An article in Sunday's editions incorrectly described Dr. W. Montague Cobb as the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Cobb still is the NAACP president.
Just 10 blocks apart in Northwest Washington, the imposing downtown YMCA and the now-closed Anthony Bowen YMCA--buildings whose roots date to segregation--have suddenly become powerful symbols in a sharp debate over how well the Young Men's Christian Association is fulfilling its mission in the District of Columbia.
Much of the bitterness that began with the abrupt closing Feb. 23 of Bowen, the first black YMCA in America, arises from strongly felt arguments by opposing sides who see Washington's two YMCAs through different eyes.
Many neighborhood opponents of the Bowen closing see the buildings as separate and unequal facilities: downtown as a well-funded club for the well-to-do, mostly white, professional class, and Bowen as a sorely neglected black landmark and a community resource for a poorer constituency whose youth badly need the wholesome activities the Y offers.
YMCA officials, however, see it differently. To them, the new downtown Y is a vibrant symbol of its commitment to a city that many businesses and organizations have abandoned.
Further, they see the downtown facility as the YMCA's prime source of money to help enable the construction of a new Bowen building and a renewed effort to serve all the city's youngsters following the closing of Bowen, which the YMCA saw more as a dying financial liability than a living community resource.
The Metropolitan Washington YMCA, a nonprofit tax-exempt corporation with a $6 million yearly budget, employs some 700 persons in a broad range of programs that serve nearly 200,000 persons through 11 branches. At its two District chapters, the contrast in facilities is stark:
The $5.3 million downtown YMCA at 17th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, formally called the National Capital YMCA and opened in 1978, offers a gleaming athletic center with an Olympic-size swimming pool, indoor gymnasium, handball, racquet ball, squash, sauna, steambath, whirlpool and more.
The only membership currently available costs $676 a year, plus a $250 initiation fee. Persons earning less than $14,000 yearly can get reduced rate memberships, but can use the facility only after 7 p.m. With rare exceptions, youngsters are not allowed there, except on weekends with parents.
Nearby, in Shaw, the grimy Bowen YMCA at 12th and T streets, built in 1911, offered little more than a creaky gymnasium and drafty meeting rooms in a rundown building of questionable safety.
Youngsters used Bowen for free, but there was little to use. The swimming pool closed 20 years ago. The upstairs floors with 32 dormitory rooms were sealed off 10 years ago, then finally the building itself was closed. The Board of Directors of the Metropolitan YMCA voted 19 to 1 to close it immediately because of safety and fire code violations.
A growing chorus of community groups, including the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, have issued strong statements calling for the YMCA to reconsider. Mayor Marion Barry, following a turbulent meeting Friday, appointed Sterling Tucker, former City Council chairman, to try to find a solution.
William H. Rumsey, director of the D.C. Recreation Department, is chairman of Bowen's management committee and was the YMCA board's lone opponent of the closing. He describes the Bowen shutdown as an unjustified affront that has reopened deep wounds in the black community.
"Whether it is real or imagined, people still speak in terms of the downtown YMCA being out of reach of the black neighborhood," said Rumsey, "Then they see Bowen, rich in the history of survival, of the days when no hotels would allow blacks and people went to Bowen . . . . It's like the Bastille of the black community."
Dr. W. Montague Cobb, the 77-year-old former national president of the NAACP, in a letter this week to City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, said the closing was "arrogant and presumptuous in the extreme, and may mildly be termed bigoted and irresponsible."
Cobb devoted a chapter of his unpublished 1952 memoirs to Bowen, then called the 12th Street Y. He recalled the opening day in 1912 when he was 8 and his father bought him a membership:
"It seemed unbelievable that all the shiny new apparatus and equipment was there for any of us to use freely . . . small boys dashed madly about in a frenzy of joy, trying to use everything at once." It was the first time he had ever seen a swimming pool.
Thomas B. Hargrave Jr., president of the Metropolitan YMCA, had warned the YMCA board before its Feb. 23 vote that closing Bowen might provoke strong community opposition. And indeed, Hargrave said in an interview, "emotional flag-waving" by Bowen supporters like Rumsey has created misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the YMCA's intentions.
Hargrave, who is black and noted that one-quarter of the YMCA board is black, said he is tired of hearing descriptions of the downtown Y as an "elitist status symbol."
While young white professionals are the majority of downtown Y members, they are also the key force is broadening YMCA offerings to the black community, he said.
Downtown members have contributed more than $200,000 in two years in a "Partnership with Youth" program that funds inner-city programs, he said, while they have also volunteered considerable time and talent to broaden YMCA offerings for youth.
The Rev. David H. Eaton, 48, president of the D.C. Board of Education and a YMCA board member, also used Bowen as a child, but he voted to close it and agrees with Hargrave that the symbolism has provoked overreaction.
