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FEATURE ‌ 'Y' Not in Charleston?

Cannon Street Y, Christian Family Y merge, look to expand into West Ashley

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This was supposed to be a story about how the Cannon Street Y was teetering on the edge of extinction, how its future looked as ragged as the rolls of pink insulation that hang down from holes in the ceiling above its basketball court like a dog's tongue does in summer.

This was supposed to be another story of how peninsular blacks got short-changed, again, much like the Cannon Street Y Little League All-Stars did 50 years ago when they were excluded from playing in a national tournament because of the color of their skin, not the content of their character, or their ability to pitch, hit, and field.

This was supposed to be a story about how George Shinhoster, the Y's current director, was brought down on an interim status from his post running a major Y facility in Charlotte to the YMCA where he began his career decades ago, to help bury the Cannon Street Y in its past.

This was supposed to be the last chapter in one of the nation's eight remaining "heritage" Ys, ones that have historically served and been run by blacks.

But it's not. This is actually a story of rebirth, of how Charleston may one day soon have a series of Y facilities, gyms, pools, and programs -- just like every other major city across this country.

And in an odd way, this story all begins with racism.

You see, white folks haven't always been so welcoming to black folks here in Charleston, one of the cities that pioneered free labor, otherwise known as slavery, in this country. Sure, after slavery, whitey became less anxious about allowing blacks into their homes, but only as long as they brought a mop and pail with them.

Separate and unequal ruled the South, and Charleston was no different. And then integration struck, with its national mandates forcing whites and blacks to commune, though not exactly live, together.

And it wasn't the federal government, or Little League, getting into the act. It was national institutions like the Young Men's Christian Association, the ecumenical organization built on Christian values that decided during the Civil Rights era that, since all men were created equal in the eyes of God, blacks should be allowed to join the Y.

At the time, that didn't sit so well with whitey, especially in Charleston, where the dominant George Street Y was faced with the racial dilemma. It solved it by breaking away from the national Y and forming as the "Christian Family Y," for years as whites-only as some water fountains.

Instead of spreading throughout Charleston and across the rivers as the demand for facilities and programming grew, both Ys stagnated. A few years ago, faced with mounting debt, spiraling costs from maintaining an aging heated indoor pool, and receding memberships and donations despite welcoming all races for years, the CFY closed, only to sputter to its death a few months after being rechristened Charleston Youth and Family.

Things weren't going so well over at the Cannon Street Y either. Cut off in large part from white membership dues because of location, condition, and historic racial lines, debts mounted, programs shrank, and memberships disappeared.

There was even talk of shuttering the rundown facility, which had become an after-school day care center for blacks in the Elliotborough and Cannonborough neighborhoods.

Five years ago, a group now chaired by local attorney Dwayne Green emerged, righted the ship financially, and began to look at how to get a real Y footprint in the area.

At roughly the same time, the CFY closed and sold its 21 George St. facility to a development company. With the real estate market so hot, and with its property running from George to Wentworth streets, maybe it's not so surprising the CFY board got close to $4.25 million.

But now there were two Y boards in town at the end of their ropes. Cannon Street had paid off its debts, but had little going on; CFY was flush but had less of a future. So work was begun to bring the two together, to get their peanut butter into their chocolate.

Last Tuesday, the two boards met and finalized a merger that had been months in the making. Now, plans that had once been dreams are now looking more and more realistic.

Ebullient from the week's success, Green sees a combined organization free from debt, "in the black," and off to a good start.

With $1 million dedicated to cover operational costs, Green, who will head up the combined board, says a study his original board commissioned last year points to West Ashley as the best direction for Y growth in the area.

"We're following the rooftops," says Richard Gowe, an architect with LS3P and the chair of the CFY's now disbanded board, of the expansive growth near the Glenn McConnell Expressway-Hwy. 61 corridor.

Now comes the hard part, and the hard questions. Since the bread and butter of any Y is its membership revenues -- with less than 10 percent of capital coming from donations, according to Gowe -- does it make sense to give the Cannon Street Y and its limited facilities and practically non-existent parking an extreme makeover?

Despite what yuppies are kicking in membership fees to sweat it out on treadmills at various downtown fitness meccas, the chances of that demographic making the slog down the peninsula to work out in the Martin Luther King Jr. Corridor -- which only got that designation in time for the neighborhood to get hit by the great white wave and newly-constructed rows of $400,000 walk-in closets -- are remote at best.

So it's go west, young men's Christian association.

But programming, not buildings, drives membership, said Shinhoster a few weeks ago, as he smoothly hoisted a Wilson into an orange hoop 19 feet away. "So we will look to partner with existing facilities and programs until we build something new of our own."

Green, a graduate of both Princeton and Porter-Gaud who some say will one day be mayor, says the organization has been looking at various spots for expansion on the peninsula -- namely the former home of Port City Paper on Upper King.

"You've got to start somewhere," says Gowe, whose three kids all learned to swim at the CFY. "One of our hopes is to utilize as many existing assets as possible so we don't have to reinvent the wheel."

And like a wheel, this story has come full circle -- where the future of the YMCA in Charleston is only bright when both black and white work together.

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