Before “YMCA” was a hit song, it was a place where many generations of boys in Youngstown learned how to swim and participated in athletic and other activities, alongside volunteers and staff who cared about about their physical and character fitness (the initials stand for Young Men’s Christian Association). It also had low cost rooms that young men starting out could live in. The organization originally was founded in London, England and spread abroad. The idea was to promote a kind of “muscular Christianity” that promoted both physical and spiritual training.
By the time I became a member when I was in fourth grade, the spiritual part was pretty minimal. There was an induction ceremony that I remember that involved lighting candles, and an inspiring message, and we received our Y membership card, which we showed whenever we came into the building, the Central YMCA, located on North Champion Street off of E. Federal, where the Central Y has been located since 1915.
Growing up, I was what my parents called “husky” and my schoolmates called “fat.” Joining the Y was a way for me to get in better shape. I’m not sure it worked, but I gave it a try. I took swim lessons but never really graduated from the beginners. I’d go every Thursday after school and Saturday, but never quite got the hang of it. I still can’t swim. Maybe I’ll try learning in retirement some day!
Saturdays were a fun day. You would come in the front entrance into the lobby where there were board games, puzzles, and even a chess board. In the morning, you went with other kids your age through a program that included swimming, exercise, some competitive games coached by the staff, running on the indoor track, and then off to the showers. Then it was time for lunch. They had this great cafeteria, and it was here that I discovered french fries with ketchup on them. After lunch, you could go see a movie, go to a craft room or play board games in the lobby until your parents picked you up.
Going to the Y meant getting my first gym bag and the stuff to go in it. The gym bag was blue vinyl with the Y logo on it. In it went shoes, gym shorts, t-shirt, swim suit, towel, deodorant, and this thing I had never worn before called an athletic supporter (alias jock strap). I had never thought of needing that kind of support before!
The first trip to the locker room was kind of intimidating–all these guys walking around naked taking showers at the same time. And you were supposed to do it too. I guess it was kind of a rite of passage into early adolescence. Thankfully, nothing weird ever happened and pretty soon, you didn’t think twice about it.
A Y membership when I was going up was $20 for the year. That made it accessible for most any family and the Y has always, and still does, offer financial assistance for children or families. The Central YMCA on North Champion is still there. It just finished the first major renovation in 46 years in January. In this video, taken in 2010, you can get a glimpse at what opportunities they offered at that time. It was amazing to see the old lower gym, still looking much as it had, with the indoor track above, as it did in the 1960’s. The pool looked pretty similar as well but everything else was different.
One other difference is that it serves women as well. There is still a YWCA in its historic building on Rayen Avenue. My wife took free swimming lessons there and we had friends in college who lived there because it was so inexpensive. I don’t know much else about it then or now except that it continues to serve women in the Youngstown area.
So much of what I remember in Youngstown is gone. It is a delight to know that these places of my youth are still standing, and still serving the people of Youngstown!