Southwest Pride

The YMCA overlooking Clark Park was an attractive abandoned building in Southwest Detroit's Mexicantown area that I have waited over a decade to see the inside of. It has always been kept pretty well secured, and on the few occasions when it was cracked open it was quickly sealed back up.


So I was pretty pleased when a colleague informed me that it was actually open. In fact when I went back to take these exterior photos, I discovered that the building was completely re-boarded, and several trees were cut down.


The frieze over the entrance has the words "MIND, BODY, SPIRIT," and features icons of sporting and of learning surrounding two figures holding a torch and a coat of arms that includes a triangle design and an open book, which appears to be superimposed over the letters "P" and "X."


There is also the Latin word "VERITAS," which means "truth," and the Roman numerals MCMXXVII, which stands for the year 1927, when this structure was built. The other entrance is labeled as the "Mens' Entrance," and features the same frieze above it:


I suspected the architect of the building might have been Marcus Burrowes, who designed some of the similar-looking structures across the street in Clark Park, and who also designed a few other YMCAs in the city. However, this one was actually the work of Malcomson & Higginbotham, who were the architects of record for many of the Detroit Public Schools.

Here is the triangle motif again, seen in a terra-cotta medallion higher up on the building's facade:


This triangle kept reappearing in various places throughout the building as you will see, including on plaster ornamentation and tile designs.


Climbing the stairs, I suddenly detected that the noise of a running generator was not in fact from one of the houses across the alley as I had assumed, but might actually be coming from inside the building. I crept up to this window and across the courtyard I suddenly saw the bobbing of hardhats moving in the gymnasium...there were people in here working.


I cursed myself for being complacent and not making a full circle of the building before entering, like I usually do. I paused for awhile, listening, deciding whether to leave or wait them out. I decided not to risk being sealed inside the building (in case they noticed the missing board I came in through), and I returned that evening to finish what I had started. It was good that we moved on it when we had the chance, because the building was sealed up the very next day.


The building is currently listed for sale at $3 million (which comes to $33.33 per square foot). Not bad, considering real estate speculator Dennis Kefallinos paid just $450,000 for it in the early 2000s, and has let it steadily decay since then.

In a discussion thread about the YMCA on atdetroit.net back in March 2007, user Southwestmap quoted an excerpt from a recent letter by a Hubbard Farms resident that outlined some of the issues with the building under the ownership of Mr. Kefallinos. Kefallinos is considered one of Detroit's worst slumlords, who owned Niki's Pizza in Greektown, Niki's Lofts, and the Lafayette Lofts, the Iron Steel Lofts on Mt. Elliott & Atwater, the Brooklyn Lofts, the Michigan Building, and, notably, the Russell Industrial Center (which just was in the news about major fire code violations).


The letter said that community leaders in Southwest Detroit supported Kefallinos' purchase of the YMCA building because he promised he would renovate it as a residential loft development, while keeping the gymnasium, pool, handball court, and meeting rooms open to community use. Apparently Kefallinos also wined & dined an entourage of Southwest community representatives at one of his restaurants to help "seal the deal."

However, Mr. Kefallinos never produced a development plan or financing plan for the project, never did any work on the building, and didn't even keep the exterior maintained. Graffiti and weeds accumulated, many windows were broken or left open to the elements, and the building began to decay and become an "eyesore." To his credit, the building has at least been kept fairly secure, although this was probably as much due to watchful neighbors as it was to anything else (it held me at bay for at least a decade, which is saying something).


When Kefallinos purchased the building it was still occupied and in use by the YMCA, but they "eventually stopped servicing the neighborhood and closed up shop," the letter said, claiming that this was a trend in many other inner city neighborhoods as well. But at least the building was well maintained when the YMCA controlled it the writer argued, unlike Mr. Kefallinos' neglect, which has made it a blight and a burden on the efforts of the community to keep Southwest thriving.

Another user, Barnesfoto, said that when this YMCA was getting ready to close, its board members tried to do "a backroom deal" to transfer ownership of the building to Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, without any community input on the move. Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries controlled a number of "poorly run" treatment centers for drug addicts, but locals found out and swarmed a couple of meetings, fending off another attempt at what they called "the Cass-Corridorization" of Southwest Detroit. By comparison, selling the building to Kefallinos seemed like a positive step at the time.


