TO THOSE WHOSE movements rarely if ever take them onto the streets of Washington's Shaw neighborhood, the story may not seem all that earthshaking: the local Y buys a building to replace its old one. But the long and special presence of this YMCA branch in Shaw -- and the strong emotional attachments to it -- have been at the heart of a five-year controversy that has been tearing at this community's delicate fabric.

It began when the YMCA suddenly closed down the popular if dilapidated facility at 1816 12th St. NW, home for decades of the historic Anthony Bowen branch. Because this building was built by blacks and for years was the only black YMCA facility in a segregated capital, the closing was not taken at all lightly. And because the future presence of the Y in Shaw remained uncertain, neighborhood leaders were more than a little upset.

Critics charged that the YMCA was losing its sense of purpose, tending to cater more to wealthier residents who were willing to pur-chase expensive memberships at the multimillion-dollar Y that had opened at 17th Streetand Rhode Island Avenue NW. Officials vehemently denied the charges and, while various long-range plans were circulated, reopened a small facility at 1307 W St. NW. Still, there was the question of how to preserve the Anthony Bowen Y's connection with its original building, as well as the question of how to preserve the structure itself.

Now the Shaw Heritage Trust has a $1-a-year lease from developer Jeffrey N. Cohen, who bought the 12th Street building in 1985 with the lease arrangement. The trust is about to select organizations to occupy the building -- and certainly some part of the Bowen Y should return there, as was agreed to. But a Y official has now said he wasn't sure if the organization would use the building. Surely there are activities that can be housed there, to continue the history and preserve the special presence of the Y on this site.

In addition, the new facility at 1325 W St. NW should revive the Y as a truly neighborhood gathering place -- in a part of the city where an active drug trade flourishes, constantly beckoning the children to join the businesses of crime and addiction. The Bowen Y was and can again be an attractive alternative, with a small pool, a gym and space for adult as well as youth programs. This commitment by the Y, coupled with a return to the old building, would be a genuine boost for all who are trying to reclaim their streets -- and their children -- from the effects of crime and poverty.