What do NBA Hall of Famers Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe and coach John Chaney have in common? They all have played at the Christian Street YMCA, 1724 Christian St., and the longstanding anchor of the South of South neighborhood celebrated a century of service to South Philadelphia on Friday.
Ollie Johnson, a former Philadelphia 76er, emceed the event with guest appearances by Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams, 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and 186th District state Rep. Jordan Harris.
“As many of you are very much aware, the Christian Street Y was founded in 1989, but today we come together to celebrate that we’ve been in this building since 1914,” Ellen Baker, the Christian Street YMCA board chair, said in her welcoming remarks. “We are so proud of the Christian Street Y’s heritage and contributions.”
Williams shared some of the morning’s most potent words to honor the space’s cultural and personal significance.
“There are people with great need and there are people who are still trying to sneak in,” he half-joked. “There are still people who need supervision and guidance. There may be new coats of paint, but there’s nothing that’s changed about the heart of this building.”
During the first half of the morning’s proceedings, a line of a dozen toddlers with swimmies on their arms snaked through an audience that towered over and looked down at them with smiles. The young swimmers were a mix of genders and races, and the significance was not lost on the First Deputy Commissioner of Parks & Recreation Susan Slawson.
“This particular facility was one of the only places that allowed African-Americans to come in and play ball and swim,” she recalled.
Referring to the young swim class, she added, “That was a picture of what was fought for. As we close this Black History Month, it is wonderful to see such a diverse set of kids, and that’s what the Christian Street Y is all about.”
Johnson and Harris both shared memories of patronizing this particular Y and how the space was a safe haven for them as youths and as young adults.
Johnson thanked the staff, for “making sure that this facility continues to be a beacon of life and hope in the South Philadelphia community.” He used to pay $1.50 to swim at this location, and the Y’s never been flush with funds.
“There were some tough times for the Christian Street Y,” he recalled. “And we were able to weather that storm to make sure that the Christian Street Y stayed open.
“I am proud as the first African American councilman from this district. And I will keep my membership active because it means a lot to me to support this particular branch financially in order for young people to come to this facility.”
He then pledged $5,000, and the site’s Executive Director, Michele Stevenson, rejoiced.
“Because I attended pre-school and kindergarten upstairs, I am a son of the Christian Street Y,” Harris proclaimed. “This is not just a place for recreation where parents bring their children and where people work out. The Christian Street Y is built into the fabric of South Philadelphia and without this Y, the fabric of the community goes away. We have to do whatever it takes to make sure there are 100 more years.”
Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 117.