A 2016 article at crainsdetroit.com told of recent efforts by Southwest Housing Solutions' Vista Partnership to redevelop long-vacant buildings in Mexicantown "as part of a larger redevelopment plan." One spokesperson quoted in the article complained that "People buy and sit on this stuff for four or five years," and added that "the owners of the former YMCA at Clark Park and the Service Tire building would be in that group"—although I might add that the YMCA and Service Tire have been sat on for decades, not four or five years. Service Tire is one of the buildings along Vernor behind the Michigan Central Station, near the Geodesic Dome House.

Funded primarily through grants from foundations such as the Skillman Foundation, Southwest Housing Solutions' Vista Partnership "seeks to engage local residents, organizations, public-sector partners and businesses to revitalize a southwest Detroit neighborhood with economic opportunity and social equity." Vista's first project was the former St. Anthony's Church at Vernor & 25th Street, which it redeveloped in 2013 as a community center for fitness, recreational use, and corporate meetings. Southwest Housing Solutions is also based in the church.


Incidentally there was a book written about the history of Detroit's YMCAs, entitled One Hundred Years with Youth: The Story of the Detroit YMCA 1852-1952, by Adolf G. Studer. In the beginning, Studer writes, there was only one YMCA in Detroit, the big "Downtown YMCA" that used to stand where Comerica Park is now. As Detroit's population surged and sprawled, more branches in the city's neighborhoods were called for. The first one was the "Northern Branch" in Highland Park, which was opened in 1916.

The "Western Branch" came next, and got its start in April 1919, located at 532 (1732) Scotten Avenue—which would've been the corner of Vernor, on the other side of Clark Park from this building). Dennis F. Strong was its Executive Secretary, and the Committee of Management consisted of W.H. Roberts, W.S. Gibson, A.D. Green, Norman Hammond, J.A. Peters, E.H. Porter, E.W. Roberts, W.R. Smith, C.L. Stafford, and Dr. F.D.B. Waltz.


The Western Branch was located in the heart of Southwest Detroit, which was a tight-knit mix of houses, factories, churches, and parks, and home to 178,000 people back then. Clark Park was of course the biggest park in Southwest, serving as this area's version of Manhattan's Central Park. The various schools, factories, and churches had organized baseball leagues and there were summer camps, hikes, and other organized recreation going on as well.

The Western YMCA carried on this work as a community organization, and brought all operations into this building when it opened on April 15, 1928. It cost $750,000 to build, and was completely funded by Edsel Ford (son of Henry Ford) and his wife Eleanor. One of the speakers at the dedication was Charles P. Taft II (son of President Taft), who came all the way from Cincinnati. The Hannan Memorial YMCA on East Jefferson Avenue was scheduled to open a month later.


Another article said that James E. Maxwell was chosen as the head of this new YMCA, after running the Indianapolis Central YMCA since 1920. There were also two YWCA "residences" for young women in this area around the same time, at 758 Hubbard, and 747 Vinewood, according to Detroit historian Clarence M. Burton, although neither of them still stands today.


The typical local YMCA supported sports clubs and sporting events of every kind, social clubs, drama clubs, as well as counseling and educational classes on everything from marriage to lip-reading. They are probably best known for their free swimming lessons however, as seen in this coupon below, which appeared in the local newspapers for many years as part of the YMCA's campaign “to teach every man and boy in North America” to swim:

Image from Newspapers.com
There were many "black" YMCAs built across America in 1910. They provided clean, safe dormitory and dining facilities, "which were a boon to black travelers, especially servicemen, in a segregated and discriminatory era." Notice the bottom of the coupon, where it says that all "coloreds" must go to the St. Antoine Branch YMCA for swimming lessons.


Another look out over the courtyard:


The stairway design was almost identical to the one from the Hannan Memorial YMCA on the city's east side. Although they do not share an architect, the YMCAs across the city do have a few basic similarities in common.


