Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Harlem YMCA

The Harlem YMCA is among the more sparkly gems on the neon book's cutting room floor.  In fact, it wasn't supposed to be there.  I had photographed it and even written the following caption for the book: 

Harlem YMCA: 180 West 135th Street, installed c. 1932 

"The great roof signs of the Harlem YMCA date to the building's opening on New Year's Day 1933, making them among the oldest functioning neon signs in New York today. (A vertical sign over the main entrance, not pictured, is a very convincing facsimile of a sign installed around 1950.) Determined not to lose business to movie houses and other less wholesome amusement venues, YMCAs across the United States almost invariably hung large illuminated signs high on their facades by the early years of the twentieth century." 

Two dusky views of the Harlem YMCA's roof signs, which have beamed out over East Harlem from their perch on 135th Street since 1933.  (T. Rinaldi)

The vertical sign over the door of the YMCA seems to have appeared around 1950.  The existing sign is a very convincing facsimile of the original, installed by Silverescent Neon around 1996.  (T. Rinaldi)

Somewhere along the line, the Harlem Y was accidentally dropped from the book. I realized this, to my acute horror, only once it was too late to squeeze it back in.  

As noted in the would-be caption text above, illuminated signs almost invariably hung over the doors and rooftops of YMCAs in New York and elsewhere.  Surviving examples in cities in towns all across the USA still attest to this, but the Harlem YMCA boasts New York's last bit of YMCA neon - with one exception.   

Electric signs became standard equipment for YMCAs across America in the early 20th century. 

Through the basement windows of an old brick building on West 23rd Street, just across from the Chelsea Hotel, passersby can glimpse one other surviving vestige of Y neon.  The sign once hung high aloft from the facade of the same building, formerly the McBurney YMCA, now home to the David Barton Gym.  Only the letter M comes alight today, casting its red glow over the gym's well heeled, well formed patrons writhing on elliptical machines weight benches.   

The McBurney YMCA's old neon sign, now decor at the David Barton gym. (T. Rinaldi)

The sign's innate coolness would surely have sufficed to justify the enormous effort of moving it down here.  But this sign has a special place in history, too - namely, its starring role in a certain music video . . .  

I refer, of course, to the Village People's 1978 gift to humanity, "YMCA".  The video is well worth a look not just for an idea of what the old McBurney YMCA sign looked like in place (or for a good pep talk, should you need one), but for a whole series of shots showing Chelsea and Greenwich Village in the heady days just before the AIDS crisis.  The sign remained in place through it all, until the McBurney branch moved from 23rd Street to its current location (on West 14th Street) in 2002.

No man does it all by himself. (YouTube)

• Further down West 23rd Street, a facsimile has replaced the Westside Tavern's old blue BAR sign.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I got to see that awesome video but now it has been removed. It was good quality too.