A lot has changed in the world since Bowen, who bought his freedom for $425 and settled in Washington, set out to serve the Shaw community. But the goals of the institution remain the same, says Janice Williams, senior vice president of program development for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.
People still need places to meet, educate children and learn ways to improve their well-being. That’s what this “YMCA of the new age,” as Williams calls it, can accomplish, while serving as a model for how urban YMCAs can operate in the future.
Even from the outside, it’s impossible to miss the results of the modern makeover. The former building on that site, which housed the YMCA Anthony Bowen between 1988 and 2008, took up just a third of the block and offered practically no fitness options. “We had half a pool,” jokes board member Sheila Shears, who notes that over time, the center was used almost exclusively for day care.
Anyone stepping up to the front door now is greeted by a multi-use development that takes advantage of every square foot of space. Towering above the YMCA is an apartment complex, with several units that will look out over those roof-terrace yoga classes. A branch of Sweetgreen, the homegrown salad chain, is next door. With no wall separating it from the YMCA’s lobby, it’ll be even easier for visitors to grab greens after a workout.
“We’ve come a long way, baby,” says Shears, who’s thrilled that the Y is finally primed to open after a lengthy construction process.
Charter members on that sneak-peek tour started in the lounge area, which features comfy seating around a fireplace. That’s where Williams wants people to continue the tradition of discussing ideas. “The YMCA was one of the first places to introduce a library,” she says. This space, where people can curl up with a book or debate a friend, helps continue that tradition.
Delve deeper inside and you’ll find a sea of cardio equipment — ellipticals, bikes and treadmills (including a few from Woodway with super shock absorption). Most of the machines have individual screens to watch TV, but hopefully some folks will look up to appreciate the wall mural, which was created by board member Andy Shallal.
Shallal, whose artwork is also featured prominently in his nearby restaurant Busboys and Poets, thought it was fitting that the Anacostia and Potomac rivers form a “Y” shape. So he used an image of the waterways as his focal point.
“The rivers have divided us economically and racially. The Y can be a galvanizing force that brings people of different backgrounds together,” he says. “It was important to put something up there that reminds people this isn’t just an exercise place. It’s a community center.”
But there are certainly a lot of ways to exercise. On the other side of a glass wall beyond the cardio equipment is the swimming pool, which will host lessons and water aerobics. That’s next to the 28-foot-high rock-climbing wall, which will be used for parties, open climbing and even personal training sessions.
“I want to try that,” said charter member Denise Naguib, who was on the tour with her husband, Samir Mina. The 38-year-olds have been watching the demolition and construction progress closely from their condo across the street, and they’re thrilled it’s opening just in time for another new arrival: their baby. “For the next eight weeks, until I deliver, swimming is the best exercise,” Naguib says. (But she vows to get on that wall soon.)
The tour continued through two weight equipment circuits, spa-like locker rooms featuring single-sex saunas and steam rooms, and a trio of class spaces.
Regional director of group exercise programming Angela Meyer says members can expect instruction every morning, noon and night in the 37-bike cycling room, the mind-body studio and the main studio that’s stocked with boxing equipment, kettlebells and an array of other weights and props.
“There’s something for everyone, whether you want to hit a heavy bag, take Zumba or do aerial yoga,” says Meyer, who notes that the Y will be the first gym in the District to try the high-intensity interval training of the Les Mills Grit Series.
Down a flight of stairs is a slightly cramped free-weight area, the only stop on the tour that didn’t elicit any oohs or ahhs. But jaws dropped over the demonstration kitchen, where the YMCA will hold healthful cooking classes for adults and kids. The moms and dads seemed to be salivating even more over the child-care area. The Y offers supervision for children as young as 18 months while their parents are exercising, and the Y’s Cool Kids Club offers special organized activities for ages 4-12.
“We’re developing healthy habits for life because children become the Pied Pipers of families,” says Williams, noting that a formal preschool program will launch in January.
It’ll be a while before Latoya Lacy’s 2-month-old son will be participating, but the 22-year-old can’t wait to have him follow in her footsteps. She spent her childhood running around the former YMCA Anthony Bowen building. “Now I have a baby, and he can experience it,” she says
And so will many more generations to come, Williams promises.
“The work at the YMCA is one that won’t stop,” she says.
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Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.