YMCA to pull out of Egleston

David Taber

EGLESTON SQ.— The YMCA plans to close its Egleston Square branch, operating out of the Urban Edge-owned Father Jack Roussin Community Center at 3134 Washington St., at the end of the summer dues to funding cuts.

Community members were more focused on organizing than mourning at a sparsely attended but spirited June 21 meeting at the center called by Urban Edge to discuss the impending closing. They focused on trying to convince the Y to stay, and starting to think about other ways to provide services for the community.

Prior to the meeting, Urban Edge president Mossik Hacobian said the a non-profit community development corporation hopes to find another youth-service provider to occupy the building, which is also home to the Greater Egleston Community High School.

The Greater Boston YMCA did not send any members of its administrative team to the meeting, instead relying on May Vaughn, who runs the nearby Roxbury YMCA to explain the situation to the audience of about 25 residents, advocates, public officials and young YMCA patrons. She said services for Egleston youth would be provided at the larger, better equipped Roxbury facility at 285 Martin Luther King Blvd. The Egleston branch, which Vaughn used to run, is a satellite of the Roxbury Y.

Hacobian, state Rep. Liz Malia and others vowed to press the management of the Greater Boston YMCA for a meeting to determine if there is any chance of saving the Egleston facility.

“I just want to comment that I think it’s unfortunate that the YMCA sent a [program] staff person,” Malia said early in the meeting, “It is not appropriate or fair to put everything on a staff person’s shoulders.”

Urban Edge community organizer Katie Provencher and Egleston Square Main Streets director Betsy Cowan suggested that an already existing informal coalition of non-profits and advocates involved with Egleston Square could provide a forum for strategizing about how to maintain the threatened services. [See JP Agenda.]

Vaughn was sent to the meeting with what sounded like a final verdict on the fate of the site. “We are prepared to support Egleston, but we have to vacate the space by mid-September,” she said. The closure is a result of declining state and private funding, she said.

Prior to the meeting, Greater Boston YMCA spokesperson Kelley Rice told the Gazette that declining youth interest in the facility is also a factor.

The Egleston branch does not generate any membership income, she said, because all of its youth programs are free.

Marie Turley, a JP resident and parishioner at Egleston’s St. Mary of the Angels church, said that is because the Y removed exercise equipment that members formerly paid to use. The removal of that equipment in 2005, at about the same time that Vaughn came on as director of the Egleston Y, spurred concerns at the time that the Y was pulling out.

At the recent meeting, many are concerned that the Y’s moving out will leave a gap in services, upsetting steady progress over the last two decades to turn around a neighborhood that was once marred by rampant gang violence.

“If we don’t have programming…you don’t ever know when that line is crossed” from having a safe neighborhood to an unsafe neighborhood, Malia said.

“The balance is fragile. It can disappear overnight…We haven’t had a disaster here in Egleston,” Malia said, citing the May 8 shooting death of Jaewon Martin at Southwest Corridor Park basketball court near the Bromley-Heath Housing Development and other youth shootings in her district, which includes parts of JP and Roxbury.

Hilda Guevara, a teenage Egleston Square resident and Y patron, said she would not likely go to the Roxbury Y. “Once when I walked to Roxbury, dudes threw rocks at me because I am from Egleston,” she said. “I think what is going on at this Y is very special, even though the computers are all messed up and all it has is a pool table.”

The center has been scaling back its programming for years. Its recent offerings included after school and summer programs for children ages 5-12 and a teen drop-in center, Vaughn said. This summer it will just offer the teen drop-in center—which generally attracts 15 to 20 youths a day—on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 6 to 10 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 9 p.m., she said.

“We are looking at all possibilities going forward,” Hacobian told the Gazette prior to the meeting.

The City of Boston is also currently looking for private partners to take over eight city-run community centers and other facilities, including at English High School and the Agassiz Elementary School in Jamaica Plain.

Asked if now is the best time to be looking for a private youth service provider, Hacobian said, “It may not be.”

The Y’s move into Egleston was the result of a fierce community campaign in the neighborhood.

In the early 1990s, Egleston Square was the scene of significant gang activity. Eddie Ortega, an ex-member of the local X-Men street gang, served as director of the Egleston YMCA from 1991 to 1998. Another former X-Men gang member, William Morales, took over after Ortega. William’s brother, Hector, had been gunned down in a shootout with police in the square in 1990.

Prior to the Y moving in, Urban Edge ran youth programming in Egleston, Hacobian said. Since then, other youth-oriented programs have started up in the square, including 826 Boston and Teen Empowerment. It is unlikely that Urban Edge will re-grow its own youth service programming, Hacobian said.

“I do not think we should get into an area where we don’t have the expertise and the track record,” he said.

At the meeting, at least one resident, Grace Belmont, urged the community to think bigger than just maintaining the Y. Belmont, a mother and foster mother, said she would like to see a community gathering space for families in the square.

To avoid property tax liability, Urban Edge can only house non-profits in the building, Hacobian told the Gazette. He said at the meeting that an adult day care program has expressed interest in the site. Malia noted that there are other similar services in the area, but otherwise that proposal was received without comment from the community.

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