The Center responds to community concerns about donor tiles that disappeared
By Benny Cartwright
The San Diego LGBT Community Center (The Center) recently completed a renovation and modernization of the ground floor of its flagship facility in Hillcrest. Since moving into the space at 3909 Centre Street in 1999, these renovations were the first major upgrades to the building since the early 2000s.
Prior to the renovations, The Center’s lobby had a number of personalized tiles affixed to the walls honoring community members who made contributions to the organization over the years. Several of the tiles were purchased by donors who helped the organization finance its move to its current building which has substantially more space (and a large auditorium for community gatherings) than the building that The Center occupied on Normal Street throughout most of the 1990s. Those tiles were removed during the recent renovations.
Cara Dessert, CEO of The Center, told LGBTQ San Diego County News that the renovations came about due to a large-scale community outreach process that involved over 2,000 community members. Part of the feedback received, she said, was about the need to modernize the main Center to create a more welcoming and inclusive experience and create more community spaces on the first floor.
“When we reopened to the public, we received overwhelmingly positive feedback about our renovations, with one exception,” said Dessert. “We heard from several community members concerned about the removal of the donor tiles.”
Dessert noted that in an effort to preserve this history, a digital display of the original tiles was created in The Center’s auditorium to preserve the look of the tiles. She said the display has been present in The Center’s auditorium for all major events, as this is the main room at The Center for large community gatherings.
In recent months, some community members have taken to social media and also reached out to LGBTQ San Diego County News to share concerns about the removal of the tiles, some that had been on display for nearly 20 years.
Michael Phillips, known by most as “Big Mike,” a former board member of The Center, was one of the first to share his concerns on social media after touring the newly renovated space and noticing the tiles were missing (Editor’s Note: Big Mike is a contributor and staff photographer for this publication).
In an April social media post, Phillips shared:
“I just came across a photo of the three or four tiles that I gladly bought over the years when our LGBTQ Community Center asked for help. They would ask our community for financial help to keep the doors open to continue its programs and to continue to have a gathering place where people in our community would feel safe to come to. I have mentioned this before and since have been approached by a handful of those donors who also had their titles taken down. The Center did this without any notice or contacting anyone who helped in those days of need by donating money during those hard times. Well, The Center not too long ago decided to remodel and just took it upon themselves to tear down all the tiles with the names of those supporters that were and are a part of our Center’s History to keep those DOORS OPEN. They should be thankful for all those past donors back then that were responsible to keep those Center’s doors open so years later they could even have a job now.”
Several community members commented on Phillips’ post, sharing similar sentiments, many of them saying they, too, previously had a tile on the wall.
Longtime community activist Wendy Sue Biegeleisen said that she was one of the first 100 people to make a donation for a tile at The Center’s facility in the early 2000s for a fundraising campaign called “Help Build the New LGBT Community Center.” The tiles were to honor donors to the campaign as “Cornerstones of Our Community,” she said.
“I saved my hard earned pennies so I could donate a brick for the posterity of building the San Diego LGBT Community Center,” Biegeleisn posted. “I proudly pointed out ‘my brick’ to my family, including my Pop, that helped build Our Center. Sadly, I never took a picture of it because I thought ‘my tile’ would be there forever as a small part of all the other bricks physically holding up the principles of Our Center.”
In response to an inquiry by LGBTQ San Diego County News, CEO Dessert shared additional information about the removal of the tiles. She stated that while The Center’s main floor was closed to the general public during the COVID-19 shutdown, the organization took that opportunity to renovate the building’s first floor to create a more modern, functional, and welcoming environment.
“Unfortunately, the changes that made this possible meant that we could not retain a set of tiles on our lobby walls, something that we never would have foreseen when we first launched these donor tiles in 2000,” Dessert said. “This decision was made out of necessity, and in response to our community’s direct input to create an experience where anyone who walked through our doors would see themselves reflected in our lobby and feel welcomed.”
As part of the renovations, a centrally located and moveable Welcome Desk was added and more meeting spaces with accessibility features were opened, along with art from local LGBTQ+ artists depicting LGBTQ+ themes. Dessert also said that in an effort to make their offerings more accessible, large lobby monitors were added to showcase the diversity of the community and the programs and services at The Center.
“To achieve this, we needed wall space, and since we could not renovate the first floor of the Main Center building without removing the tiles, we made the decision to remove them and try to preserve them,” Dessert said.
In response to our question about where the tiles are now, Dessert said that several donors were reached out to prior to their removal so Center officials could tell them about their plans.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and our need to address several crises being experienced disproportionately by our communities made reaching everyone difficult,” she said. “To make room for these changes, our plan was to remove the tiles and preserve them for any donors who would want them. Unfortunately, we were not able to preserve all of them. For the tiles we were able to save, we reached out to the folks who had donated them, but most said they did not want the tiles and understood that the space needed to evolve. Several came in for a tour to see the renovated space and were thrilled at the modern look and additional community spaces.”
Dessert acknowledged that as many of the decisions regarding The Center’s renovations and the tiles were made in the midst of the pandemic when the organization’s main focus was on providing emergency services to the community, they could have done a better job at communicating to the community.
“We missed the mark in communicating these changes with the community … we apologize for this,” Dessert said. “In hindsight, not having more robust communication about the change to the tiles and offering options to replace them was an oversight – and one that we have learned from. We understand that at least a few folx would like to make a plan to replace the tile they had donated. We welcome that dialogue so that our community’s history is preserved.”
Dessert said the tiles that were on display in the lobby were purchased between 2000 and 2018. Some community members asked whether there were any contractual agreements made with donors about where and for what length of time their tiles would be displayed, but none of the donors we spoke to were able to recall whether or not they had made any standing agreements with the organization.
Dessert confirmed that there were no agreements in place for the tiles to remain for any set period of time.
“We understand that for some donors, these tiles were acts of love and remembrance.” she said. “We are committed to finding a way to continue this history and have a few options for donors to choose from.”
While replacement tiles will not be able to be put back up in the lobby, The Center is willing to explore other options for each donor. An online form has been created for lobby tile donors who would like their tile replaced at no cost and they look forward to hearing from any and all interested donors. The form can be found at bit.ly/center-tiles.
In closing, Dessert shared that community centers, by their nature, change to serve an evolving community, and that includes decisions about physical spaces.
“Here in San Diego, we are fortunate to have an incredible LGBTQ community that has supported The Center’s growth for 50 years, as one of the oldest LGBTQ organizations in the world and the second oldest LGBTQ center in the country,” Dessert said.
“Honoring our rich history is an important part of our work to serve and support our LGBTQ community,” she continued. “We are grateful to those who took the time to contact us and let us know that we missed the mark with the changes to the lobby tiles, and should have offered additional solutions to preserve this history beyond the digital display. We are committed to making this right for those who would have preferred their tile to remain in the lobby.
“If you had a tile in our lobby at The Center, please contact us and we will follow up with you to create a replacement plan for your tile.”
Previous donors who wish to discuss a replacement tile can contact The Center at this link: bit.ly/center-tiles.
–Benny Cartwright is a longtime activist and community leader. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Instagram @BennyC80.
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