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YMCA's Idea Has Been Tried Before, But Here's Hoping It Works

Helen Ubiñas

September 27, 2009

No doubt the new YMCA on Albany Avenue is impressive.

There it sits, smack in the middle of one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, its hulking 43,000-square-foot form punctuating an otherwise depressed landscape, its huge picture windows soaking in the natural light — and the neighborhood around it.

Right out front, three drug addicts limp by while cracking jokes about climbing the rock wall inside.

Down the block, a young mother eyes workers moving in state-of-the-art exercise equipment as she hurries her toddler along to an appointment at the corner health center.

And sitting on her porch right across the street is unemployed Florence Knowlin, who is hoping to work out, but more important, work at the fancy new building she's watched rise from her apartment.

It was to better help Knowlin and others like her that the Greater Hartford YMCA made the move from downtown into the neighborhood, to bring programs and services right to the people who need them the most.



How can you argue with that?

Except we've been here before — a promise of better times pinned on new programs, new approaches and brand new impressive buildings. The next convention center, the next police station, the next redevelopment project, the next you name it that was somehow going to magically undo all the ills of a struggling city.

And as commendable as the Y's plans are, it's hard not to wonder if once again the reality will somehow eclipse the vision.

So many what ifs — including the biggest one: What if the community fails to own this building, this opportunity?

I'm worried, I tell John Hussey, a board trustee who showed me around the Wilson-Gray Youth and Family Center. Hussey invited me over after a series of columns I wrote on nearby Garden Street, particularly one where I suggested companies — including the one I work for — invest in Hartford by adopting city streets.

That kind of investment is already happening, Hussey said as we walked past rooms bearing the names of local businesses — MetLife, Travelers, Imagineers, Lincoln, Prudential.

Makes sense. One look around the facility and it's no wonder companies would line up to be associated with the place. Potential is easy to believe in when everything's so shiny and bright.

But putting a plaque on a room and getting out into the streets aren't the same thing. What happens when the first bullets ring out, when a junkie decides to use the nice, new bathrooms as their very own shooting gallery, when the unfortunate realities that sent so many other well-intentioned people and projects scrambling to close themselves up to the neighborhood creep into the Y?

Will their brand new building just turn into another fort? Will they protect their fancy new gym by shutting out the world outside those big windows?

The Y says no.

YMCAs have opened up in places much tougher than the North End of Hartford and thrived, said Kevin Washington, the organization's executive director. He expects nothing less from the Albany Avenue site.

Here's hoping he's right.

Friday, I got an e-mail from Hussey. How about we meet at the Y again in April, he suggested, to see just how well it was delivering what it has promised to these neighborhoods and the community?

I'm in — but I'll also be checking how much ownership the neighborhood is taking of the place as well. It's only fair. So, expect a progress report then.

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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