Narrow, winding hallways defined the residential floors:


This represents a typical residential room...


...pretty spartan, and pretty small.


A communal bathroom is seen in the next photo; there were a couple of these for each residential floor of the building:


According to local history author Richard Bak, Clark Park itself was named after John P. Clark, owner of a prominent shipyard at the foot of the street now named in his honor. It used to be part of a ribbon farm that went from the Detroit River all the way up to what is now Tireman Avenue.

When Mr. Clark died in 1878, his will left half of a 46-acre tract known as "Clark Grove" to the city, provided the city purchase the other half from his heirs. City officials grumbled about the cost of the "gift," but it has proven to be an indispensable asset to the community. I can vouch for the fact that this area was already being built up with many middle-class Victorian homes in the 1870s when Mr. Clark's land came into municipal hands, and a large park was needed.


Clark Park opened in 1890 and served as an urban oasis for 101 years, until it closed in 1991 due to the city's ongoing financial crunches. Crime and gang violence thrived in Clark Park, giving it an infamous reputation for murder that stretched all the way to the suburbs. In fact the park is where the Insane Clown Posse (ICP) claim to have gotten their start, and references to the park appear in the lyrics of their songs "I Found A Body," "Santa Killers," and "Dog Beats."

You can see part of the park to the left in this next photo; the rest of the view from the building is blocked by trees:


The all-volunteer Clark Park Coalition was soon formed by the neighborhood to partner with the Detroit Recreation Department to reopen Clark Park. An article at freep.com said that they "enlisted the help of former Detroit Tiger Hank Aguirre, who had the clout to call then-Mayor Coleman Young." It was Aguirre who convinced the mayor to "let the neighbors run the park," and naturally, famed local musician Jack White made large funding donations as well. The Clark Park Coalition restored this area as a jewel of the city, and have continued to maintain it ever since.

Across the rooftops of Clark Street, in this view to the south you can clearly see buildings in Canada and a bit of the Detroit River, not to mention the well known Boblo Terminal at the Port of Detroit (behind the Maybury School).


The water damage on the top floor of the building was pretty bad, but not irreparable:


We made our way back down to the first floor again to explore it further.


It sure seemed like there were a lot of these big fancy meeting rooms on the first floor, with nice plaster details and beautifully tiled fireplaces.


This brick fireplace featured many Pewabic tile insets, which are hard to see because I had such a tough time getting a decent shot of it with the glare from the windows:


This next room struck me as being similar to a Masonic lodge room, so I assumed it to be one of the club rooms where benevolent fraternal organizations would have met. Articles and other notices I pulled out of Detroit Free Press issues from the 1940s showed that there was a Kiwanis Club here in the 1940s, and the Exchangites were active here as well; the Southwest Exchange Club resided in this building for many years.


As a matter of fact, the first-ever Exchange Club was founded here in Detroit in 1911 by Charles A. Berkey. He chose the name “Exchange” because the group wanted to "exchange ideas and information with like-minded individuals about how to better serve their communities." Over the next couple years more clubs were founded in Grand Rapids, Toledo, and Cleveland by the time the National Exchange Club was organized as a nonprofit in 1917.

Exchange clubs typically sponsor programs on Americanism, youth, and community service, and child abuse prevention. They provide "college scholarships, youth mentoring, service to the underprivileged, and other services tailored to serve the needs of its citizens." Interesting fact: the National Exchange Club was among the organizations that fought for the addition of the words “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954...which in my opinion goes against our Constitutional separation of church and state, but there you have it.


The brick fireplace in this room had more Pewabic tile insets. Here is that triangle motif again, which appeared over the main doors to the building...


...As it turns out, the triangle was the symbol of the YMCA back then, before they went to the "Y"-shaped symbol we know today, which if you look at it closely, still incorporates the triangle into the design. The three sides of the triangle corresponded to the three points identified on the frieze sculpture above the entrance: Mind, Body, and Spirit.


During the depths of Southwest Detroit's gang problem in the 1990s, this YMCA became a haven for those youths who wanted to resist the allure of gang life. Former gang members met there to lend support to one another in their personal quest to exit the gang life, and even non-gang members who sought to resist the pressures to join a gang were here too.


