Bronzeville YMCA wrestles with changing neighborhood

Stacey Posternack, a single mom of two daughters ages nine and 10, says she is at peace when her kids are attending programs at the Bronzeville YMCA.

 “I know where they are at,” says Posternack, who lives at 42nd and Wabash. “Safe and happy, and they’re learning to be with people and have social skills.”

Other parents of children attending services at the Bronzeville YMCA share Posternack’s sentiments. The 96-year-old institution’s fate is in doubt, however, as it struggles to keep up with the area’s changing demographics.

The neighborhood’s population has steadily eroded over the years.  Residents fear the city's 2016 Olympic bid will spark spark gentrification and drive away low- and moderate-income Bronzeville natives.

 The YMCA, 3764 S. Wabash, opened in 1913, in the midst of the Great Migration, the exodus of some seven million African Americans in the oppressive South to the perceived greener pastures of the North, the Midwest and the West.

Many settled in Chicago for jobs, encountering housing discrimination forcing them to live in one of several communities, Bronzeville – named after people with brown skin being one.

 The Bronzeville YMCA was founded by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The building at 3763 Wabash Ave., was designed by Robert C. Berlin and in 1945 it was expanded to 101 rooms for single, low-income adults.

In 1986, the building was recognized as part of the National Register of Historic Places. In 1998 it was designated as a historic landmark, according to city planning records. Financing for the building came from Julius Rosenwald, the chairman of Sears Roebuck and Co.

William Edouard Scott’s famous 1936 mural is on display in a second-floor space that was once served as a ballroom.

The space, now home to the Y's after-school program, still draws people together to this day.

YMCA officials note that parents who have moved out of Bronzeville still send their kids to participate in the locations after school programs.

 “It's more of a family atmosphere than a corporate atmosphere,” says Anthony Barnes, the after-school program director.

The organization is also doing more outreach.

 The School Age Child Care Program, which is licensed for 71 students, currently has 58 students enrolled. They range between the ages of five and 12 and come from 10 city public schools.

In the program, children get time for play, snacks and homework. Recreational options include time in the gym, computer lab and pool.

 The program is in a federal empowerment zone and receives some funding from the federal government. Parents pay fees on a sliding scale.

 Working parents say they are pleased that the program also provides free bus pickups for local schools.

 The swimming pool at the Bronzeville Y is also a big draw. Pools were so popular in the 1930s, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Defender featured YMCA swimming news.

 However, the Y"s popularity faded after that, and it closed in 1981.

 It was refurbished and reopened to the public in the 1990s.

Today the Wabash YMCA continues to offer swimming lessons to area children of any skill level. Angelic Graves, the director at the Wabash Street YMCA, is trying to bring back more programs to the location.

"They had been stopped for a few years because there wasn't any demand," Graves says. "Now we're trying to do more community outreach at our YMCA."

Bringing back the Y is important to residents in an area going through some momentous changes.

"I think it will regain its important position as an organizing center," says Timuel Black, a Bronzeville historian and educator. "It will be not just a historic place, but a functional place."