Time Travel Now Offered at South Side YMCA

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Our early life’s experiences, no matter how vividly imprinted, are also hopelessly skewed. For example: as a kid, I frequently swam at the old South Side YMCA. And by “frequently,” I mean three days a week from ages two-nine. I also attended summer camp there, watched movies, and took part in other, year-’round, organized activities. But the pool’s where I spent literally hundreds of hours, moving up through the fish-based class rankings, ascending from minnow to flying fish to porpoise. As much as any public place can be “your” place, The Y was mine, a venue in which I felt totally comfortable and at-home.

As a frightened-then-confident kid swimmer, I always thought that the South Side Y’s pool was a Very Big Place. The locker-rooms, the gymnasium, the offices… most of this 1936-constructed venue seemed outsized when I was spending all those afternoons kickboarding through the water. But since about 30 years had passed since I last entered the space on South Grand, I should’ve known that: a) a huge assortment of mismatched memories would come rushing back; and b) those memories would be radically challenged by the realities of today’s, weather-beaten space.

The Y’s pool? Gosh, it’s… Kinda A Small Place. In comparison to the facilities at its replacement site off of Arsenal, it’s really small. That’s the overwhelming truth that hit me as I stood in the deep end earlier this week. Frankly, I had to compose myself a bit, the intensity of the moment really catching up to me in a way that I’d only somewhat expected.

The reason I was in The Y was simple: a couple weeks back, on January 30, the RFT’s Jessica Lussenhop published a short article on The Y, featuring the Instagram images of Patrick Devine. The piece, entitled “Post-Apocalyptic Portraits of Abandoned YMCA by Pastry Chef,” obviously touched a nerve among many, as multiple commenters posted their remembrances of swimming (or playing, or day-camping) at that facility. In a world of commenting venom, a lot of these were nice little glimpses back at the site’s vibrant past.

As someone who’s spent a little bit of time doing urban exploration, the possibility of an unguided trip through The Y was too much bait; I simply had to do it, a possible midlife crying fit be damned. Turns out that the facility, right out there in the open on South Grand, was hospitable to such a tour. We weren’t the only folks to go through lately; it’s obvious that there’s been an onsite homeless presence over time. The metal’s been looted, thoroughly. And the various local graffiti crews are all represented.

(And a quick note on “giving up a place”: as I wrote about for nextstl.com in last summer’s 10-part graffiti series, lots of people get lots bugged by the idea of citing specific locations. In this case, any type of faux-deception would be foolish; the comments on the RFT’s Y photospread confirmed the location, beyond doubt. And the space was so specific and particular in look, that Devine’s pics absolutely pegged the space as the South Side Y, even without the comments. So no ruse here. And if the multiple entry points get locked because these pieces have been published, well, you’ve had a decade.)

The experience of moving through the space came with some quirks. The temperature, for example, was somewhat freaky: standing in one long hallway, you could reach out into the warmth of the spring afternoon; though snow was on the ground, the exterior temp was at least a dozen degrees warmer than the hallway’s. Weird visuals were everywhere. Striking, especially, was the graffiti itself. As example, on the second floor, old murals of Disney and Sesame Street characters were peeling off the wall. Some of them had been added-to by graffiti. Were these additions in any way more insulting to the building than the simple lack of care it’s been granted over the past decade?

In countless other buildings, I’ve had a more detached response to how spaces have decayed, left to imagine how they were used in their heyday, how they looked and felt and sounded. In this case, the response was entirely different, a gut-level one. This was my Y. Emotionally, at least, the ties to the past were so much stronger and my internal responses to the graffiti, the trash, the wear-and-tear were so was much more real, so much more visceral.

Smarter minds than mine can debate the actual potential for adapted reuse for the Y complex. To my mind, the place seems structurally sound, though holes in the gym roof and lots of open windows have caused the place to be both drafty and mold-ridden. Surely, all the systems would need replacement and lots of walls have been riddled through by the metal harvesters. And some of the usual, go-to ideas might be a stretch for this, particular space, the kind that start, “Hey, wouldn’t an ad agency look good…”

Until those smart/funded minds match up, I’m left to the usual, predictable responses. I can express regret, I can share stories, I can say how important the place was to generations of South City children. But along with some photos, a bit of ineffectual reminiscing is all I’ve got for today.

