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ONTIVEROS: The heartbreaking loss of the South Chicago YMCA

Youths play basketball on a day in September in the gym of the South Chicago YMCA at 3039 E. 91st St., which will shut its doors Oct. 31, due to budget constraints. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

It makes me sad that two of my favorite things are no longer going to be together.

And what’s heartbreaking is one sure needs the other. But despite that, economic realities are driving a breakup.

I’m talking about the YMCA and South Chicago, the neighborhood of my youth.


The YMCA of Metro Chicago recently announced it would close its fitness facility in the Southeast Side community. (Senior housing as well as Youth Safety and Violence Prevention, a popular anti-violence program, will remain.)

The South Chicago Y has been in operation for more than 90 years, making it one of the longest-operating YMCA branches in the city. The Y, a branch of the Chicago Public Library and SkyArt, a free visual art center for kids and teens, are all clustered together. Nice community anchor.

Generations of Southeast Siders learned to swim at the South Chicago Y and belonged to the swim teams. Boxing was big there, too. This was a busy place.

But times changed. Membership at the South Chicago Y has been decreasing steadily, with a 35 percent decline over the last four years. In a community struggling economically, a fitness membership isn’t always in a family’s budget. If South Chicago were thriving, the Y branch there still would be, too.

Enrollment in the Head Start and after-school programs housed there have gone down as well. Although capital improvements have been completed at this location – nearly $700,000 in capital improvements over the last six years, according to YMCA figures – it is an old building in need of renovations estimated to cost upward of $3 million.

I like the YMCA, how membership is possible for kids and adults with limited financial resources. My family has belonged to the Y in our North Side community for 25 years. So I understand how the people who still use the South Chicago Y are feeling about its impending closure.

Theirs is the lone indoor pool in the community, and the seniors hate losing that, according to Danielle Richards, CAPS beat facilitator for the area that includes the Y. These are people who walk or rely on public transportation, so getting to the South Side Y, the next nearest YMCA facility, won’t be easy. However, the YMCA does plan a once-a-week shuttle there for the seniors who live at the South Chicago facility.

Richards says she’s particularly concerned about the young people who rely on the Y as a safe haven, primarily playing basketball there instead of hanging out on the streets. The YMCA has said basketball still will be available to youth through the anti-violence initiative. I hope that will be enough.

Still, Richards is involved with others – working as Concerned Citizens To Keep The South Chicago YMCA – who’ve launched a petition drive.  Businesses along Commercial Avenue, the area’s main shopping strip, have the petition and people are out seeking signatures. The petition also can be signed online (https://www.thepetitionsite.com/993/365/989/save-the-south-chicago-ymca/?taf_id=42864853&cid=fb_na#bbfb=676656681).

The plan is to take the petition to their alderman with the hopes they’ll be able to broker a meeting with YMCA officials and somehow salvage some programs.

It’s a long shot, that’s for sure; yet understandable. The Southeast Side, an economic powerhouse when the steel mills operated there, has been struggling to revitalize itself. Losing a positive anchor like the YMCA hurts.

Yet one can see how the YMCA came to this decision.

The whole situation is just sad.

Email: sueontiveros.cst@gmail.com

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.