Historic, 97-year-old Centre Avenue YMCA to undergo $7.4 mil renovation

‘A prominent place in the Hill District’s future’

by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer

The outsider, the out-of-towner, rides along Centre Avenue, passes the old YMCA facility as dignitaries joyously go in and out the building, and asks themselves, “What’s all the fuss about?”

It’s Friday, Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, but Cupid isn’t the main attraction. Rather, it’s the love that dignitaries like Pittsburgh City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle and Wesley Center AME Zion Pastor Rev. Glenn Grayson Sr. have for the 97-year-old historic building, which is about to undergo a $7.4 million renovation.

Thus, there seemingly everyone was, on a Feb. 14 morning, celebrating the fact that in about 10 months, the old Y will feel, in some ways, like new. There will be 73 improved single-occupancy units, a renovated kitchen, common areas and programming space, individual restrooms on each floor, an elevator installed, and replacement of the roof, mechanical plumbing, sprinkler and electrical systems.

More than 20 agencies came together to preserve the Centre Avenue Y, including the lead foundation gift from McAuley Ministries of $400,000.

“The newcomer would need to understand that like the history of our country, Pittsburgh was often a racially-segregated community, and there weren’t many options for African Americans who needed a place to stay when they returned home from the war and weren’t allowed to stay Downtown,” Councilman Lavelle told the New Pittsburgh Courier at the Feb. 14 event, held jointly at Wesley Center AME Zion and the Y, at 2621 Centre Ave. “For African Americans who needed places to socialize, needed somewhere to learn how to swim, they didn’t have options, so the YMCA intentionally built a facility for African Americans in the Hill District” to socialize, swim, play basketball, and shelter.

Councilman Lavelle vividly and fondly remembered the early 1980s, the Saturday mornings when his parents would walk him down the street to the YMCA, where he in fact learned how to swim. He also participated in summer camps, athletic events, etc. “You name it, I was able to do it there,” he said.

In the heyday of the Centre Avenue Y, one would find baseball legend Jackie Robinson living there when he played in Pittsburgh. Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz trumpeter, would do the same. The boxing ring inside the Y’s gym area was legendary, as Jackie Wilson, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles and others trained there.

“This venue holds great historical significance for our city, specifically the Hill District community, so I’m thrilled that this 97-year-old facility is being renovated and restored and will have a prominent place in the Hill District’s future going forward,” said Pennsylvania state Senator Wayne Fontana at the event.

The building no longer will be owned exclusively by the YMCA—rather, the Y and ACTION-Housing will partner to create a nonprofit entitled “Centre Avenue Housing Inc.,” which will own and operate the building.

“The Y is very special, because the Y is the Hill District and the Hill District is the Y,” Mayor Bill Peduto said at the event. “It’s been a part of this community, it has a history in this community, it helps those that need help, and now it is being reinvested in.”

The mostly African American men who currently reside and will reside in the renovated Y are expected to pay around $95 per week to live there.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Housing Opportunity Fund is one of the agencies financially contributing to the Y’s renovation. Diamonte Walker, the organization’s deputy executive director and a lifelong Hill District resident, said that the multiple agencies that came together to make this renovation happen is part of the overall plan that “we have a Pittsburgh for all.”

(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: REVEREND GLENN GRAYSON SR. signs the poster showing the rendering of the Centre Avenue YMCA, as elected officials such as R. Daniel Lavelle and Jay Costa look on. – Photo by J.L. Martello)

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