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How Tragedy And Persistence Brought An Entertainment Center To Austin's East Side

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
The Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin has an arcade, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a food court and a roller-skating rink.  The company that manages it says about 7,500 people visit every month. "

The Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex sits at the corner of Hargrave and Rosewood in East Austin, but its story starts several blocks west on 12th and Chicon. And it starts with a tragedy.

It was near that corner, a couple days after Christmas in 1992, when 16-year-old Tamika Ross was killed. According to reports at the time, she and her friends were hanging out in a church parking lot. A car drove up and shots rang out, leaving Tamika dead and five others injured.

Her’s was just one of several murders that took place around this stretch of road that year.

“This was different for the community because it was a young female,” said Jenniffer Muhammed, who lived down the street from where Tamika was killed. “That really got the community's attention, and people started meeting and saying, ‘How are we going to fix this? What can we do?’”

At the time, Muhammed, who went by Jenniffer Cole-Doyle then, was a teenager herself. But she started attending those meetings.

“I was very vocal,” she said. “I even challenged one elected official very boldly.”

Muhammed said that got the attention of older community activists, who sought her out to become part of a community movement.

Righting A Wrong

Muhammed and her allies formed the Central City Entertainment Center Advisory Board. They argued one way to reduce the risk of street violence for black and brown kids on the east side, was to get them off the streets.

She said existing city programs focused on sports and education, not always the kinds of things many teens wanted to do with their free time. Why not give them the chance to see a movie, go roller-skating or play video games?

She remembers thinking: “I don’t want to have to go all the way north. I don’t want to have to go all the way south to go see a movie, to go skating and then be treated like I'm in the way or don’t belong.”

As the idea grew, it became more and more about social justice. People thought a youth center might help correct one of the legacies of segregation: an entertainment gap left by the flight of businesses out of East Austin.

It was a popular plan. It was also an expensive one.

A Dream Come True

The complex would cost millions for land and construction, and about $800,000 annually in operating costs. A year went by. Two years. Three years. The board kept lobbying city council, but the center looked less and less likely to happen.

Arguments against the center will sound familiar today. In a city that was becoming increasingly unaffordable, council members wondered if “subsidized bowling” was the best use of city funds.

But supporters persisted.

“We went through a couple different council members, lots and lots of citizens’ communications ... lots of agenda items at city council. I spent so many hours at City Council,” Muhammed said. “I think a lot of things that were started for the East Austin community during that time went away because people gave up. They lost hope and they stopped.”

But supporters of the center did not, and seven years after those first community meetings, the entertainment center opened its doors. It was 1999, so when the city held a contest to name the place, “Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex” seemed to fit.

“The millennium is a dream that a lot of people had,” said Vanessa McQueen Silas, general manager of the complex. “And the dream has come true.”

'A Great Sense Of Pride'

But it came at a cost to Muhammed. She had always been a zealous advocate for the center, but the emotion that fueled all those years also alienated some in city government. As the project gained momentum, she lost her city advising role. At City Hall, she gave a fiery goodbye.

When I go there, when I go skating, I just feel a great sense of pride. I feel like I made Tamika's death into something that was positive. - Jenniffer Muhammed

“It’s like my passion was good enough to get us to this point where it looked like it was actually going to happen, and then I wasn’t good enough," she said.

She said she spent years feeling jaded from the experience, but that has faded with time.

“When I go there, when I go skating, I just feel a great sense of pride,” she said. “I feel like I made Tamika’s death into something that was positive.”  

What’s the complex like today? It’s got an arcade, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a food court and a roller-skating rink.  The company that manages the complex says about 7,500 people visit every month. It hosts concerts, community forums, and private parties and, of course, lots of families and lots of teenagers.

Fulfilling A Mission

On a recent Friday afternoon three seventh-graders -- Daylan Cook, Jaclyn Maciel and Joey Pesina -- goofed around in the lobby.

“I just like to come have fun with my friends,” Daylan said.

When asked if they ever came with their parents, the kids seemed horrified

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
The murder of 16-year-old Tamika Ross in 1992 led to the creation of the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex.

“It would be embarrassing,” Joey said.

"Yeah, it would be super embarrassing," Daylan echoed. 

They didn’t notice the picture of Tamika Ross, the girl whose death led to the center's creation, hanging in the lobby. They didn't know the history of the Millennium Center.

But they were helping it fulfill its mission -- just by hanging out and having a blast. 

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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