Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Hill's new YMCA following tradition as source of uplift

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In the 13 months since it opened, the Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District has exceeded everyone's expectations with close to 3,000 members who enjoy state-of-the-art facilities and amenities.

But it would not be there had it not been for its predecessor five blocks east, which sealed the YMCA's legacy in the Hill.

"Definitely not," said Aaron Gibson, who shares executive director duties at the Lovette Y at 2114 Centre Ave., named for a longtime champion of the Hill District, and the 90-year-old Centre Avenue YMCA at 2621 Centre.

Board members Ann Haley and Darlene Malone wanted people in the new facility to know about the link between the two Y's. They recruited historian Ronald Saunders to help assemble an exhibit that was recently unveiled in the new building's lobby.

Information for the exhibit came from the book "A Citadel of Hope: The Centre Avenue YMCA," written by Ms. Haley's husband, Leon L. Haley.

The old Y now serves solely as a residence for more than 60 men in transition, but it was built with a mission of social and community uplift at a time when even segregated amenities would have been amenities if they had existed.

Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the vice president of Sears & Roebuck, offered grants for the uplift of black residents in 12 cities, if organizations matched his gift. The irony of his largesse is that he would have been barred from Y membership himself because he was a Jew.

The Centre Avenue Y was 13 years in the planning, including a break during World War I, as the community raised funds to match Rosenwald's grant.

The campaign raised more than $200,000 for the new four-story brick building. It had a gymnasium, pool, meeting rooms, a dining room and cafeteria and dormitory for men. The rooms accommodated local men and men who came from the South looking for work. The Y helped them live modestly until they could get on their feet.

"It was where the NAACP and other civil rights organizations held their meetings," said Ms. Haley, who, like Mr. Saunders, grew up within shouting distance of the Y.

"It was where I spent all my time in activities," Ms. Haley said.

"In other words, it was our second home," Mr. Saunders said. "I kept score changing metal plates by hand for the church basketball league. Every church had a team."

The exhibit of photos, some from the Teenie Harris archives, shows girls and boys in swimsuits, a calisthenics class, men at a 1959 fundraiser and a portrait board of the first organizing committee from the late 1800s. One of its members, Robert L. Vann, was the editor credited with putting the Pittsburgh Courier on the map as the nation's most looked-to newspaper for black perspective and news.

A group photo of the Y's women's auxiliary, the Francis Street Friendship Circle, includes Mr. Saunders' mother, Beatrice, chairman of the circle's benefit tea. The circle raised money to buy the Y its first TV set in 1950.

Mr. Saunders, a member of the African American Advisory Committee of the Heinz History Center, said the Centre Avenue Y was a social center at a time when social options were limited for black families. It was an overnight stop for numerous travelers, including musicians and speakers on tour. Another was Jackie Robinson. Baseball's great integrator couldn't crack the color line of hotels.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Centre Avenue Y had more than 1,000 members and support from people whom Mr. Haley in his book describes as "a virtual Who's Who in Pittsburgh's African-American community."

The Hill District's stability eroded with urban renewal in the 1960s. The Y's cafeteria closed in 1962. By the '80s, gang violence set the Hill and many neighborhoods on a wayward course they are still trying to correct.

By then, the pool and gymnasium were closed, because the Y could not raise the money it needed to repair and renovate them.

But when you drive past the Centre Avenue Y, you drive past a building that helped build up and strengthen a neighborhood for generations.

"People gravitate to this wall like a magnet," Mr. Gibson said of the exhibit. "Some people will see someone they know or they will learn" about the history. "With all the things this neighborhood has been through, the Centre Avenue Y has been there."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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