The Sinclair Park Community Center was the nexus of Sinclair Park, often called Sinclair Heights because of its location atop a large hill west of Bremerton (Kitsap County). Sinclair Park was a housing development built to house Bremerton's Black shipyard workers and their families during World War II, and its residents gathered at the community center to work, play, and celebrate. The houses were removed shortly after the war, but the community center building remained and served as a National Guard armory for the rest of the twentieth century. It was torn down in 2002 and replaced with another structure as part of the development of the Bremerton Readiness Center.
The United States was not in the fray when World War II began in 1939, but it soon became apparent this wouldn't last, and the country began to prepare. Bremerton was especially affected. By 1939, the city had been home to what was then named the Navy Yard Puget Sound (now the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard) for nearly half a century. The shipyard had endured a slumping workforce after the end of World War I in 1918, but had rebounded to some extent during the 1930s, aided by employment opportunities created by the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era government agency formed to carry out public-works projects. The shipyard employed more than 6,000 workers in 1939, but as the war grew more intense in 1940, it became clear that more were going to be needed.
This meant there would be a need for more houses in Bremerton and the surrounding area. The first local mass-produced housing development, West Park (located roughly a mile north of Sinclair Park), opened in April 1941. Though the development had 600 houses, it was woefully inadequate to meet the mushrooming demand as more workers began arriving in Bremerton. The influx accelerated after the United States entered the war in December 1941. By September 1942, more housing in developments such as East Park, Sheridan Park, and Anderson Cove had been completed in the Bremerton area. This provided nearly 3,000 additional houses, only half of what was needed. A total of nine new developments would eventually be built, seven in Bremerton and two in Port Orchard.
The change in Bremerton caused by the population surge was dramatic, and it was accentuated by the number of Blacks moving to the city. The 1940 census counted seven Blacks in Bremerton that year; by 1945, there were more than 4,500. Like many Western cities of the era, Bremerton had its share of prejudice against Blacks. Nevertheless, since government policy did not call for integration, the developments built locally were initially planned to be integrated.
This did not last long. Some whites in the new developments objected to living next to Black families, and at some point, the Bremerton Housing Authority made the decision to make Sinclair Park the de facto development for Blacks. Construction of the development began in the summer of 1942, and when it began to slowly open in the spring of 1943, most of the Black families arriving afterward were assigned to a house there. By the summer of 1944, more than 80 percent of the Black families who were provided housing by the housing authority lived in Sinclair Park.
Musician Quincy Jones (b. 1933) and his family moved to 5453 Linden Place in Sinclair Park in 1943, when he was 10 years old. He described the development in his 2001 autobiography: "There were no playgrounds, no swing sets, no marbles, no monkey bars: just miles and miles of towering evergreen trees, cougars, and wilderness" (Jones, 56). There was no landscaping -- an issue that was only partially resolved during the development's existence. There were no streetlights at first, and years later, many residents still recalled Sinclair Park's pitch-black nights during its early days.
There were a few freestanding houses in Sinclair Park -- a 1940s map of the houses in the development shows fewer than 20 -- and these had between one and three bedrooms. Most of the 280 units were one- and two-bedroom duplexes. None of them had a telephone, though there was one in the community center. (A phone booth was later added on Linden Street, but it was repeatedly vandalized.) Each unit had heating, a stove, and a refrigerator. Furniture was optional, though one could buy it or rent it from the housing authority. The houses were functional but simple; a 1943 Seattle Times pictorial illustrates how a five-room house in one of the Bremerton developments was built in less than six hours. This was possible using pre-assembled panels, which allowed not only for easy construction, but easy removal once the war was over.
Sinclair Park was spread out over 80 acres on top of a hill west of Bremerton, and got its name from nearby Sinclair Inlet. Because of its elevation, many referred to it as Sinclair Heights, as does Quincy Jones in his book. Looking at a map of the development facing west, the houses were spread out in two residential street loops that were fronted by Union Avenue, with Carver Avenue running behind it. Dexter and Dawson streets made up the southern loop of the residential development, while Linden and Latona streets made up the northern loop.
The Community Center
Each of the Bremerton housing projects built during the war had a community center. Given the limited resources of the day, both federal and local planners recognized the importance of having a central location in the developments where residents could come together for local business and entertainment. Construction of the Sinclair Park Community Center began in 1943, after many (if not all) of the houses were finished, and the building was open by October. Construction costs totaled $57,000, equivalent to about $860,000 in 2021. The building was among the first to be designed by the new Seattle architecture firm of Naramore, Bain, Brady, and Johansen (NBBJ), which eventually became one of the largest architecture firms in the world. In Washington state, NBBJ designed projects such as the U.S. Pavilion at Expo '74 in Spokane, and 2 Union Square in downtown Seattle.
The community center was located on Carver Avenue, closer to Linden Street than Dexter. The building itself was unexceptional. It was a 175-foot-long concrete rectangle, oriented north-to-south, with its main entry facing east. The southern half of the structure was two stories tall, while the northern half was one story. A chimney rising above the furnace room towered more than 11 feet above the two-story section of the building. While the two-story section was a simple rectangle, the one-story section was compromised of two rectangular blocks that were slightly offset from each other.
