Saying Goodbye to the Tenderloin Y

The YMCA in the Tenderloin closes its doors after nearly 100 years

After nearly a century of service to the community, the Tenderloin YMCA is closing its doors.

Although it has survived for nearly a hundred years, it can no longer fend off progress. This afternoon, the building formally known as the Shih Yu-Lan Central Branch of the YMCA shut down for good, ending a run that lasted since the presidency of William Taft.

A non-profit developer bought the building several years ago, and plans to convert it into low-income housing. The YMCA says the developer plans to preserve many of the building's architectural details.

The Tenderloin YMCA opened in 1910, four years after the original San Francisco YMCA was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Its tiled pool, basketball court and community rooms have played home to decades of San Franciscans, including Olympians and professional ball players. 

"It's the only place you can come when you're young, you're middle aged and you're old," said Gary Elzy who's worked at the Tenderloin Y for more than 30 years. "You can't go to a regular gym and do that."

The Bay Area is a playground for the physically active. Peek into any gym, and the treadmills will be jammed with the workout crowd, wearing the latest in Nike or American Apparel. 

But if you step into the YMCA in San Francisco Tenderloin, you're more likely to find yourself drifting back in time. The walls are lined with wood, and an ornate crest hovers over a grand entryway, flanked by two majestic stairways.  The tile floor is decorated with a swastika,  from the days before it came to symbolize the Nazi party. This isn't your normal gym. 

Old black and white photos tell the story of the building's glory days. In one picture, a group of men, including President Taft, sit in front of the building's skeleton before it's opening. In another, a young man with James Dean hair and long black trunks paddles away on a rowing machine. One photo shows the building's original theater filled with people dressed to the nines for a party. It seems the building has witnessed plenty. 

This morning, long-time members exchanged goodbyes with staff. Elzy was overcome with nostalgia as he bid farewell to people he's known for decades, some who remembered him as a boy.

"For some they can't see themselves not coming here, I can't see myself not coming here," he said.

Up in the weight room, Chuck Drees got in one last round of lifting. Drees has been a member of the Tenderloin Y since 1974.

"It's a landmark," he said in between curls.  It's a landmark and it's a shame they couldn't keep it open." Drees planned to swim a few laps in the pool before cleaning out his locker for the last time. 

In the senior room, Maggie Worsley looked around for someone to share a game of cards. It wasn't lost on Worsley that the building was only three years older than she was. But she says the Tenderloin Y is more than just old bones. She says it's something of a living room for the community. 

Officials at the Y say they hope to eventually open a smaller location somewhere nearby.

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