It can be easy to miss the shuttered storefront amid the kombucha-tinged, shared-plate-serving, $6-coffee-fueled bustle of 14th Street NW.
For more than 40 years, Midtown Youth Academy was an anchor in the heart of the District, filled with the skips of jump ropes and thuds of boxing gloves hitting bags. Coaches shouted instructions and verbal jabs as youth — after finishing their homework — let out frustrations or trained for a bout.
In an area scarred years earlier by social unrest and the 1968 riots, followed by government-backed razing of buildings and revitalization, hundreds of neighborhood boys — mostly black, many poor — flowed through Midtown’s doors. These days, however, it’s hard against the ropes: Midtown’s founder died last year, and the building was recently closed as structural, wiring and plumbing problems mounted.
The gym, which saw little renovation in its four decades, needs at least a $160,000 overhaul to reopen.
A handful of Midtown’s faithful formed an advisory board to chart its future, confronting tough questions and hard numbers that were avoided for years. It is, they have come to realize, a fight for the gym’s survival.
If boxing was the draw for neighborhood boys, Eugene Hughes often was the reason they stayed. Whether from a stool near the ring or a folding chair on the sidewalk, Hughes, a retired social worker, could talk just about any kid out of a corner.
Hughes died last March at the age of 80 after a fall.
“Mr. Gene always loved an underdog and those who didn’t have a chance,” said Gloria Lee, 67, a retired social worker and security guard who is president of Midtown’s advisory board. “Midtown will go on.”
Midtown survived 14th Street’s ups and downs, from its life as a bustling commercial strip that catered to middle- and working-class black residents to, in the 1980s, a nighttime red-light district. Even in the hard times, boxers found their way to Midtown.
“People wanted to be there so much that they just chanced it,” said Khalia Jackson, 38, who is vice president of the board and helped care for Hughes in his later years.
By the 1990s, a handful of concert venues, theaters and bars catering to the LGBT community had opened nearby, as did a pair of Metro stations, in Columbia Heights and on U Street. The transformation of the 14th Street corridor has continued in recent years.
More than 60 percent of households within about a half-mile radius of Midtown earn more than $75,000 a year, according to a neighborhood profile from the Washington DC Economic Partnership.
Census data show that while the number of African American residents nearby has been steady in recent years, their proportion of the population has declined as more white residents have moved in.
Socioeconomic changes prompted Martha’s Table, a food pantry and family-services organization that operates one block south of Midtown, to relocate its headquarters to higher-need neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8 after 37 years on 14th Street.
Amenity-filled apartment buildings and boutique fitness studios line 14th Street. Midtown’s supporters, however, say there is still a need for the gym, even if it’s harder to see.
“The history in that location, we would much rather help youth there,” Jackson said. “There are still youth in the area that are literally in neighborhoods that you don’t see when you ride up and down 14th Street.
“There are more kids who need assistance in Wards 7 and 8, but that doesn’t mean we need to move.”
The obstacles to staying are considerable.
Initially optimistic about reinvigorating Midtown and carrying on Hughes’s legacy, the advisory board discovered that charity fight nights and poetry slams couldn’t close the funding gap. Board members had hoped Hughes’s death might galvanize donors, but that hope has faded.
Angel investors never materialized. Selling the property, or at least its air rights, has lingered — or perhaps loomed — as an option.
Hughes had poured his life and money into the gym: his pension from a job as a District social worker, Social Security checks and proceeds from the house he sold to keep Midtown running (he opted to live on a cot upstairs until Jackson and her mother convinced him to move to an apartment).
Developers offered to take the building and its troubles off Hughes’s hands — asks that became less generous as his health declined.
“They were preying on him, preying on the elderly. That’s not an exaggeration,” Jackson said. “They’d actually say, ‘You don’t belong here anymore.’ And he’d say, ‘Well, yes I do.’ ”
He’d tell anyone who’d listen just to bury him in the basement.
The months after his death have brought harder choices: whether to sell the building’s upper floors and move Midtown to the basement, or, like Martha’s Table, sell and move across the Anacostia River.
“We’re in a place where we need to start making decisions,” said Patrick Kibbe, 31, a lawyer who is advising the board who also boxed at Midtown. “We’re at that crossroads.”
Whether one of those roads leads to a continued home on 14th Street isn’t known. Behind the locked doors, heavy boxing bags hang coated in dust and chairs sit empty. The years have finally caught up, as they do with an aging fighter.
Supporters hope Midtown has at least one fight left.
“It’s tough to go by there every day and not to see Mr. Gene sitting out front,” said Cornelius Whitlock, 35, a personal trainer and former professional boxer who trained with Hughes for six years. “We have the opportunity — a new Midtown could be great. We’ve got a diverse population in this area, and I know there’s a champion walking up and down these streets.”