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Turning a former bank vault in Newton into a place for common ground

The Rev. Devlin Scott presented renderings of the planned community space during a fundraising gala Jan. 24
The Rev. Devlin Scott presented renderings of the planned community space during a fundraising gala Jan. 24Photo courtesy of the Rev. Devlin Scott

A Newton nonprofit community development corporation launched its latest initiative — the transformation of a former bank vault at 1175 Walnut St. in Newton Highlands into a multi-use space meant to foster diversity, inclusivity, and community engagement.

The Rev. Devlin Scott, president and CEO of NewCommunity, Inc. and a pastor at NewCity Church, said he spearheaded the initiative in December as part of the FOR Newton campaign, which strives to call people “back to a state of civility.”

“We’re all very passionate about Newton. We want to see good things come from it. So how do we do that in a way that brings us some common ground, creates connectedness, and creates conversations?” Scott said. “We might have a lot of opinions about different things, but we are all for Newton. So instead of rallying behind what we are against, we were encouraging people to rally behind what they’re for.”

Scott hosted a fundraising gala Jan. 24 to announce the launching of the multi-use, community space, called The Vault, which included presentations from special guests and community leaders, a virtual showcase of photo-realistic renderings of the former bank vault, and a Q&A section at the end of the event. Scott said the committee hopes to open The Vault in September 2021.

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“I think that opening The Vault is another opportunity for different communities — whether it’s different ethnic or racial communities, or different demographics of communities — to come together,” Newton Food Pantry President Regina Wu said. “I see it as a lot of opportunity.”

Wu is among several community members who have partnered with Scott to bring the project to life. She said one of the most exciting components of the initiative is the concept of the MadeNew Cafe + Shoppe, which follows a pay-what-you-can model to offer patrons the ability to have a healthy meal without the constraints of affordability.

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At the cafe, people will be able to either pay the suggested prices on the menu, pay more as a donation to the community, or even exchange volunteer service for a meal, Scott said. It will also be volunteer-run, he said, with a rotation of guest chefs.

“Feeding people — that’s a basic need, and it’s a basic right, and to give everybody food levels the playing field,” Wu said. “The fact that we’re all trying to help provide food to those who need it — it will help some of the social injustice that’s going on.”

In addition to the MadeNew Cafe + Shoppe, The Vault also will be home to the Black Box Theatre and the CityKids PlayPlace, designed to be especially suitable for kids with special needs.

Melissa Bernstein, artistic director of the Newton Theatre Company, said their partnership with Scott and the prospect of a community black box theatre is an opportunity for the troupe — which lacks a permanent venue — to find a home “in a place whose values are so important to me.”

Since this past fall, Bernstein said the theatre company has implemented its own pay-what-you-can model of ticket pricing for its virtual Zoom plays.

“This combination of a pay-what-you-can cafe and our philosophy of a pay-what-you-can theatre,” Bernstein said about The Vault, “seems like this amazing opportunity to bring in people to enjoy good food and good theatre for free, or what they can afford to pay.”

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Scott said although one of the biggest challenges to building The Vault is a matter of resources, “it was not hard to find partnerships” and “people who believed that this was a good idea.”

Dina Tanvuia, program chair of Hospitality and Event Management at Lasell University, said she sees this initiative as a “win-win opportunity” for students to get hands-on experience in service learning and for the community to benefit from their skills and assistance.

At the university, Tanvuia said she spoke to two other professors about encouraging their students to use the community project as an internship opportunity. Currently, two of her students are involved and working on the initiative.

“I think right now, more than ever, there is a need for inclusivity. There is a need on the social level for connectivity, and also an individual need for addressing issues,” Tanvuia said. “A place like this can be the starting point of this discussion of, ‘Let’s come together and make the community better.’”

The main “vault” building has dimensions of approximately 3,600-square-feet, Scott said, while the outdoor portion of the space, designated to house an outdoor patio for the cafe and a stage for outdoor performances, is about 1,200-square-feet.

Scott said the group is currently in the design phase of transforming The Vault. While still in the early stages of the process, Scott said he is looking to invite broader community engagement once it is open to the public, such as inviting culinary arts students from Newton North High School to work as guest chefs at the cafe.

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“These are the bare things that every person needs,” Scott said. “Everybody needs community. Everybody needs dignity. Everybody needs a sense of purpose and encouragement. And so we just want to create a space where we know that that could happen.”

With the fundraising gala, Scott said in an email, they were able to raise $5,500 for The Vault. Scott said he is hoping to see individuals contribute by donating or pledging over the year.

“We’ll build this thing, not just this building, but we’ll build the kind of world we want that’s kind and civil and cares about people,” Scott said. “I’m encouraging people right now — pick up a brick, it’s one small part of this puzzle. You don’t have to do a huge piece of it, but pick up a brick and help us build.”

Jessica Huang can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.