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YMCA closure a blow to Austin

Lake County Family YMCA plans close Waukegan branch Oct. 31 as well as VernHills branch. | File photo

Lake County Family YMCA plans to close the Waukegan branch on Oct. 31, as well as the Vernon Hills branch. | File photo

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Updated: November 8, 2012 12:07PM

Growing up, I longed to go to the Y.

But my parents couldn’t afford a membership. And they didn’t know how to get assistance that could have given their children access to the Y’s programs.

Despite its image as a benevolent organization, the YMCA has always depended on paying customers.

If you couldn’t afford a membership, then you were among the crowd loitering outside the Y’s doors.

But don’t think the closing of the Austin YMCA at 519 N. Central isn’t going to have a devastating impact on a neighborhood where teens are killed on street corners.

L.C. Redmond, executive director of the South Austin Coalition, called YMCA’s departure “egregious.”

“It is another example of disinvestment in communities of color in this city and all across the country,” he said.

“If the city is really serious about addressing the issue of violence, why are they closing safe havens like the Y which keep kids from being victims of violence?” Redmond asked.

“A Christian institution shouldn’t be doing something like that.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago said the Austin YMCA was closed because of “diminished membership use, coupled with an aging facility.

“At the time of its closing the Austin YMCA had only 175 members, only one-tenth the members of a typical Y. In fact, on many days, only five or six members came to the facility,” said Jill McDonnell.

The Austin YMCA shut down on Oct. 1. Three YMCAs in the north suburbs will also cease operations at the end of the month.

According to the statement, the Austin Y offered financial assistance and no one was turned away due to the inability to pay.

But activists claim the YMCA did not market its programs, or alert the community that it provides memberships for as little as $10 per month.

On Friday, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago announced it is transferring ownership of the Austin YMCA’s housing facility to the Single Room Housing Assistance Corporation (SRHAC).

The shutdown of the Austin YMCA is a particularly low blow for the African-American community given the staggering level of bloodshed the city witnessed over the summer.

Open since 1925, the Austin YMCA is a landmark on the West Side, and it stood as a beacon of hope.

“I know it’s tough times, but this is not the time for them to fold up their tents and abandon us,” said the Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church.

About 117,527 people live in Austin, making it the largest and most populated community area in the city, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

West Side activists challenging the closure call the 175 membership number YMCA officials are citing, “misleading.”

“A lot of kids just simply presented themselves. You are not going to keep young black men from an indoor gym,” said the Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield.

“When you consider the violence and the dense population in Austin, this is the last community area that should be closing the YMCA,” he said.

Obviously, the YMCA can’t operate without members, and an 87-year-old building likely needed more work than the YMCA could afford. Still, the community should at least have been given an opportunity to launch a capital campaign before the doors were closed.

Young lives are at stake.

That is why an 87-year-old icon like Ed Gardner is protesting against the lack of black workers on local construction sites.

He knows that there is a direct correlation between the lack of work and the violence, just as there is a direct correlation between the lack of positive alternatives for youth and the increase in gang factions that breed violence.

Given the magnitude of the violence, shutting down the Austin YMCA is like someone walking out on a friend when he or she needs you the most.

“If they are complaining that no one is using the Y, we can get somebody down there,” said Acree. “We can get some people down there, but they will be poor people. We can triple their membership tomorrow,” he said.


West Side activists will hold a town hall meeting to hear from the community on this issue at 6 p.m. Monday at the Original Providence Baptist Church, 515 N. Pine.

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