Even before he was born, 6-year-old Shane Fleming spent lots of time in the 14th Street Y’s pool, a 20-year-old neighborhood oasis that is now home to some of his favorite weekly classes.
“Shane literally took every class he could possibly take since he was born” up to the present, said his mother, and longtime Y member, Jill Shely. “He totally feels like the Y is his home.”
The Y has especially become a home to him in recent months, Shely says, as the institution underwent a complete programmatic upgrade two years ago, followed by physical overhaul this past summer.
In what used to be a drab, unwelcoming lobby, huge windows now splash sunlight into a bright blue-tiled meeting space stocked with neon yellow lounge chairs and matching coffee tables. Babysitters patiently rock babies in strollers and wait for preschool-age siblings to finish up for the day, while college students and young professionals stride through to the brand-new fitness center.
Upstairs, a group of senior citizens rehearses for their upcoming staged reading of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and children play indoor soccer in the gymnasium.
“My hunch about what this place could be was correct,” said Stephen Hazan Arnoff, who began his work as executive director of the 14th Street Y two years ago. “The concept was to transform our infrastructure, accounting for the many, many talents of our staff and our interests in the community — it really is a diverse and vibrant community.”
Arnoff teamed up with architects Guy Zucker of Z-A Studio and Esther Sperber of Studio SB to renovate the aging building that captured none of what he calls the “raw edginess” of the local neighborhoods — the East Village and Stuyvesant Town. Funds for the renovations have thus far largely come from the Educational Alliance, the umbrella organization that took over management of the 14th Street Y around 13 years ago. While the Y is technically a Jewish institution and boasts a Jewish preschool, it welcomes everyone independent of background and actually has nine different first languages spoken in the preschool — which has doubled in size during Arnoff’s tenure thus far.
“When I started off here we called ourselves a community, but there really wasn’t a strong sense of community — it was mostly a gym,” said Roxanne Lane, 26, who is now a teacher in the “2-by-2” preschool program and rentals administrator, but started working at the Y as a lifeguard back in 2003. “I didn’t know there was a preschool here — it’s become so much more of a nurturing environment.”
Despite a lagging economy, the Y’s operational budget has increased by 18 percent in the past two years, and membership has soared, according to Arnoff.
Since July, he said the Y has seen an increase in nearly 700 membership units (singles, students, seniors and families), bringing membership totals to 2,200. Prices are comparable to, if not lower than, rates at most local gyms, with a single adult plan at $69/month plus a $99 initiation fee.
So far, the Educational Alliance is pleased with its investment in a revamped building that continues to attract new members.
“[Arnoff] could only go so far with such a second-rate facility and really encouraged us to invest in him,” Bernstein said. “They’ve been exceeding their stretch goals. We took a risk and it looks like it’s paying off.”
No matter what time of day, the Y seems to be buzzing with people — from infants to senior citizens, depending on the hour.
“We do have a stroller maven on the busy mornings to make sure stroller parallel parking happens properly,” Arnoff said, pointing out a room off the lobby that is entirely dedicated to stroller storage.
For members like Shely, Arnoff’s efforts have been hugely successful, making the Y dramatically more welcoming than it ever was before during her decade-long membership.
“We used to walk by the Y every day and the building was so nondescript — 10 years ago you didn’t even really know what it was,” Shely said. “Now because they have those big open windows in the front you can see people sitting there, so when people walk by they’ll wonder what is going on in there.”
To the right of the lobby is a hall leading to the fitness center, a path where the original building flooring is still exposed. Past a row of glass-walled offices, the gym itself features bright lights and a “new car smell” from its shiny new Precor, Cybex and True equipment, with a funky orange-and-blue 1960s-style decor to contrast the modern machines. Adjacent to the gym, renovated and matching-style locker rooms feature stacks of yellow, marigold and bright orange shaded lockers and full-length mirrors.
“I just think the gym is so much nicer,” said Shely, who uses the gym and the pool regularly. “It just feels cleaner and hipper — I think it will help appeal to a younger crowd.”
In addition to brand-new fitness machines and swimming pool, the gym and the rest of the Y offer over 40 classes, everything from adult krav maga to “Mommy and Me” yoga to belly dancing to music for children.
“The quality of services is on par with fitness clubs of this type,” Arnoff said. “But here people gain a really intergenerational community experience, where they can participate in health and wellness and be part of a community.”
Another new program that Arnoff is particularly proud of is his arts and cultural laboratory initiative called LABA, which means “lava” in Hebrew. An exhibition of art inspired by the human body stands in the redone lobby, and is a combination of efforts between the Y’s own LABA fellows and artists at Alma College in Tel Aviv. While last year’s theme was the human body, this season’s theme is pardes –– or, orchard — and participants’ projects all reflect this theme, including the new trees planted just outside the lobby along East 14th Street. Each year, the Y now takes on 20 LABA fellows and three artists-in-residence, all of whom continually present their work at events and at performances in the theater on the second floor of the building. The theater, which itself is old and now inadequate for the community, will be undergoing the next set of renovations, through funds largely provided by New York City.
“We really see this theater as being an anchor for creative work in the East Village,” said Arnoff, who also sees the Y theater as a venue for affordable neighborhood arts and culture during a period of stressful economic times.
Robin Bernstein, the president and CEO of the larger Educational Alliance, hopes to see Arnoff’s LABA program expand to other institutions under the Alliance’s wingspan.
“When he brought that in I think he wasn’t even fully aware of how that would become integrated in the whole community of the Y,” she said. “I think it has the whole potential to be integrated in to the whole community of the Educational Alliance.”
On Dec. 21 the theater will host a staged reading of a play called “Neurotica,” written by LABA fellow David Deblinger, who is also a founding member at the nearby Labyrinth Off-Broadway theater company. Arnoff hopes that the venue becomes even more popular in the coming months, once the seating structure is revamped and a modern black-box theater installed. This spring, the LABA fellows and artists-in-residence will join forces to produce a puppet show called “A Wonderful Thing,” based on a combination of their orchard theme and Mark Twain’s “A Fable,” he said.
To go along with the theme, one of the artists-in-residence created an orchard upstairs in the preschool, where the kids made finger-painted fruits to hang on crafted trees. At the preschool, the students now also enjoy learning through the Storahtelling curriculum, an external program that teaches Torah through arts, new media and other innovative methods.
In August, the Y and Storahtelling entered into a “strategic partnership” whereby the acclaimed 10-year-old ritual theater group is housed at the Y and offers free performances there once a month.
All in all, the changes are helping promote community, fans say.
“It’s such a great place to congregate, and the Y is so into the idea of community,” Shely said. “It’s so important to be able to have a place to go where you feel like you’re a member of the world. In New York, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.”
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