When we last checked in, the Asian Arts Initiative had been left in the dust - literally.

Dazed after being displaced from its Gilbert Building digs west of Chinatown to make way for the $700 million Convention Center expansion, Asian Arts was left with the daunting task of finding a new home.

That was almost two years ago. A lifetime, when you think about the arduous process the organization went through just to identify a building and make it habitable.

Or a minute, considering that the deadline to come up with the $2.5 million purchase price is September and Asian Arts hasn't yet secured all of the funding for its new location, at 1219 Vine St.

For Gayle Isa, AAI's founder and executive director, the ticking clock sounds like a time bomb.

After all, she applied for a grant through the state's billion-dollar Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program way back in 2006, after she got the word she'd be displaced.

Two years later, the state's silence is deafening.

"We're starting to worry," admits Isa, 37. "Our organization took 15 years to get to where we are."

Cultural gems

Lost in all the hoopla over the Convention Center expansion to bring tourism dollars into the city is the threat to important cultural gems that have enriched local communities for so long.

Since she got the boot from the Gilbert Building in the shadow of the Convention Center, Isa's life has been a crash course in nomadic living, real estate, engineering, and interior design. And she doesn't even include all of the bureaucratic hoops she's had to jump through.

Just keeping her programs going in temporary quarters on Watts Street was a lesson in survival.

"No heat, and you had to go to the basement with a flashlight to use the restroom," Isa recalls. "Thank God we didn't sign a lease."

All of that, plus trying to stay true to AAI's mission of providing a safe haven for youths to express themselves through painting, poetry, dance, spoken word, and video, has made it hard for Isa to keep the faith.

"But on good days," she says, "I get it back again."

It's a good day when Isa gets to show off the new space, 2 1/2 stories that include an art gallery, a 72-seat theater, and a media lab.

"You can see the pride in the kids when they walk in a space like this. It inspires them to aspire," she says.

Positive impact

Isa thinks it's no coincidence that soon after the building was rehabbed and kids started coming back, police raided the, uh, massage parlor two doors down.

"It's exciting that our presence is causing more positive attention to the neighborhood," she says.

Which, when you get down to it, is part of the state's condition for awarding redevelopment funding, says Johnna Pro, spokeswoman for State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), who helped Isa apply for the grant. Pro says Gov. Rendell favors nonprofit organizations that show potential for economic growth and job creation.

Isa gets it. She's putting together a business plan to include the entire neighborhood.

She wants to open up programs to neighborhood residents. Paint a mural in the alleyway for the homeless to enjoy. Maybe even provide a drop-in after-school service.

It's a worthy vision. But she can't realize it without the brick and mortar.

With the current fiscal crisis, Pro says, it's hard to say when the governor will disburse the money, let alone which organizations will receive it.

But Isa is hopeful. She believes the fate of her beloved community-arts center will be revealed in this, the Year of the Ox.

That's because the ox is a symbol of power, a sign of prosperity achieved through fortitude and hard work.