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The Committee to Save the Lakewood Y, composed of hundreds of Y members and neighborhood residents, took up the torch not for a building but for what the landmark represents.

Committee to Save the Lakewood Y 

More than a gym

The Lakewood YMCA isn't the prettiest of the three Durham branches. After years of benign neglect, the parking lot has developed pockmarks, the paint has paled, and the air-conditioners have contracted a chronic wheeze. Sure, the American Tobacco and downtown branches are younger and more fashionable, but the 40-year-old YMCA on Chapel Hill Road is arguably the most beloved—and important—of them all.

So when Triangle YMCA officials announced last May that they planned to shutter Lakewood because it is hemorrhaging money, hundreds of Y members and neighborhood residents were outraged.

The Committee to Save the Lakewood Y, composed of these concerned citizens, took up the torch not for a building but for what the landmark represents.

"It's very integrated; your socio-economic status, your race, it never seems to matter," says Boyd Gibson, a Lakewood member who sits on the committee's six-member board. "You can share ideas and opinions with one another in a forum where people accept you, no matter what you do for a living. To lose that would be an asset gone from Durham, never to return."

For the past six months, the committee has researched Lakewood's finances and programming, conducted surveys, met with Y officials, held informational meetings and built coalitions with dozens of Durham groups: The NAACP, El Centro Hispano and the Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham are among the many that signed petitions supporting the Lakewood branch.

"To prevent violence is to create community," says Marcia Owen, outreach coordinator for the Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham. "We need to keep community centers where there is basketball, swimming, soccer and after school programs. That's how we get to know our neighbors and build and sustain healthy communities. We're very, very grateful for the committee's work."

Without the committee's energy, the Lakewood Y would likely be closed by now, says City Councilman Mike Woodard, whose ward includes the branch.

"Without the advocacy of that committee the Y's original plans would have sailed through without any community input," Woodard says. "That group has shown citizen advocacy at its best."

After months of talks with the committee, in September, Triangle YMCA CEO Doug McMillan said at a public meeting that it was "99.5 percent certain" Lakewood would remain open. That's in the short term; the branch's long-range future is less certain. Earlier this month a special YMCA task force recommended selling the building and re-leasing the space from its new owners. However, Y officials have so far been unable to find a potential buyer. It is unknown what will happen if no one wants to buy the building; it's also uncertain how long the Y would lease the space, should a buyer be found, and where the proceeds would go from the sale. However, it is well known that the Triangle Y is eyeing southern Durham, near the RTP/Southpoint area, for a new branch.

"We want the money to go to an endowment for programs in the Lakewood area," says Chuck Clifton, chairman of the committee board. Y officials have already slashed several programs and more cuts are on the way, including closing the pool. Predictably, Y statistics show membership has declined, as people join the downtown or American Tobacco branches just over two miles away. "The fallacy of the Y's usage report is they're measuring conditions when they've cut programs and made no effort to get people there."

At risk is not only an institution but also the stability of this inner-city neighborhood, which has teetered between renaissance and decline.

"Like many communities, there are fragile neighborhoods," says Owen, a Lakewood member. "There is a tipping point; we've seen it over and over."

Frances Kerr, a former Lakewood member, sits on the board. Her son learned to swim at Lakewood and played soccer there. "I felt personally sad and discouraged to know it might close, but felt responsible to spread the word that this is an invaluable community resource for economic, social and cultural reasons," she says. "Chapel Hill Road is a strategic corridor to a revitalized downtown. We want to make sure we have a voice in what happens to that piece of property. The biggest fear is high-density housing. We need community services for people who live here, not more housing."

Committee board member Jon Ward says he understands the financial realities but that Lakewood's importance to Durham is hard to quantify. "I'm reasonably pragmatic on these issues, but [the Triangle Y] is very focused on making a numbers-driven decision, and these are things you can't put into numbers."

"The worst case is that it would be boarded up and abandoned," Gibson says. "History shows what happens when that occurs. You get loiterers. Kids will find something else to do and if it's not constructive, we know what happens."

Lakewood's dilemma has brought to the forefront other overarching issues regarding the Y, particularly its lack of transparency. The Durham Advisory Board's meetings aren't open to the public; its members are appointed, not elected. While the Y is a private, nonprofit organization exempt from public records and meetings laws, since it exists to serve the community, Clifton points out, it should be more responsive to the public.

In fact, the Committee to Save the Lakewood Y has served as a de facto public board; citizens have petitioned the committee with concerns because they don't have regular access to the Durham Advisory Board.

"It's good governance to have an open board," Clifton says. "Yet, we don't have a venue to have detailed discussions. My board shouldn't even have to exist."

The Committee to Save the Lakewood Y has proven that activism doesn't have to change the world, only one corner of it. "I've learned about the power of community," Clifton says. "The board didn't do this: We put structure around it and guided the conversation and captured the community's energy. Whenever we had a call to action, we had an incredible turnout. You have to have that base of support."

That base has asserted itself at Lakewood meetings, where people have packed the room and overflowed into the hall to show their support not only for keeping the branch open, but also for helping it to thrive.

"We found a way to constructively solve a problem," Kerr says. "I feel really fortunate to live in this community where people of different backgrounds want to save this historic building that has served so many people. People love this part of Durham and will fight for it."

A community meeting about the potential sale of the building is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 27 at 6 p.m. at the Lakewood YMCA, 2119 Chapel Hill Road. To learn more about the committee, go to groups.yahoo.com/groups/save-the-lakewood-ymca.

Correction (Nov. 26, 2007): We incorrectly stated Mr. Gibson's last name. See comment below.

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