"I don't see it as a critical loss to the neighborhood," Eaton said, because all the YMCA programs can be relocated. The prime concern, he said, was safety, and board members would have been criminally negligent to have kept it open.
Hargrave also describes the community outrage over Bowen as too little and too late. Since 1967, he said, the YMCA sought money to rebuild Bowen "but there was not enough interest in the white or black community . . . . You look at the facts and you see a decline of interest by the community and by the Bowen management committee, and all you are left with is a symbol."
In 1973, the entire Metropolitan YMCA faced bankruptcy largely because of the badly deteriorating conditions in its two buildings--Bowen and the former downtown YMCA at 18th and G streets, which did not admit blacks as members until 1960.
Previous fund drives had flopped, raising less than $1 million and forcing the YMCA to choose which facility should be rebuilt. The board decided the larger downtown Y was crucial to institutional survival and postponed plans to rebuild Bowen.
Shaw neighborhood fears now hinge on three points: losing a historic building, losing programs for youngsters and losing the local chapter, which might be rebuilt in another neighborhood, depending on the results of an ongoing YMCA search for a new Bowen site.
Complicating the problem, Hargrave and Rumsey have bitterly attacked each other personally, and publicly have disagreed strongly on whether the Bowen building can be saved, how much it would cost and where the new Bowen should be.
Rumsey and Andrew Bryant, an architect on Bowen's board, estimate that as little as $5,000 could correct the problems temporarily. Hargrave and an architect on his board, Marion Johnson, said $100,000 in repairs would still leave the building dangerous.
Because of costs, the YMCA has suggested restoring Bowen may not be feasible. YMCA engineers have estimated rebuilding would cost $3.5 million, compared to $2.5 million to build an entirely new center, Hargrave said.
In addition, Hargrave said the YMCA believes Shaw may not be the best site for a new Y because in the next two decades, Shaw may be destined to become an area of young professionals, most of them white, with few or no children. If that occurs, he said, Shaw would be an unlikely site for a new YMCA aimed at serving children from diverse backgrounds including poor and single-parent families.
But council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), who represents the neighborhood, said such reasoning punishes Shaw. By removing an important black institution, Clarke argues, the YMCA would itself hasten the decline of Shaw as a black neighborhood.
Rumsey and others support rebuilding Bowen on its present site, or building nearby and preserving the building for other uses. The YMCA, however, has been noncommital about the future of the structure.
In 1976, the YMCA had unsuccessfully opposed Bowen's designation as a historic landmark because it would complicate possible future plans to dispose of the building.
Shaw activists say this move by the YMCA indicates it wants to make money selling the building and then leave Shaw. Hargrave, acknowledging that the YMCA opposed the historic designation, would not comment on that charge.
The specifics of Bowen's history adds more fuel to the controversy. Not only did it house the first black Y chapter, founded in 1853 by Bowen, a freed slave, but it also was the product of an unprecedented black community fund-raising effort in the early 1900s, according to Vincent DeForest, a historian with the Afro-American Institute for Historic Preservation and Community Development Inc. DeForest researched the history when Bowen was officially designated as a historic site by the District.
At the initial meeting last Wednesday of a 50-member Shaw area committee to save Bowen, DeForest sketched the history of a years-long fund-raising drive that netted by 1910 the then-astronomical sum of $27,000.
That money was matched by contributions from John D. Rockefeller and Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears Roebuck & Co., who gave $25,000 at the urging of a member of the white YMCA, President William Howard Taft.
The 12th Street Y building, named for Bowen in 1972, was originally designed by Sidney Pittman, one of country's first black architects who won the commission partly through the influence of his father-in-law, Booker T. Washington.
More recently, Bowen has been a place that many black Washingtonians remember as a cultural and sports center of their youth, where basketball legends like Elgin Baylor played pickup ball and where prominent visitors like poet-playwright Langston Hughes lodged during segregation.
Because of the original neighborhood fund drive and because of the decades of Bowen's presence in Shaw, neighborhood activists suggest the facility really belongs to the community and not the YMCA.
Therefore, some of them briefly considered occupying the building Wednesday, a suggestion quickly scotched by former assistant D.C. Police Chief Tilmon O'Bryant, a Bowen board member who said the gesture would accomplish little more than getting arrested.
In the last few years, the Shaw-based Bowen chapter had branched out heavily into adult-oriented extension courses, costing from $20 to $40 each and ranging from aerobics to yoga at sites in Capitol Hill, Georgetown and elsewhere in Northwest.
But at Bowen itself, programs for youth shrank. In just the last year, the 12-member staff was cut in half, due to cuts in the federal job training program and a mounting Bowen deficit that hit $28,000 last year.
The YMCA board voted Bowen's immediate closing on a Tuesday afternoon.
Bowen closed on the day of a kickoff dinner to raise money for youth, and in the final week of Black History Month. Draped inside the building were red, white and blue banners proclaiming the Bowen chapter's 126th anniversary.