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A New, Glitzy YMCA

Some Mourn Ambience Of The Former Facility

May 20, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

It's a short walk from the old YMCA on Bushnell Park to its new home in the brand-new Hartford 21 complex.

But that's about as close as the two places get.

The new facility has workout views of Trumbull Street, a spacious lobby, and a 21st-century look. The old Jewell Street building was just that: Old. The dark brick, windowless interiors, locker-room smell and air conditioners that didn't condition were a reminder that the facilities haven't seen substantive improvements since the 1970s.

Where some saw signs of age, though, others saw a sense of spirit, ambience, and community.

"There's plenty of fitness clubs," said Peter Reynolds, a longtime member. "People belong to the Y for the spirit of it, rather than just as a fitness center."

With the Jewell Street building slated for demolition, the Hartford YMCA opened its new downtown health and wellness center this week.

There are, of course, those like Phyllis Bonviso who are thrilled. She doesn't miss the showers at Jewell Street that were few in number and inconsistently hot, the Pilates room that was a basketball court that smelled of sweaty sneakers, and the animal that nibbled at her shoelaces and gloves in her locker.

"It's like going from Motel 8 to the Ritz Carlton," she said.

But there are also those who wonder why they got glitz, but lost not only a pool and two basketball courts - but also the old spirit of Jewell Street. For some, sharing space with school kids playing hoops, children in day care and adults seeking safe shelter was part of the old Y's attraction.

It wasn't just about working out, it was about being with people trying to improve their lot.

"People were happy because they wanted a downtown Y atmosphere, not a fitness club atmosphere, and I'm not sure this new facility will fulfill that role at all," said Reynolds, as he worked out on an elliptical machine.

"Where are the kids?" asked David Wemmett, a state employee. "I always thought the Y was for kids. This is a place for old white guys."

The fitness center's move from one building to another is part of the YMCA's plan to sell its downtown real estate and move many of its programs to the neighborhoods where the bulk of its clients live.

The plan calls for the sale of the Jewell Street building to Northland Investment Corp., downtown's largest landowner, which wants to build a roughly $117 million tower with 200 upscale condominiums and 100 apartments. The Y's 145-room residential tower will close permanently later this month. In June the YMCA will move its headquarters to Hartford 21, too.

The new fitness room at Hartford 21 is a sprawling mix of cardio machines with televisions and personal monitors, and more of both on the way. The walls throughout are tan, the doors are wooden, there is carpeting where there should be carpeting and spring-loaded floors where the knees take a pounding.

And while there is no pool or basketball court on site, members have access to those facilities at the Learning Corridor near Trinity College.

"The facilities here are much nicer than at other places, [and] for those of us that run or work out, there's not a lot of change," said James T. Fleming, the state's commissioner of public works.

But for Peter Prowda, another state employee, "there's no added value." The lockers are too small, the walk from the office is too long, and dues for some members are going up, albeit a modest $3 a month. Y officials expect fees to stay level for the next year and a half.

"I was debating today if I'm going to stay here," Prowda said.

Tom Reynolds, a spokesman for the YMCA, likens the change to when you lose your barber of 20 years. "It's a transition," he said. "Change is difficult. That's hard. And, sure, there's concern, and we understand that."

"When all the dust is settled, people will look back and say, you know, change is tough, but they made the right choice," Reynolds said. "For that, we ask people to give us some time to show them what can happen."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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