The general office for the community center was just to the right after one entered the lobby. The public typically did any business here, where there was a counter, which allowed them to interact with center staff in the office. A corridor led north from the lobby, past the general office and a private office on the right and the furnace room on the left. A 1,250-square-foot clubroom was located at the end of the corridor on the northern end of the building. A small kitchen was located off the clubroom and could also be accessed from the hallway.
The two-story recreation room was south of the lobby. It measured nearly 4,000 square feet, and had a 20-foot clearance between the floor and the lowest ceiling trusses. A small stage, located approximately three-and-a-half feet above the floor and measuring 27 feet wide by 18 feet deep, was located at the southern end of the recreation room. The western part of the building housed the restrooms, which were accessed by a separate corridor leading from the lobby.
It wasn't the building that made the community center special. It was what it represented. The residents of Sinclair Heights had the place to themselves; the Bremerton Housing Authority noted in an August 1944 report that of the development's 280 units, all but one of them was occupied by a Black family. (The final residence was occupied by a Filipino family.) For some, it was the first time they had been in a such a large Black community, and they formed a close-knit neighborhood. In oral history interviews decades later, they recounted that it helped them not only learn about themselves but about other Blacks too. Sinclair Heights became viewed by Blacks as such an inviting place to live that some who lived in other neighborhoods moved there when they had a chance.
They met at the community center. Volunteers ran a library in the building twice weekly, and there was a small book club. During elections, voting booths were set up in the center. The local Elks Club had meetings in the clubroom, while area basketball teams sometimes played in the recreation room. There were boy and girl scout groups consisting of neighborhood Black children that met at the community center, and there was an active drama club that put on plays. There were teen dances with live bands at the center; they proved popular too, particularly since the neighborhood's older children were generally forbidden from going to the local "juke joint," and entertainment in the city was neither close nor easy to get to. During the summer, the center organized hikes and other outdoor activities as well as indoor activities, such as wood crafting.
A 1945 newspaper article in Seattle's The Northwest Enterprise, a newspaper published primarily for Black readers, provides more specifics about events at the Sinclair Park Community Center for the week of April 4, 1945:
Monday: Children's recreation, 4-6 p.m.; Teenage recreation, 6-8 p.m.; Mother's Club, 8-10 p.m.
Tuesday: Children's games, 5-7 p.m.; Teenage social, 8-10 p.m.
Wednesday: Homemaker's Club, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; Girl Scout Brownies, 3:30-5 p.m.; Intermediate Girl Scouts, 5-6:30 p.m.; Library, 6:30-9 p.m.
Thursday: Boy Scout Cubs, 5-7 p.m.
Friday: Library, 2:30-4:30 p.m.; Boys' Social Club, 7:30-10
Saturday: Movies, 2 p.m.; Whist and bridge (adults only), 8-10
Sunday: Sunday school, 9:30 a.m.; Morning services, 11 a.m.; Evening services, 7:30 p.m.
Church services were not intended to be held at the community center. A 2,000-square-foot interdenominational church building was built as part of the development, but it was destroyed by a fire in December 1944.
For a time, residents picked up their mail at the general office in the community center. (A post office opened in a converted house on the corner of Union and Dexter streets in early 1945 but was soon broken into, and residents were reluctant to use it afterward.) One story about the post office in the community center says the first time young Quincy Jones sold a song, it was there that he picked up a letter giving him the news.
The community center had a particularly profound impact on Jones. In his autobiography he writes of breaking into the building one night with some of his buddies, where they helped themselves to a pie. He then snuck into the recreation room and saw the stage. On the stage was an old piano. "I went up there, paused, stared, and then tinkled on it for a moment. That's where I began to find peace. I was eleven. I knew this was it for me. Forever. Each note seemed to fill up another empty space I felt inside. Each tone touched a part of me that nothing else ever touched" (Jones, 61). He was so hooked that he kept sneaking into the building to play until a sympathetic building supervisor began leaving the door unlocked. From there, a legend was born.
World War II ended in September 1945, but life in Sinclair Heights initially remained the same. It had been understood that the development was temporary and would be dismantled after the war, but there were many who liked the camaraderie and were in no hurry to leave. Even as America demobilized during 1946 and some Black families moved out of Sinclair Heights, other Black families moved in. The next year saw a larger exodus. (Quincy Jones left that year and moved to Seattle.) In April 1947, 100 duplex units were listed for sale exclusively to veterans and their families; a one-bedroom duplex cost $2,306 ($27,700 in 2021), while a two-bedroom duplex cost $2,578 ($31,000 in 2021). The units were required to be removed from the site within 60 days of purchase. Some of them are said to have been moved to various waterfront locations on Puget Sound and used as summer cottages.
The remaining houses were dismantled and moved out during 1948, but the community center building remained. It served as a National Guard armory for the rest of the twentieth century and held up fairly well, considering there was no steel rebar -- or any other reinforcement -- in the concrete structure. As plans got underway at the turn of the twenty-first century to build the Bremerton Readiness Center (now the Bremerton International Emergency Services Training Center) at the site, consideration was given to saving the building. However, the lack of structural reinforcement and other issues (including an estimate that said remodeling and upgrade costs would exceed the cost of a new building by 25 percent) doomed the old community center. It was torn down in late 2002.