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YMCA's New Facility Puts Neighborhood Plan Into Practice


September 27, 2009

When the Greater Hartford YMCA closed its branch downtown at Bushnell Park, it said its plan was to move back into city neighborhoods to serve people where they lived.

More than three years later, Kevin Washington stood inside the YMCA's new, $10.9 million, 43,000-square-foot, Wilson-Gray Youth and Family Center, his back to a three-story-high climbing wall and his eyes on Albany Avenue, where a package store was on one corner and a bar with grate-covered windows on the other.

"I wanted to make a statement about what we'll be doing here," said Washington, the Y's executive director. "This is a new entity in the community, and it's open for you, and it has new features in it that people would not say would be on Albany Avenue, in Clay Hill."

"Wouldn't be here," Washington said, "but it is."

The YMCA made the move out of its Jewell Street location in 2006, relocating its programming and ending its work in single-room occupancy housing. The Jewell Street building was sold to Northland Investment Corp. and luxury condos were to come next. That hasn't happened yet.

But the YMCA moved on, opening a facility that consisted largely of workout equipment in what is now the XL Center, which some early critics said felt more like a gym and less like a YMCA.

The venture at 444 Albany Ave., though, which had its grand opening on Saturday, is different from either the old or the new downtown branches, Washington said.

"If people had lived there, it would have been a different kind of place," Washington said of the neighborhood where the old downtown branch was. "But there wasn't anybody that lived there. There wasn't a community there. This is a community."

The Wilson-Gray Center is the most recent new construction to take place on a major city street with its share of crime.

Farther west on Albany Avenue toward West Hartford is the University of Hartford's new performing arts center. Closer still is the Artists Collective, and just across Bedford Street from the new YMCA is the Community Health Services building.

The $10.9 million to build the facility was raised from private and public donors, including $1.5 million from the state, Washington said. It will cost roughly $1.5 million a year to operate, and Washington expects it will need at least an annual $500,000 subsidy from the YMCA to operate.

Inside, the building is fresh and new: A $100,000 climbing wall room has a squishy blue base, the gymnasium smells of fresh finish and the workout facility has rows of fancy-looking equipment like stationary bikes with computer screens that let you race your neighbor.

Then there are the rooms — from hangouts for preteens to child care areas, a computer room, a café and other community spaces.

But Washington hopes the building's clear glass views of what's going on inside — basketball in one corner, climbing wall in the other — will help bring young people inside.

"To think they are not looking for opportunities is a fallacy," Washington said. "They want opportunities, and they resort to the other things when they don't have anything else to do."

Michael Sherman runs Community Health Services just across the street. He sees the future this way: two organizations, one campus.

"The two census tracts that surround the health center are the two poorest census tracts in the state of Connecticut," Sherman said. So it's exactly the place where the services need to be, he said. "We all pushed for this idea a long time ago and we all had the same dream — bringing additional services to children and adolescents in the community."

So while the health services center has a childhood obesity clinic, there wasn't a place for children to exercise. But there is, now. Same with the diabetes clinic that serves more than 1,000 people.

"This means we're finally making a dent in providing real programs and real services to the community," Sherman said.

Marquita Ward lives a block away on Garden Street with her 19-month-old daughter. Ward said she welcomes the new Y.

"If it's not shooting it's fighting. Or arguing. It's surprising if it goes one day without something going on," she said of her neighborhood. "Especially now that I have a child, I don't want her around stuff like this."

In front of the YMCA last week, Ward said she likes the positive statement the building makes. "The question is, will the kids come here," she said.

Security is another question, Washington said. "That's probably the biggest question that we have," he said. So he pointed to six of 60 to 70 video cameras scattered throughout the building. They record everything.

But that's it. No other security measures on regular days, no metal detectors, no wanding. Just "ambassadors" from the community who keep a handle on who's coming in.

"My folks finally said, 'You know what, Kevin? We don't have [metal detectors] in any other YMCA, so why would we start that here?'" Washington said. "I'm not naive. …We just felt that it would be sending the wrong message."

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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