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  • Thomas Crone

    In a Facebook conversation on my page, Ald. Christine Ingrassia made some points in two posts, based on questions posted there. I’ll note them here:

    Both the Pelican and Y sites were tied up in federal litigation for years after the bank holding the loan on the properties went under in the Great Recession. The FDIC sold them to a new owner at the end of November and the City Building Commissioner, problem properties attorney and I have been working on this for about a year and recently met with a representative of the new ownership. We discussed site clean up and mothballing, as well as what types of development are acceptable to the neighborhood and the sense of urgency we all have in seeing this space transformed after so many years of deferred maintenance. I’m really sorry to say, it’s probably not likely the Y can be saved. Holler if you have questions!

    None of the developers I’ve spoken with so far have mentioned a rec center at the Y site, but I do agree there may be a need for one and would be happy to explore that possibility with whomever may be interested in looking into it. I do not think the current Y would be a good place for a rehabbed rec center due to the state of the building’s deterioration and the amount of asbestos it holds. The owners are an investment group out of California; from the research I’ve undertaken, it appears they regularly buy up bad loans en masse from the FDIC.

  • moe

    This stretch of Grand has long been ignored by politicians. Notice how the redevelopment of South Grand stops at the Park. Between the park and the highway, the pedestrian welcome is sorely lacking. Even with the new condos, neglect has been here for years, be it the Y, the Pelican or the Shell gas station.

  • Adam

    where on Grand is this located? gotta be somewhere between chippewa and carondelet park but for the life of me i can’t picture it…

    • John R

      Adam, actually it is on the block north of Shenandoah on the east side of S. Grand. There is also a nifty but endangered historic building on the corner (I believe called the Pelican Building) that was recently owned together with the Y property but redevelopment plans didn’t get off the ground. I believe at least the Y was recently sold and the new owner has committed to sealing up the place quickly. I’m not sure if the Pelican was purchased as part of the deal or not.

  • Thomas Crone

    Samizdat, I say this with respect, as I’ve read your comments on this site and others and appreciate your perspectives; including on this topic, which you’ve touched on here and elsewhere. Honestly, I’ve always found the “fixed it for you” riff in comments sections a bit insulting. I made some points in a piece, attached my name, extended them out there for public comment. Your central point stands on its own, without needing to imply that mine’s invalid. That’s quibbling, maybe, but I’ve never dug that argument style. Meh, I’ll get over it.

    I will say that your comment’s made me think a bit on the photos from the swimming pool, specifically. I look at the big pieces (from the LD and OFB crews) and see well-executed pieces that scream “look at me!” They’re a lot more skilled than a lot of street tags and that comes with the time taken; admittedly being done in an illegal context. We can have all kinds of arguments on all kinds of levels about the criminality and intent of those pieces. Many times, I’ll err in your direction, as I find a lot of graf writers to have seriously immature thoughts re: the civic impact of what they paint.

    The thing that I keep swinging back to, though, is the emotional response each of us may have to graffiti, in the context of other abandonment. The bonefish-style piece in the shallow end of the pool, for example; I find that pretty clever and done in a space that, by various accounts, is going to be demolished anyway. If that piece was on exposed brick, on the Grand-facing side of the building, that’s a totally different statement, for the graf writer and people who see it.

    A building on a Vandeventer has often made me consider this topic. There’s a semi-large “Crime” tag on the side of a pretty large, abandoned building; a couple, other, smaller ones have cropped up on it over time. If the graf wasn’t on that building, I’d probably pass it without thought. The old “just another empty brick building” mentality. Because of the tag, my eye catches that space every single time I drive by it. My consideration for that space completely changes because my eye’s drawn to that paint, rather to the handsome, but fading, building on which it appears.

    The folks who’ve owned this building, tried to flip it, tried to push under-capitalized projects through, etc., to me are the ones that deserve the grief, rather than the graf writers who seem to put “the bow” on the abandonment.