They sat in the basement of the YMCA "snapping gum, giggling," and comparing war stories. Nearly all of them had recently been to the funeral of a friend or loved one killed by gang violence, and some of them admitted to even still being members of one of the 50 or so gangs that haunted the Southwest side in the 1990s.

This was a place for them to hang out, but these kids chose to hang out here instead of in the usual gang circles because they all eventually wanted more of a future for themselves in life than what could be had on the streets. 


One important point that these mostly Latino kids were here to both internalize and to broadcast to the outside world was that despite the fact that one in eight kids in Southwest was in a gang, seven in eight were not. A stereotype that I personally remember from my high school years in the 1990s was that being Latino, being from Southwest, and being in a gang were all considered pretty much the same thing by outsiders, media, and cops.


A girl in the group summed this up neatly by describing her experience going to the suburban malls:
Every time you walk down the street, the only thing anyone says is 'Who you down with?'...I just get so sick and tired of it. You go out to the malls, they see you're Latina, that's all they say to you. Why don't they say "What's your name?' instead?"

Part of the reason blamed for the explosion of gangs in Southwest Detroit after 1989 was that the Fisher Body Fleetwood Plant closed, and the Clark Street Cadillac plant was reduced to one shift and was slated to close, meaning that there were a lot fewer viable economic opportunities for teenagers to aspire to as an alternative to street life. "Wherever there are bright, angry kids in a poor area, even one event can trigger the creation of gangs, or, conversely, eliminate them," Janet Wilson wrote.


The YMCA also hosted the Southwest Detroit Youth Assistance Program in the 1990s, which was designed to offer 10-16 year olds after-school counseling, tutoring, and recreation, as well as summer programming.




Next to the gym was this weightlifting room:


Up on top was the running track, just like at the Hannan Memorial YMCA.




In the dark of the first floor I saw this tile water fountain:


Unfortunately we left for the day without checking the basement of the building, which is where the swimming pool was located. Oh well, hopefully this neighborhood landmark will be reopened soon for the benefit of the public again.


Southwest, Mexicantown, and Clark Park somehow went from being one known as one of the most dangerous and gang-ridden areas of Detroit, to become one of the most often cited examples of neighborhood pride and how an enclave can stand strong against economic recession and encroaching blight from all sides. It somehow survived mostly intact while the rest of Detroit crumbled around it. I see no reason why this building shouldn't be reopened in the next couple years.


References:
Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 1, Sheet 77 & 98 (c.1921)
One Hundred Years with Youth: The Story of the Detroit YMCA 1852-1952, by Adolf G. Studer, p. 35, 180
History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit, Michigan, Vol. II, by Clarence M. Burton, p. 900 & 903
Detroit: A Postcard History, by Richard Bak, p. 84
"Indianapolis Man Heads Western YMCA," Detroit Free Press, November 16, 1927, p. 5
"New YMCA Branch Opens Doors Today," Detroit Free Press, April 15, 1928, pt. 6, pg. 1
"Lip Reading Classes Continue at YMCA," Detroit Free Press, January 6, 1935, pt. 3, pg. 8
"What's Doing Today in Detroit," Detroit Free Press, April 18, 1940, p. 15
"Detroit Today," Detroit Free Press, October 14, 1941, p. 17
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, May 4 1936, p. 18
"Teenagers Challenge One Another to Change, Survive," Detroit Free Press, March 28, 1993, p. 5F
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, May 4 1936
https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/mep/displaydoc.cfm?docid=erpn-chataf
http://signatureassociates.catylist.com/listing/5899454/1601-Clark-Street-Detroit-MI-48209
http://www.atdetroit.net/forum/messages/91697/97305.html?1174688675
http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20160109/NEWS/301109998/vacant-mexicantown-buildings-part-of-larger-area-redevelopment-plan
http://www.hourdetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/June-2013/Clark-Park-1905/

1 comment:

  1. Some YMCAs now rent out rooms to travellers. That spartan room looks pretty similar to the one I stayed at in Harlem (the one in Berkeley CA was slightly bigger)

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