Enough of apathy and hedonism. The children of the '80s finally have a cause.
The pool is too crowded.
"I think it's a matter of justice," says William Dent, leader of about 100 National Capital YMCA members who are rebelling against a Y decision to increase the membership from 5,000 to 6,500.
The latest battleground of the fight for justice is a sleek, slick Rhode Island Avenue building where a line of street-level windows fills the pool with a flood of natural light and provides a sort of urban balcony from which passers-by can stare down on the swimmers below. The women's locker room is outfitted with a television that's tuned to Phil Donahue each morning. Members can spend money in the pro shop and then bronze their skin in the tanning beds. A red brick and glass temple to physical perfection, the Y is filled every morning, noon and evening with the lobbyists, journalists, lawyers and other upwardly swimming types who work in the area.
And it's expensive. While senior citizens, young people and those who earn less than $14,000 a year pay $170 to $260 annually, 55 percent of the members pay $470 a year on top of a one-time $200 initiation fee. Twenty-five percent pay hundreds of dollars more.
"We say this is our Y," Dent, project coordinator at the International Development Bank, exhorted the 100 at a meeting in the aerobics room earlier this month, "but is it really?"
"Had we wanted to put something over on anyone, we would have done this in the summer," Bob Schwartzberg, director of membership, said later from the peace of his office. "We would never have held open meetings. We would never have published the information as we did."
A Y newsletter in early winter explained the planned expansion: larger weight-lifting facilities, a new lounge, and new locker rooms for women that will make room for an added 1,500 female members. But despite the newsletter's promise of "More fun, more fitness, more women members," "an incredible, new social lounge" and "Freebies Galore!," some members were still angry.
So while the membership drive gets under way, the protest continues. The swimmers and their supporters, who call their group the Members' Association for a Safe YMCA, gathered again last night to report on their progress. They have requested financial and membership information from the Y, toured the new facilities and studied the Y constitution to determine how they can influence board of directors and operations committee elections in the future.
Dent said the group hopes to suggest ways to ease new members into the facility; the association is also skeptical about the financial need for such a large increase. They expect to meet for the first time with the chairman of the operations committee that decided to expand in the first place, and next month with the operations committee itself.
"We were lulled into complacency," said Dent yesterday. "It's a very well-run facility. In the past there have been only small problems, like the chlorine level getting too high or the pool temperature not being controlled."
The current rebellion gestated in the steam and locker rooms as swimmers, runners and weight lifters painted for each other grim pictures of peak-hour crush in the lanes and track that would accompany any expansion. The place was already too crowded, they felt. The issue quickly grew beyond a simple gripe.
When the Y decided to hold a series of meetings in early January about the sort of pool management concerns that plague any health facility ("People kicking each other in the face as they swim, things like that," as one staff member put it), the membership issue quickly stole the stage. Members said the staff refused to answer questions, that members were presented with "a fait accompli," that the staff was ignoring the "peak-hour phenomenon" and the danger of overcrowding, and that administration had isolated itself from the people who support the institution financially. The staff said the members had been kept informed about decisions made by the operations committee, half of which is elected from the membership.
No one was satisfied and the Members' Association for a Safe YMCA (or the Radical Swim Party, as one swimmer with a sense of humor called it) was born. Committees were formed -- the Legal and Public Relations Committee was especially popular -- and the advisability of creating subcommittees debated. The steering committee met four times in the last two weeks. A petition was drawn up, calling for the Y to freeze the expansion process until members have a chance further to voice their opinions. But the Y said a loan of close to $1 million had already been secured to pay for the physical expansion, new members were needed to pay off the loan, the 7-year-old building was originally intended to hold 6,500 members, the commitment had been made to Adams Morgan and the decision was final.
A soft-spoken man who talks his way through detailed outlines of "goals" and "objectives" with a tentativeness that says he never thought of himself as an activist, William Dent repeated again and again his desire for "dialogue," but when Y Executive Director Herman Gohn told him last week that the petition could be posted but not passed within the building, even Dent began to sound a little less conciliatory.
"It's more than just this particular issue," Dent said. "It's a broader issue of this becoming a more democratic institution in a democratic society."
Last night, the 60 or so people who attended the meeting seemed to draw amusement and strength from what they see as Gohn's lack of cooperation. The straight-backed executive director (replaced at this meeting by a more jovial and flexible Schwartzberg), had become, at least temporarily, a galvanizing figure. Smiling, Dent said, "I passed his word along, but the general consensus is we are members and we can talk to other members and if we feel they're sympathetic to our cause, we can surely pass them a piece of paper."
The group laughed appreciatively.
So far, 500 people have signed the petition.
At a Y where one-third of the members are lawyers, no was surprised when weeks ago people started muttering about "legal action."
"It could only happen in Washington," said Gohn. "Some people may organize protests and sign a petition, but here -- and I'm not only talking about the Y -- every answer is 'Let's litigate.' "
The level of fury and hyperbole may surprise some, but they don't understand the National Capital Y, the flagship of the 12-branch Metropolitan YMCA organization. One member described it as "the country club of YMCAs." As swimmer, professional opera singer and public relations consultant for the American Academy of Actuaries Erich Parker put it, "This is not the kind of Y I grew up with: a meeting place for kids to play basketball and hang out. It's more the premier health facility of the city."
And as such, breeds certain expectations.
"I want to come out of the pool feeling unfettered with the world's cares," said Parker. "I really believe after this expansion, I'm going to come out of the pool feeling more frustrated than when I dove into it. I'm not there to wring my hands, gird my loins and battle other swimmers, thank you very much."
That's an attitude some at the Y find disturbing.
When several members of the audience at a recent meeting accused the operations committee, which is composed of six members appointed by the board and six elected by the members, of being isolated from the membership, Gohn replied sternly that a year ago only one member expressed interest in running for the committee, and that he had to spend $4,000 in mailings to solicit candidates. Gohn also pointed out that profits realized from increased membership will be used to fund a variety of community services in Adams Morgan.
"I'm amazed to be in this room tonight with this size crowd," said Gohn. "We have not been able to evoke this response on any other issue. Membership interest has been very low in youth activities, in the food for the hungry drive we have at Christmas. I don't know what this signifies."
The remark was not well received.
"Making people feel guilty about social service has nothing to do with packing the facility!" replied a vehement young man wearing the dissident members' requisite uniform of button-down shirt and wet-from-the-pool hair. He was rewarded with vigorous applause from the crowd.
The guilt-of-the-upper-middle-class tactic was, Parker said, "a smoke screen." Dent is quick to inform questioners, "I'm a secretary of my neighborhood association in Adams Morgan," and adds he thinks the Y has not been active enough in recruiting members for community service.
Membership Director Schwartzberg admits, "One of our biggest problems is our neglecting to be committed to educating our own members."
Gohn has told the swimmers he's never seen anything like the current furor in his "24 years in the business."
"We know 30 percent of our members are lawyers," said Schwartzberg, and he began to laugh as if describing the amusing if sometimes challenging idyosyncracy of a family member. "That gives you a different kind of population. It's a highly educated membership. They happen to have very high expectations. They make high demands on themselves and they make high demands on everyone else."