Though closing at the end of the year, Downtown YMCA facility leaves legacy
“I have never referred to the YMCA as the gym. I prefer to refer to it as the YMCA movement.”
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - The Downtown YMCA facility in Birmingham on 4th Avenue is closing permanently, but even though it’s closing, it leaves a lasting impact on the downtown community.
Two longtime members said it created a healthy lifestyle for its members, both physically and socially. The pandemic changed the fabric of the downtown area, and the YMCA didn’t escape that. The owner said in a statement that membership is down and a change needed to be made, but it will be remembered.
“I’ve heard people refer to this place as the gym. I have never referred to the YMCA as the gym. I prefer to refer to it as the YMCA movement,” said Frank James, a longtime member and former chairman. To him, the building represents much more than a place to work out.
Minnie Johnson is another longtime member and former employee at the downtown location. She said the people there were her second family.
“I started working for the YMCA in July of ‘86,” Johnson said. She described the place as a home away from home.
“A lot of times they didn’t even come to work out, they just came to socialize. And that’s what we did. We played bingo and just would have coffee...sometimes I’d bake a cake,” Johnson said. The staff’s arms were stretched out to those who were in need in the community, too.
“I’ve given baby showers to some of the members. For the seniors on Thanksgiving, I used to cook dinner,” Johnson said. But they also prided themselves on serving those consistent members like Frank James.
“I would get here by 10:30 a.m. every weekday and play racquetball and they were full all the time. You’d have to make appointments back then,” James said. He worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney a block and a half away and has seen the downtown atmosphere change into what it is today.
“Folks started working from home and are still working from home. A great majority of lawyers and other people, business people, who used to come to their downtown YMCA are still working from home, and so the activity here at the downtown wire has slowed down considerably so that it’s is no longer paying its way,” James said. He says he also bought home gym equipment and works out at home now, but that is not to say the memories or impact are gone.
“One of the things that we do with the money that we’d raise with our annual fundraiser is to scholarship kids to come to the YMCA, not just kids, but families who could not otherwise afford to come to the YMCA,” James said. He hopes for all the best for its members in the future no matter what happens.
The CEO of the Greater Birmingham YMCA said he hopes to have a community party to talk about the memories of the building soon.
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