    • samizdat

      Mr. Crone, thank you for responding. I’ll confine my “fixed it” remarks to the Yahoo comment threads. The half-crazed extremists who often populate that venue practically beg for it, anyway. My apologies, sir.


      I do confess to a somewhat more visceral response to graffiti in the City than your average Joe or Jane. Whether I am justified in this response is obviously open to debate, but it is not a reactionary one.

      Living a few doors down from my wife and I here in Dutchtown is a member of the notorious Streetfighterz crotch-rocket gang (The “z” is more kewl, I guess). Which would not be a problem, except that on dozens of occasions over the course of the five or so years he and his wife and then child (both wife and child have since left) have lived at that address, he and his cohorts have taken to using the streets of Dutchtown as test bed, track, and stunt venue (pogo-ing, wheelies, etc.). Most of the time it involves at least three other bikers, and on a few occasions, up to a dozen red-lining idiots on their screaming penis enhancement devices. Naturally, this gets old after a while (the first few times did it for me; the jerk riding down the sidewalk didn’t help, neither did the **ck you attitude of these twits). What does this have to do with the price of tea in China, you may ask? Well, to me, the behavior is the same as that exhibited by the graffiti gangsters. And it often comes about because these gangs know that the City is basically a free-fire zone, due to the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to confront these gangs with a properly staffed police force, much less the STLPD’s understaffed, stressed-out officers. We in the City are victims of these gangs. They are criminals, proportionally-speaking, comparable to the gangs on Wall St. which crashed the economy in ’07-’08. They exploit the lack of oversight to their own advantage, and to the detriment of society. (I will acknowledge, however, that bikers and graffiti gangs have not so far managed to basically buy Congress or captured the agencies charged with their oversight). I recall reading that graffiti abatement in the US costs approximately 4 BillionUSD per year, and about 250,000USD here in St. Louis.

      Beyond the monetary costs however, is one I find rather more disturbing. The insular culture of these gangs obviously limits the perspective of those who inhabit them, and I see this as a problem. It breeds a peculiar contempt for not only the rule of law, but for anyone who is not a member of the kewl kids’ group. I do not know precisely the minds of bikers, bankers, or graffiti practitioners, but the disdain they to show society, and the dismissive attitude expressed appears to be an outgrowth of their refusal to acknowledge criticism from outside the group. When there is no feedback, no exchange of ideas, no acknowledgement of responsibility on one’s part you have a loop of ever-increasing undesirable or criminal behavior. It seems self-evident that this is a dangerous cultivation of inward, insular thinking. The reportedly virulent misogyny of male online gamers is another example of this insularity.

      As someone who has an acute appreciation of architecture and the built environment of our City, my eye is drawn to a structure because of my curiosity with regards to style, ornamentation, construction methods and materials, history, workmanship and the lives of past and present occupants and the former and present uses of a particular building, so obviously how you and I experience the City differs. To my eye, the appearance of defacing graffiti on a building is a sign of disrespect for all of those things I mentioned above. Simply because someone sees the world as their canvas does not give them the right to treat an object in the public eye as their own medium of expression. Especially when 90% of it amounts to no more than poorly executed graphic illustrations. And juvenile, to boot. The fish is clever, however.

      I share your contempt for building owners and bankers whose irresponsible decision-making and maintenance lead to decay and abandonment. I will demure, however, in your characterization of graffiti as a “bow”, unless it refers to a sort of coup de grace stroke to the heart. To be sure, taken in the context of the insanity and venality of development patterns in the US after WWII–usually directly and indirectly underwritten and abetted by the Federal government, when we in the US decided to demolish cities and abandon them, whereas Europe rebuilt their cities–graffiti is a fly-speck, a drop in the bucket, but no less painful to observe.

  • samizdat

    “And the various local graffiti gangsters are all represented.”

    Fixed it for you.

    Gangsters, you say? A little harsh, perhaps? Out of proportion to the actual crimes committed by these vandals?

    Here is my definition of gangster:

    A group of individuals–loosely affiliated or bound by a pact or contract–collectively engaging in criminal activity detrimental to society and property.