Walkabout: Brooklyn’s YMCA, part 2

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The Young Men’s Christian Association was started in the mid 1800′s to provide a physical and spiritual refuge for young men relocating in cities and towns, offering an affordable, safe, and morally acceptable home away from home. By the turn of the 20th century, the YMCA had expanded its mission, and had expanded to include programs for the whole person, body and mind, as well as soul. The first Brooklyn Y opened in 1853, meeting in church and meeting halls. They opened their first branch on Fulton Street, near City Hall, in 1866, and by 1885 had expanded to a much larger building on Fulton and Bond St. This branch held the first indoor YMCA swimming pool, the beginning of the Y’s strong tradition of offering swimming in addition to their other physical education. In the organization’s quest for the best in physical education programs, the national YMCA’s staff were responsible for the creation of some of our favorite sports, such as basketball and volleyball.

By 1915, the Central Branch of the Y had relocated to what was then the largest YMCA in the world, a building on Hanson Place, now home to the NY State Office Building. The Brooklyn Y’s spread to many neighborhoods, with branches in Bedford, Park Slope, Williamsburg/Greenpoint, Cypress Hills, and a Colored branch in Fort Greene, on Carlton Place, this structure now home to the Carlton Nursing Home.

The Bedford YMCA was second only to the Central Branch Y downtown. It was founded in 1888, with its first home at 420 Gates Avenue, a building that had a lecture hall, meeting rooms, a small gymnasium and dorm space. The Bedford community was one of the fastest growing parts of Brooklyn, and they soon outgrew this space. Their new building, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Monroe Street was begun in 1901, and finished in 1905. This multi-story brick building had all of the state of the art facilities known for the time, gymnasium, natatorium, or swimming pool, an auditorium, classrooms, and the traditional rooms for rent. The Bedford Y attracted star amateur athletes, and a perusal of YMCA activity, as reported in the Brooklyn Eagle, as well as the New York Times shows a champion swim team, beginning in 1912, and awards for their gymnastics, track and other sports teams throughout the years. The building itself appears often in post cards, and was a proud neighborhood institution. In 1919 an annex was built to expand their trade school teaching programs, with auto repair, aviation, and other growing trades being taught. These programs became a major part of the Bedford Y’s programming through the 1970′s. By the 1980′s, when I moved to Bed Stuy, the Y was still a valuable institution, but their enrollment was down, the entire facility worn out, and in need of physical repair and equipment upgrades, and in general, was a mirror of the general attitude towards Bed Stuy by most of the outside community. It limped along until 2007, when the old building was torn down, replaced by a larger, brand new facility, which opened to much fanfare. Their membership rose from a bit more than 2000 members to over 6000 members today, and growing. Reviews of the Bedford Y are overwhelmingly positive, with a multitude of programs for both children and adults.

The Park Slope YMCA began in a converted house in 1891, and moved to their large, impressive building at 357 9th Street in 1926. Ground had been broken the year before on this new building. Today, the YMCA is in charge of the new Park Slope Armory Recreation Center, as well. The Greenpoint YMCA was begun in 1884, and now resides in a handsome building at 99 Meserole Street. The North Brooklyn YMCA, which serves Cypress Hills and East New York, opened in 1926 at 570 Jamaica Avenue. The Central Branch is now located on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. Now called the Dodge YMCA, it opened in 2005. A new Y for Coney Island is supposed to open this year.

A large part of the YMCA’s original mission was to provide a safe haven and moral refuge for sailors and seamen. Emphasizing the Christian in Young Men’s Christian Association, Y’s were established to house and provide Christian education and recreation for sailors in port, keeping them away from the vices and temptations of the city. They took this mission quite seriously, and so did their supporters. One of the largest and most ambitious of these projects was the Sands Street Y, located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, between Jay and Gold Streets. The building was the gift of two of the most remarkable philanthropic ladies of the early 20th century; Miss Helen Miller Gould and Mrs. Russell Sage.

Miss Helen Miller Gould was the oldest daughter of industrialist Jay Gould, one of the larger figures of the Gilded Age, who made his money in railroads and finance. His country home called Lyndhurst, in Tarrytown, is a national treasure, and was a reflection of his wealth. His death left his beloved daughter extremely rich, and she was a great philanthropist, spending the rest of her life supporting many causes, big and small, even after her marriage to Finlay J. Shepard. She had the Sand Street Y built, and in the opening ceremony in 1902, gave it to the YMCA, for its mission to sailors, marines and coast guard. Her closest friend and fellow philanthropist was Mrs. Russell Sage, the wife of another extremely wealthy Manhattan banker and financier. At his death, she inherited a huge fortune, and she became one of the most generous and successful female philanthropists in our nation’s history. Mrs. Sage and Miss Gould were quite a pair, and she also donated to this cause, helping to establish the Sailor’s Y. More on these fascinating ladies at another time.

This large building had all of the facilities we associate with YMCA’s; a large swimming pool in the basement, a library and reading rooms, gymnasium and lodging facilities. The Sands Street Y building was a beautiful and impressive building, a red brick and limestone facility with ornate Beaux Arts trim, some with a nautical theme. The building remained a Y up through the 1960′s, at least. It became a Girl’s Service Organization, similar to the USO, according to a poster on the DUMBO NYC blog, They would host social events for the Navy Yard sailors, such as beach parties, hay rides to the Staten Island Ferry, and dances. In the 1980′s the building was bought by a Chinese developer who made it into condos, selling almost exclusively to the Chinese community. The building can still be seen from the entrance ramp to the Manhattan Bridge.

In conclusion, the YMCA has proven to be a valuable part of life in Brooklyn, providing shelter, recreation and education to thousands over the years. They have always been inclusive, with women and minorities a part of their organization for much longer than many other so-called progressive organizations. Their emphasis on physical education was way ahead of its time, and continues to provide low cost gym facilities to millions of people. In Brooklyn, they are a part and parcel of that which makes living here attractive.

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  • One of the main reasons I belong to the Y instead of some other gym is that I feel my money is used for betterment of cummunity rather than just profit for some corporation.
    The Y runs the after school and summer programs for kids, activities for older and helps build a community.
    (other reason I belong is because they have real swimming pools)

  • fascinating history. Brooklyn had such a solid network of social and religious institutions, I believe this helped get it through the “bad years”.