More than 60 Austin residents packed a small room in Original Providence Baptist Church on Monday to express their disdain at YMCA of Metro Chicago for its decision to close its only location in Austin, and to discuss how to keep that facility open.
On Oct. 1, the Austin Y ended its nearly 100 years of operations since first opening at the 501 N. Central Ave. location in 1913.
“The Y said they are going to abandon this community,” said Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition Community Council. “This is another example of the disinvestment from this community that corporations have done.”
YMCA Chicago plans to continue providing daily youth services in Austin at May Elementary Community Academy, 512 S. Laverne Ave., according to a press release. Stephen Robinson, a member of the Northwest Austin Council said he did not believe programs offered at the school could replace those located at the Austin Y.
“They don’t have a gym there; what they have is a multi-purpose room that is already used for other activities,” Robinson said.
YMCA Chicago also announced it was transferring ownership of the building to the Single Room Housing Assistance Corporation. The agency will operate the Austin Y’s 289, low-income residential rooms. According to YMCA Chicago spokesperson Jill McDonnell, housing will continue to be provided “at a rate those residents can afford.”
“We have a binding agreement with SRHAC, and we will be out by the end of the year,” McDonnell said.
A YMCA banner currently hangs across the front of the Central Avenue building advertising low tenant rates. Three-year resident Terrance Monroe said he had not noticed any changes in the staff or living conditions at the Y. He did, however, complain about the facility’s cleanliness and problems he had with bed bugs there.
Austin Y’s closing was months in the making
YMCA Chicago announced the closing of membership services at the Austin Y on Aug. 10, in a short, one-page paragraph press statement released on that late Friday afternoon. Still, the news hit the community hard. Monday’s crowd at Original Providence, 515 N. Pine Ave., was loud and angry.
Many stressed the importance of the Y as a safe-haven for children to escape crime and gangs. Austin-resident Pamela Lester said she came to Monday’s forum “to get some answers.” Lester recalled attending the YMCA for dance classes as a child.
“We need a facility like this in our community,” she said.
Monday’s forum included West Side pastors Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church and Marshall Hatch of New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church. Also in attendance were state representatives La Shawn Ford (8th) and Camille Lilly (78th), and Ald. Deborah Graham (29th).
Acree called YMCA Chicago “dastardly” for abandoning a community “stricken with so much violence and plagued with so much high crime, [especially] considering they have historically been a bridge for the indigent and underserved.
“If the YMCA still is who they say they are they will reopen,” Acree added.
On Oct. 5, Acree and a coalition of community leaders and elected officials went to YMCA’s Chicago’s downtown headquarters to meet with YMCA President Richard Malone, in effort to prevent them from closing the Austin Y.
Ald. Graham called it a “heated” meeting, and said they were told the decision was already final and nothing could be done. Acree said they invited Malone to Monday’s forum to explain the YMCA’s decision. Hatch called it a “major disrespect” that he did not come.
“We asked them to justify what they’re doing and they really couldn’t do it,” Hatch said.
According to officials from YMCA Chicago, dwindling membership and financial costs to upkeep the building were behind the decision to close. Membership, they add, was down to 175. Several people at Monday’s forum, however, called those figures false or misleading. Graham said she and other community leaders offered to start a capital campaign for repairs or to boost membership. She insisted they would be able to quadruple membership through the campaign. But according to Graham, those offers were rejected by YMCA Chicago brass.
According to Graham, Malone told the group “he didn’t want to leave mortal enemies,” and was apparently open to finding a smaller, more cost-effective Y location for Austin.
“He brought that up as a possibility and basically said he would be open to it if we had the community support,” Graham said. “We need more than one. Austin is a large community and we have been talking about community centers and we don’t want to have one taken away from us.”
But YMCA Chicago spokesperson McDonnell said there were no plans right for a new location, but added: “if the financial situation and support in the community changes we would certainly be open to that.”
As a result of Malone’s no-show at Monday’s forum, community leaders are scheduling a protest outside YMCA’s Chicago headquarters, 801 N. Dearborn St., for today at 11 a.m.
“What they said by not coming to this meeting is somehow we’re going to have a little meeting and then we’re going to go away,” Hatch said.