The YMCA continues to draw a diverse membership to downtown Wilmington—and their goals don’t always involve fitness
For the last 87 years, the six-story building at the corner of 11th and North Washington streets in downtown Wilmington has welcomed every walk of life imaginable. White collar or blue collar, rich or poor, black or white, politically connected or disenfranchised, all are welcome at the Central YMCA.
They come to run on the famous row of treadmills overlooking West 12th Street, or to swim a few laps in the seven-lane pool. They come for a quick workout or a pick-up basketball game. And then there are those who are there because Central offers affordable, low-rent housing and hot meals, including lunch five days a week, Thursday night dinner and Sunday morning breakfast, all served in the lounge area, where there are TVs and a billiard table.
Ever since the brick-and-limestone building was erected in May of 1927, it’s been more than just a gym or a fitness center. At a time when Wilmington’s reputation is reeling from epithets leveled by local and national media, the Central Y offers a sense of community, camaraderie and a connection with its surroundings that continues to bring Delawareans downtown.
A Brief History of the Central Y
The first U.S. Youth Men’s Christian Association was formed in Boston in 1851, after originating in London just seven years earlier. By the time the YMCA officially made its way to Delaware in 1889, it had been established as a flourishing community-based organization focusing on social responsibility in a safe environment.
Today, the YMCA of Delaware operates six branches statewide, and employs more than 1,200 people (closer to 1,600 during summer camping season), according to President and CEO Deborah Bagatta-Bowles.
“The community we employ is as diverse as the community we serve,” Bagatta-Bowles says. “In fact, we are often the first job for high school and college students, and we also employ many retirees.”
Lee Bunting is one such employee, joining the Central Y right out of the University of Delaware in 1979 as program director. He remained there until 1985, when he left to work at branches in Philadelphia, Chicago and upstate New York. He returned to Delaware in 2011 as executive director of the Downtown Y, which encompasses both the Central and Walnut Street Ys.
“Pretty much right after I graduated from UD, except for a stint doing grad work at the University of Indiana, I’ve always been a YMCA employee,” Bunting says. “I liked the atmosphere of the Y, because everyone always got along with each other so well. It was amazing to see back then, and it’s even more amazing to see some 30 years later. And this building, in particular, has everything you could want in a fitness center.”
Even Bagatta-Bowles, in her limited time since joining the YMCA of Delaware in 2013, sees the significance of the Central Y. “It really is a beautiful old building, and you’d never know there was any racial tension in this country when you walk in there.”
Central features separate men’s and women’s steam and sauna rooms (the only Y to do so out of the six locations), five racquetball courts, two squash courts and two indoor basketball courts. The exercise machines offer the latest in technology (most of the treadmills are hardwired to the Internet), and for those who want to go old school, there’s plenty of iron to lift. There are countless spinning, yoga and Body Pump classes, daycare, 180 rooms for rent, and what some members now refer to on Facebook as the “dreadmill.”
Coined by those who use the track located above the basketball court, the “dreadmill” is a convenient alternative to outdoor running during cold weather. It takes 24 laps around the monotonous oval to reach one mile, and members used to line up to use the track on freezing winter days, according to Bunting.
Wayne Kursh, founder of Races 2 Run, has painful memories of the track.
“In the early ‘80s, we had the winter from hell, and there was ice on the ground everywhere,” Kursh says. “I couldn’t run outside, so I ran on that ‘dreadmill’ for two-and-half-hours training for the Delaware Marathon. It was brutal running that oval for that long, because you feel like a mouse on a wheel. It was the weirdest run I’ve ever had, but I lived to tell about it.”
Races 2 Run, the Mid-Atlantic’s preeminent race event organizers, produces the Mayor’s Icicle Race every January, with the Central Y as the start and finish place. These days, Kursh spends most of his time in Rehoboth Beach and Key West, but every January he says his memories of the dreadmill are jogged to life.
While the indoor track doesn’t get as much mileage as it once did, the swimming pool is still one of the Central Y’s biggest attractions, and the place where Bunting’s life changed forever.
On a bitter cold day in January, Lee Bunting walks the marcasite floors of the Central Y across the building to the seven-lane lap pool. It was there, years ago, that he met Criss Irvin. A teacher at Monteith Middle School in Claymont, Irvin would bring students to Central for swim and physical education classes.
“We got to know each other and after a while started talking about tennis,” Bunting recalls. “I asked if she wanted to play sometime, so we met at the Rodney Street courts. Unfortunately for me, she didn’t mention that she was a collegiate player at UD, so she whooped me pretty good.”
The two continued to see each other at the Y, connecting with mutual friends, running together in the Icicle Race, and even playing squash together, which led to one unfortunate accident six months into their relationship.
“It was on a Saturday and we stopped in to my office on the second level to grab my racquet,” Bunting says. “Her hand was in the door when I closed it and it pinched off about a half-inch of her thumb. It was awful. Needless to say, we didn’t play squash that day.”
Despite Criss’ quick dispatching of Lee in tennis, and Lee’s near-severing of her thumb, their friendship grew into a romance, and within three years, they were married.
But they certainly aren’t the only couple whose marriage had its beginning at the YMCA. Part-time fitness instructor Warren Cox met his future wife, Aly Gauthier, at Central in the summer of 2010. She was on the elliptical machine, and he struck up a conversation.
