come together as a community at a common location, so we’re always bumping our babies or our seniors, or they’re bumping us,” said Ella Burton, president of the Como Neighborhood Advisory Council. “So we find other little niches or locations together and meet, when it’s been our custom and a better feel for us to come to what is our hub…and that’s the center.”
The community’s colors — the purple and gold of the former Como High School — are woven throughout the center, from the carpet and furnishings to the reception desk, with its deep purple wall and a striking geometric artwork in the shape of a lion, the Como mascot. The felt artwork was donated by HKS and Muckleroy & Falls, the general contractor on the project.
HKS designers also incorporated a built-in glass display case in the lounge to showcase the bevy of trophies from Como High and tokens of more recent victories.
But the spotlight is not just on the neighborhood’s past accomplishments. Hill, the neighborhood services city official, said she appreciates that the children can come to the center, look out the window and see the nearby Texas Christian University campus.
“We’re placing these kids above and giving them the opportunity to see what they can have, just looking in their own city,” Hill said.