The search for a new facility is on
The Somerville YMCA is in an early stage of the process of searching for a new home. Established in 1867, the building that currently houses the community center was built in 1904. Due to the age of the facility and its declining condition, the YMCA, working with Gro Development, acknowledges that it is time for them to find a new site. The Economic Development Division of the City is assisting with the process. Representatives from the YMCA and City officials have spoken to the valuable role that the space plays for members of the community, especially for those coming from low-income households.
Vladimir Benoit, president and CEO of the Somerville YMCA, said that the building does not have the capacity to handle all of its programs, with some childcare and aquatics programs having to take place offsite. The building is in need of renovations, but at this point, staying at the current location does not make sense. “There are some parts that just look run-down. We’ve had a number of leaks that we’ve had to spend a large amount of money on, really in the past year alone. We had a contractor come by the other day who pulled out a brick with his bare hand. It was just in really rough shape, on the exterior. You could see some water damage in some areas. It’s just a deteriorating building; when you walk in, you can see some of the areas where the wear and tear has taken place.” She was not able to say where new sites that the team is considering are.
The YMCA strives to be inclusive and foster a sense of belonging, especially for youth. The space is a place where young people can play, interact, and gain the skills to become adults, Benoit continued, emphasizing that it is a welcoming place for families who may not be affluent. “Kids get the opportunity to be kids, to go out and try different activities and games—things that it’s easy for us to forget when we see the transformation of Somerville, when it comes to median income. But there’s still a population of these children who wouldn’t get to experience some of these adventures that we take them to, if it weren’t for some of these programs where money is not a barrier, because we find a way to get it done … I’m someone who is a product of subsidized housing, growing up in the Mystic Projects. Had it not been for the Y, I know for a fact, I most likely would have become a statistic.”
Currently, the YMCA also offers low-income, affordable housing to men, with its 43 units on the third and fourth floors. Some people have lived there for over 20 years, while there are others who only stay there for a month or so. Benoit added that since the building was built, they have been offering housing. “Right now, we have every intent to make sure that those folks have a place to stay, once the transition happens. We can assure you that we have every intention, if this comes to fruition, that we don’t want any displacement with the residents that we currently have there. If we can structure this in a way that we can continue to offer the housing or partner up with another organization to make it work, we definitely don’t want any displacement to happen, as a result of this shift.”
Councilor Beatriz Gomez-Mouakad said that in speaking with Latino residents in Somerville, they have expressed a strong interest in having a community center as a place of gathering. Among the general public, there is a demand for the YMCA, its services and its programs. “A lot of our youth are Latinos in Somerville. 40% of our school students are Latinos. And kids need a place to gather, and this is a community that doesn’t go off to the Cape. They don’t have second homes. They live in the city, and they need places to gather,” said Gomez-Mouakad. She added, “I would love it if [the new space] was in Ward 1 or Ward 4. … One of the things [the Latino community] is looking for is an informational center, where they could walk in at all hours to get basic information about anything—about registering for school or oil, gas, and heating subsidies. It could be somewhere to help you fill out forms. There has been an open request from the Latino community to have a center like that, where they can walk in or not. … You want that personal interaction. It’s important for building trust.”
The YMCA has had a positive influence on the lives of youth who may be struggling. Councilor Matt McLaughlin spoke to how it served as a support for him and friends, growing up, at a City Council meeting. “I grew up being a Y guy. I learned to swim there and spent almost every day after school there, going to the gym, hanging out with friends, working out, and playing basketball,” said McLaughlin. “And I’m still alive. My brother Danny pointed out that we had grown up with Y friends and playground friends. And a lot of our playground friends are not with us anymore. And everyone I went to the Y with is still alive. So that’s just a testament to the importance of this building.”
Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.