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Cultivating community with buildings from the past | Community Spirit

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Cultivating community with buildings from the past
Cultivating community with buildings from the past

There is a wisp of something new delicately drifting through one of Spokane's oldest, and almost forgotten neighborhoods.

The vinegar plant that gave Vinegar Flats its name is long gone but traces of the neighborhood's agricultural roots remain with greenhouses that furnish Spokane with all the colors of the rainbow each spring.

"I love that neighborhood so much," said Celeste Shaw, owner of Chaps. "I just couldn't stand that no one was revitalizing the neighborhood. It's going to get lost."

The once bustling neighborhood nestled between the western edge of the South Hill and the basalt cliffs of Hangman creek began its slow decline in the early 1960's when Highway 195 was rerouted to its current location.

The 1930's gas station at the corner of 20th Avenue and Inland Empire Way didn't stand a chance. Without the flow of travelers coming into the city from the south, business dried up. Roughly a decade later, the little service station that survived the Depression and saw enough life for two expansions, was shuttered. It would stay that way for nearly 40 years.

Further north at 14th and Inland Empire Way, Zenner's service station fared a little better.

"When they built the highway, Mr. Zenner knew he was going to lose a lot of business so he actually moved it from its original location on Chestnut, to Inland Empire Way," said Shaw.

Zenner's survived longer, depending on a longtime mechanics shop. But it too couldn't sustain the diminished traffic through the neighborhood.

In 2007, Shaw opened Chaps Coffee in the Latah Valley, in a rescued farm house originally built in the early 1900s. Chaps has flourished with its great coffee, bakery, food and sense of being a place for the community to gather. Its decorations evoke memories of American days gone by. It shows that "neighborhood" can still exist and thrive.

Three years ago Shaw and her husband decided to bring that sense of neighborhood to Vinegar Flats and purchased the decaying service station at 20th and Inland Empire Way.

"Being from a small town in Montana, how can you not love neighborhood," said Shaw standing inside the nearly finished, remodeled building.

It doesn't look much different on the outside, but the inside is freshly sheet-rocked with new lighting and wiring. The look of the building has been preserved to fit the neighborhood.

"It's not only important to find the building, but to restore is back to the original shape," said Shaw.

She and her husband, Dan Coulston, have been transforming the building, bringing excitement to those who live in the area.

"You get yourself dirty and I think that way you invest in your project and your community," said Shaw.

The service station's bay doors have been rebuilt from scratch to retain the original look of the 1930s. The original window frames will be preserved and new glass will be installed.

"A 7-11 building just wouldn't fit in the neighborhood," said Shaw.

Between the old repair bays, a beautiful, towering arched window adds a touch of class and a taste of Spokane's past.

"It was originally from the old St. Joseph's orphanage," said Shaw.

She doesn't know exactly what she will do with the building, but its use will be all about building community and cultivating that sense of small town neighborhood.

"Maybe we could do coffee and vintage," said Shaw. "It has so many possibilities. So many kids can't find jobs. It would be nice to be able to create something."

One thing she plans on creating is a safe environment where people feel at home. There is already a projector waiting for outdoor movies in the summer time. As she makes her plans and thinks through her ideas, Shaw has the people living in the area on her mind.

"I know the people in the retirement trailer park right across the street, just don't get out," said Shaw. "I just want to get it finished and let it be as amazing as it can be."

Plans for the old Zenner's service station are a little more firm. Shaw bought the building earlier this year and her partner in baking wizardry at Chaps, Gina Garcia is cultivating a "farm to table" eatery and shop.

"She is an amazing chef," said Shaw. "Cooking for her is an art. Even if it's a peanut butter sandwich. Not only will you eat her food, you'll be entertained."

The building will also be a delight to your senses. It's being preserved as much as possible, from the art-deco bathroom to the chipped and multicolored layers of paint on the walls to even the hydraulic jack in the repair bay.

"She wants to mount a table on it and raise it up for cooking classes."

The building inspires conversation and with Shaw's vision, will harken back to a slower time, when people took the time to chat.

"If you're going to sit in a 1930s gas station, you're not in a hurry," said Shaw.

The two buildings that once helped people in their daily lives with fuel and repairs, will now fuel people with a sense of community. There is no set opening for the little white service station right now while Zenner's should be open by next spring. Already people have rallied to help the projects and are looking forward to the openings.

"It's so remarkable to me. It's not just property. It pierces your soul when you are a part of community," said Shaw.

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