Allegheny YMCA serving Pittsburgh since the 1920s

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By Abbey Reighard

For many young men the Allegheny Young Men’s Christian Association is more than just a fitness facility – it’s a safe place to come home to.

The Allegheny YMCA, 600 West North Ave., currently houses between 95 and 98 men. The maximum capacity of the facility is 105 residents and there are typically about 80 men on the wait list for a room, according to William Pricener, executive director of the Allegheny YMCA.

Pricener said the Allegheny branch of the YMCA was proposed in 1919, but added that there have been YMCAs on the Northside since 1911. The Allegheny YMCA would combine three former Pittsburgh YMCAs – the Boy’s Branch of the YMCA of Pittsburgh, the Northside YMCA and the Manchester YMCA. The Allegheny YMCA was dedicated in November of 1927, and opened the following month.

Pricener refers to the Allegheny YMCA as a “hybrid Y” because it is one of the few YMCAs left that serves as a fitness facility and residential housing for men.

Pricener said the men who live at the Allegheny YMCA pay nominal fees to live there. The men must also pay $10 for a background check and must have photo ID to present upon applying.

“These are really good guys who are either down on their luck or working part-time jobs and can’t afford to live anywhere else,” Pricener said. “Residents are allowed to leave at any time.”

Pricener said most residents stay at the Allegheny YMCA on average for about six months, but added that some residents have stayed for over 20 years.

Pricener said one resident who lived at the Allegheny YMCA rented out two rooms to work on art pieces. Artist Donovan Forquer used one room for his bedroom, while he used the other room as an art studio. Forquer eventually left the residential living, but donated some of his works to the Allegheny YMCA. His painted works feature different YMCA buildings and can be viewed in the old youth lobby office and aerobics room at the Allegheny YMCA.

Another project the residents have taken on at the Allegheny YMCA is an urban garden.

Three years ago two residents, Rodney Tucker and Bill Frye, approached Pricener about building a garden in the yard next to the YMCA building. The residents used extra wardrobes that had been donated to the YMCA from Duquesne University, and converted the wardrobes into garden boxes.

“[The wardrobes] worked great,” Pricener said. “The only issues was they looked like coffins.”

After their first two successful growing seasons, the residents built new boxes for their garden.

Last year volunteers from Grow Pittsburgh came to the Allegheny YMCA to help with the construction of the new boxes and to give the residents tips on how to take care of their garden.

The residents named their garden The Boxy Caufield Memorial Garden, after former resident William Caufield. Caufield lived at the Allegheny YMCA for many years until he passed away in 2012. Pricener said most of the residents referred to Caufield by his nickname, “Boxy.”

Pricener said “Boxy” was a term Caufield had often used. Eventually the residents picked up on the word and renamed Caufield “Boxy.”

“Boxy was always very pro-garden,” Pricener said. “The garden was a way to pay tribute to someone who lived here for so long.”

Pricener said every growing season the garden produces more fruits and vegetables. So far this year the residents have produced 6 pounds of kohlrabi and 15 pounds of kale.

The residents keep some of the produce for themselves and donate the leftovers to the staff and members of the Allegheny YMCA. Pricener said the residents recently had a picnic with all the fresh produce they grew.

Since Tucker and Frye left, resident Michael Rushin has taken over a lot of the garden work. Pricener said Rushin is very dedicated to taking care of the garden that Tucker and Frye established.

Pricener said the Allegheny YMCA has “changed an evolved with the community.”

Some aspects of the building have remained the same, such as the old youth lobby office complete with a log sided interior and original fireplace. Pricener said he thinks the office was designed to look like a log cabin because many of the kids who participated in YMCA programs from urban areas didn’t get the opportunity to visit actual log cabins in the countryside.

Another original feature in the building is the staircase at the front of the building built with American chestnut wood – from a type of tree that went extinct in the early half of the 20th century, according to Indea Herndon, YMCA membership director.

Herndon said it would be great to one day restore the wooden staircase, but the restoration will have to wait until there are funds for the project.

While a few features of the Allegheny YMCA have remained the same, many changes have occurred as well. In the last ten years many of the rooms within the building were re-purposed to accommodate the growing number of people using the fitness facilities, according to Herndon.

Herndon said the cardio room was once the youth lobby. Herndon said YMCA administrators decided to reconstruct the youth lobby into a cardio room to attract more members.

There also used to be five bowling alleys in the Allegheny YMCA building, which were closed down in the 1950s and 60s, according to Pricener. The room on the second floor where the bowling alleys used to be has since become a spin studio, where people can take spin classes or use the spin bikes at their own leisure.

Herndon said the Allegheny YMCA caters to a diverse group of members.

“The Northside is a melting pot,” said Herndon. “[At the YMCA] we don’t care if you’re black, white, gay or straight. Everyone is welcome to join.”

There are currently between 1,100 and 1,400 individuals who use the Allegheny YMCA fitness facilities, according to Pricener. The Allegheny YMCA also has over 50 kids enrolled in their summer day camp. The kids do arts and crafts, have swim lessons, and take field trips.

More changes may occur in the future at the Allegheny YMCA in order to keep up with the growing membership. Pricener and Herndon said they would like to reconstruct the badminton rooms into activity or meeting rooms because the rooms aren’t often used for their original intended purpose.

However, for the time being Pricener said his first priority is the residents, before any construction or new additions to the building takes place.

“We’re not just a gym here,” Pricener said. “We are so much more than that.”

For more information on the Allegheny YMCA, visit www.ymcaofpittsburgh.org.

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