Burning down the house

The roof is on Fire Dept.
By VALERIE VANDE PANNE  |  December 28, 2009

0912_zumix-main

"The life of the artist is seeing possibility where other people don't," says Madeleine Steczynski, an East Boston artist and activist.

Engine Company 40, an old firehouse at 260 Sumner Street, sat empty and dilapidated for more than 30 years. In 1994, Steczynski had a vision of turning the rundown eyesore into a music-education and performance space for her East Boston–based program, Zumix.

In 2005, that vision finally started to take shape, and this year on December 12, it opened to the public with a sound exhibition titled "Tocsin," created by artist Liz Nofziger.

"Here, sound will mean kids are in a safe space," says Steczynski. "It transforms how sound impacts our lives."

Zumix was founded in 1991 as a way to help get children off the streets. Gangs and violence were overtaking the East Boston community, and Steczynski wanted to give the kids something constructive to do. So she created a summer song-writing program. In 1994, the program expanded into audio engineering; and then, in 1996, more teachers were added, along with private lessons and instruments for every participant.

Now the program instructs more than 300 students, 65 percent of whom are from the local community, giving them the opportunity to learn all aspects of music. Young people also come from as far away as Roxbury and Mattapan. All of the programs are either free or low-cost, and no student is turned away. "We're open to any kid who can get here," says Steczynski. "It was important that there be no barrier to access."

For the last several years, Zumix was housed in a dark building in East Boston. The roof leaked, it smelled musty, and there were only two little portholes for windows. The new firehouse building has high ceilings, dozens of windows, and, in the words of just about anyone who walks in, feels "happy."

The space, paid for with grants and in-kind donations totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, was redesigned with Zumix programs in mind: classrooms by day transform into performance space by night.

While there were no fire poles remaining, says architect Mimi Love of Boston-based firm Utile, "We wanted subtle reminders [that this was a firehouse]. We kept the two fire doors, rebuilt to the original design, and we painted them bright red."

"When we first started, no one really understood the arts — it was like we were speaking Greek to them," says Steczynski. "Music is one of the primary sources that kids are interested in, that helps define their identity. Our athletes do great, but there wasn't much else for kids to plug into."

For more information, tune into student-run Zumix radio (broadcast from their new space) at 1630-AM, or go to zumix.org.

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