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100-Year-Old SF Community Music Center Breaks Ground on New Building

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Artist's impression of what the expanded Community Music Center Campus connecting 544 and 552 Capp Street will look like when it opens in a year's time. (Courtesy Community Music Center)

The San Francisco Community Music Center (CMC) is breaking ground Wednesday on a new building next door to its existing facility on Capp Street in The Mission.

Julie Rulyak Steinberg, executive director of the 100-year-old non-profit, says the expansion will almost double the number of students CMC serves, which currently stands at around 3,000.

“We have been short of space for about 30 years,” says Steinberg. “For us to be able to to continue to say we serve everyone, that’s really a high priority for us.”

The new building at 552 Capp Street will add soundproofed classroom and performance spaces as well as increase ADA accessibility. “We expect to welcome over a thousand new students to our expanded Mission campus,” Steinberg says.

CMC purchased the new building 10 years ago. Steinberg says it will cost around $15 million to renovate, of which around $13 million has already been raised through philanthropy and market tax credit financing. The building is scheduled to open next February, capping a year of centennial celebrations for the organization which also includes musical commissions and performances.


Roots that Go Back More Than A Century

The roots of CMC extend back over a century to 1912, to the founding of the music department at the Dolores Street Girl’s Club settlement house. Violinist and nurse Gertrude Field moved to San Francisco from New York to become its first director. She went on to establish CMC as an independent organization—then called Community Music School—in November 1921, in its current location at 544 Capp Street.

CMC Founding Director Gertude Field. (Courtesy Community Music Center)

“The students back then were primarily immigrant students in the settlement house tradition. So for them, CMC was a place to find community and to do the things that were common in settlement houses,” says Steinberg. “It was a place to practice English, a place to make music, a place to do crafts or do job training.”

CMC Today

The community-building and music-making aspects of that original mission are still very much at the heart of CMC’s work today.

The nonprofit provides solo and group lessons in a range of musical styles such as Chinese and Western classical, Latin and Jazz. There’s a Black Music Studies program, summer camps, a choir for older adults, and choir for people who self-identify as transgender, intersex, or gender-queer, among many other offerings.

The majority of the center’s students are under 18, come from low-income households and study for free or at a reduced cost. Nearly half of them identify as people of color. According to Steinberg, CMC gave out just over $2.9 million in direct financial aid last year. Among the recipients is 17-year-old percussionist and Gateway High School Junior Gian Velásquez, who lives on the cusp of the Tenderloin and SOMA, and has been taking lessons and performing in groups at CMC since 2019.

CMC student percussionist Gian Velásquez performing at a CMC summer program in the Mission in July 2021. (Ana Velásquez)

“Being a low-income youth resident in public housing, most of the time, thinking about affordability is a very big aspect of my everyday life,” says Velásquez. “CMC is a blessing because I am able to just go there and receive a top quality music education for free.”

Velásquez says he hopes to become a professional musician someday.

“For me, CMC is opportunity,” he says. “It’s definitely a perfect breeding ground for for a young musician.”

Citywide and Neighborhood Impact

CMC’s impact can be felt across the city, as well as right in the Mission neighborhood.

CMC campus today. The nonprofit has been in this location for 100 years. (Courtesy Community Music Center)

“The San Francisco Community Music Center is truly a local treasure that has taught countless children and adults how to develop their musical talents for a century,” said San Francisco director of cultural affairs Ralph Remington in an email to KQED. “The expansion project will bring added vibrancy to its Capp Street location in the Mission District. Even after 100 years, CMC remains true to its mission: making music accessible to anyone with a desire to learn.”

“CMC is a strong partner. Our wide-ranging work together has included instrumental and vocal music programs for very young children and the young at heart,” said Mission Neighborhood Center chief operating officer José Rodríguez in an email, adding the collaboration between the two organizations goes back 35 years. “This expansion represents an opportunity to increase affordable access to music and music lessons to our communities in San Francisco.”

A groundbreaking for the Community Music Center, with students and faculty from the Children’s Chorus, Mission District Young Musicians Program, Mission District Older Adult Choirs, and members of the SFUSD Mariachi Program, takes place Wednesday, Feb. 16, from 2pm–3pm. Details here.


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