“She was only there for a 30-minute workout, but I guess I just kept talking and talking, and before you know it, an hour had passed,” Cox says. “Eventually she agreed to go out with me for dinner and a movie.”
The two got engaged in September of 2013, married this past August, and are now expecting their first child in July. Aly believes Central is a great spot to meet new people, because there’s always a young crowd present.
“I was about 30 when we met, and I remember living in Trolley Square and seeing so many Y members out at the bars,” Cox says. “It was like Trolley was the spot to hang out socially at night, but the Central Y was the place to hang out during the day.”
In addition to budding romances and lifelong friendships, Central is the spot for Delaware celebrity sightings. Mike Graves, who was CEO from 1987-2013, met countless new friends during his tenure and recalls seeing many state, county and city movers and shakers on a regular basis.
“Even today, U.S. Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons work out there regularly, and did when I worked there,” Graves says. “Mayor Dan Frawley, [former Philadelphia Phillies owner] Ruly Carpenter, Joe Biden, [former Kelly’s Logan House owner and county sheriff] John Kelly, [Delaware Superior Court Judge] Ferris Wharton—you name it. If they were a big name in Delaware, particularly Wilmington, they met at the Central Y, either to work out or even hold court, so to speak.”
Senator Carper has exercised regularly at the Y for two decades. Last year, he even conducted his ALS Ice Bucket Challenge there. But unless you’re an especially early riser, you might not catch the senator before he heads off to the nation’s capital.
“I’ve been working out at the Central Y for more than 20 years, along with my wife Martha and our two boys when they were living at home,” Carper says. “I prefer to work out early in the morning there before I jump on the 7:15 train to Washington. I usually lift weights or use the elliptical, and I haven’t missed a day of work due to illness in over 35 years. I attribute that to staying physically fit, and much of that is done at the Central Y.”
Today, younger members like Kristy Carpenter also go there for the chance to connect with fellow Delawareans. Carpenter moved from New Jersey for employment about five years ago, and the Y has been one of the most consistent aspects of her life ever since.
“For the first year I lived in Wilmington, I was a member of [another local gym],” Carpenter says. “It was easy and cheap, but it just wasn’t doing it for me. For someone who didn’t know a lot of people here, I needed more. I was looking to make connections, and I wasn’t getting that.”
The 27-year-old was working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car after graduating with a business degree from Widener University. Little did she know that her time at the Central Y would go from casual member to instructor to what will eventually become a brand new career.
“I was able to get a job at Rowan University, and am now finishing my masters there in wellness and health promotion,” Carpenter says. “After I started teaching Body Pump classes at the Central Y, I knew it was something I wanted to do with my life. Seeing people change their lives and lifestyles is very inspiring. I wanted more of that.”
Carpenter says that besides finding a new calling, she’s met one of her “best friends”—fellow member Kristin Roberts—while working out at the Y. Carpenter credits the “feeling of being accepted without any judgment” as the reason she and Roberts began talking and hanging out. Now that Central has launched social mixers, Carpenter and Roberts might be making more new friends very soon.
Mixing It Up
Chrissy Shiring, associate executive director at the Central Y for three years and a YMCA employee for 15 years, knows the benefits of staying connected with both current and potential members. While social media platforms are an obvious choice to foster those relationships, she feels that person-to-person interaction is equally important, so she organized the Central Y’s first social mixer in early January. Members ($5) and non-members ($10) could enroll in an hour-long class at the Y, then clean up and head across the street to the Washington Street Ale House’s Maraschino Room, where they would meet for complimentary food and soda and a cash bar. The goal was to allow members to see each other out of the fitness center on a social level.
The first event was a big success. “We had more than 70 people come out to the Ale House, and even though we were only scheduled until 8 p.m., almost the entire crowd stayed out past 9, and that was on a weeknight,” Shiring says. “We had live music playing and there was a tremendous cross-section of people, both young and old.”
Naturally, a lot of the conversation at the first social mixer turned toward career aspirations and employment.
“We’ve had plenty of instances here where, through engaging with members around them, people have found new employment, or hired people for their own firms and companies,” Shiring says. “In a social setting, like a restaurant, that’s even more likely to happen. Making that connection is what we’re all about.”
Carpenter also attended the first mixer, and was astonished at how popular the event was. “With the live music, it was cool to see people in a different atmosphere. I met members that I’ve instructed but never really hung out with socially. A lot of times after classes, you feel rushed. This gave everyone more opportunity to really get to know each other.”
Roberts, a 27-year-old special education teacher at Bancroft Elementary, taught the Body Pump class the night of the social mixer, even getting her father to come in and attend.
“He really liked the atmosphere and eventually became a member, even though he’d really never stepped foot in a gym before,” Roberts says. “I think the mixer had a big effect on him as well, because it was so laidback. I really enjoyed seeing people you sweat next to all week in a different atmosphere, dressed up nice and socializing. It was a pretty cool experience.”
Shiring is already in the process of planning an in-house event on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Central Y, with a coffeehouse theme. Complimentary Starbucks will be served and the Gene Huff Trio will perform. She also has her eyes set on a Feb. 18 guest bartender fundraiser at BBC Tavern and Grill in Greenville.