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Chicago’s population had barely reached 5,000 in 1840. Twenty years later, the city’s census recorded more than 109,000 residents. Chicago’s population increased more than 20 times over two decades. Most of the increase was due to an influx of young men; census data from 1850 showed that almost 50 percent of Chicago’s male population was between the ages of 15 and 39.
The city was in need of a place for young men to socialize and improve themselves. Several societies were founded: Chicago Lyceum, the Mechanical Institute and the Young Men’s Association among others. Most notable of these groups, the Young Men’s Association was created as a place for leisure and amusement away from the vices of gambling halls and saloons. Despite their good intentions, these organizations were unable to provide any answers to the problems young men faced. They were refuges for their constituents, but little more.
In 1853, after learning of Young Men's Christian Associations (YMCA) in other cities such as Boston, New York and Buffalo, Reverend Luther Stone published a series of articles calling for the creation of a YMCA in Chicago. According to the constitution of the YMCA, originally founded in London in 1844, the goal of the organization was “the spiritual and mental improvement of young men by any means in accordance with the Scriptures.” Stone, editor of a religious paper called the Watchman of the Prairies, brought together laymen from the Episcopal, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist and Presbyterian churches to discuss the creation of a YMCA in Chicago.
Despite their best efforts, the laymen were met with great opposition. In the summer of 1854, Chicago faced a cholera epidemic that left more than 1,400 people dead. This turned church officials’ attention away from the possible creation of a YMCA to the tragedy at hand. In addition, competition from the already well-established Young Men’s Association left little support for the hopeful YMCA backers.
Chicago, still in recovery from the cholera epidemic, faced a new crisis a few years later—this time, a financial one. A great recession swept the country, crippling the railroad and other previously booming industries. In response, the city experienced a religious and spiritual revival. Laymen and YMCA members in cities such as New York met to discuss ways of lessening the poverty that so many faced during the country’s recession.
On March 22, 1858, Chicagoans again gathered in an attempt to form a YMCA. After a series of meetings, a constitution was written and the first YMCA of Chicago was officially formed.
The YMCA soon established itself as an important part of Chicago’s growing metropolitan area. The 1860s and 70s proved an important time for the Y as it departed from its initial mission to help young men and began more evangelical work. Chicago’s first Y building opened in 1867 and was named Farwell Hall, after its benefactor, John V. Farwell.
The building, erected on Madison Street between LaSalle and Clark Street, housed a library, parlor and gymnasium. Although officials at the national YMCA convention several years earlier had encouraged the opening of gym facilities at regional Ys, board members decided to lease the gymnasium to the Metropolitan Gymnastic Club.
Only a year after its opening, Farwell Hall burned down. It was rebuilt one year later, but because raising funds proved far more difficult than with the previous building, it housed only meeting rooms and a large library. Two years later, the Y was lost again in the great fire of 1871. In 1874, the third incarnation of Farwell Hall was erected, again without gym facilities.
In the late 1800s, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago continued to expand with funds raised through lectures, private donations and local business owners. Cyrus Bentley, an active Baptist layman who was one of the two delegates sent to the YMCA national conference in 1854, became the first president of YMCA Chicago.
In 1879, a gymnasium and bath were added to the Farwell Hall YMCA as athletics grew to be a pivotal piece of the national YMCA's character and mission. Other improvements to the building included the establishment of branch buildings for railroad workers and college students.
In 1893, a new facility was built on LaSalle Street, known as the “Central” Y. This state-of-the-art facility included a bowling alley, swimming pool and gym.
The turn of the century marked continued growth and expansion of the Y’s programs and facilities. In 1910, the Y partnered with Sears, Roebuck and Co. to offer recreational facilities for its workers. English and “Americanization” classes were offered for the city’s immigrants and the first welcome center for Chicago newcomers was established in the African-American community with support from Sears executive Julius Rosenwald. Today, this welcome center is known as the Wabash YMCA. Five years after its inception the Wabash Avenue YMCA organized the first Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, this eventually led to the 1926 inauguration of Black History Month.
By the 1920s, the Y expanded with camps such as Camp Duncan, Hastings Lake, Camp Nawakwa and Camp Pinewood. New centers were built in Roseland, Irving Park and Lincoln-Belmont.
In 1931, a donation from the publisher of the Chicago Daily News helped build the Lawson Hotel, now known as the Lawson House. At the time, it was not only the tallest building in Chicago—topping off at 25 floors—but it was also the most luxurious; it boasted two gyms, an auditorium, rooftop garden, swimming pool, barber shop and four restaurants. Today it houses more than 500 residents.
During this time, the Y’s business education programs blossomed into a formalized program known as the Central YMCA College. This college later became known as Roosevelt University.
The Great Depression only underlined Chicago’s need for associations, like the Y, that aided the thousands of people left jobless and poverty stricken. In 1933, “Family Programming” was created, which allowed for the full membership of women and girls at Chicago YMCAs. Some of the early family programs included mothers’ clubs, parenting and fitness classes, and many other family activities. In years to come, YMCAs across the United States would model their own programs after the Chicago Y’s “Family Programming.”
As war raged overseas in the 1940s, the Chicago Y supported American soldiers by allowing free membership to those in uniform. As emotionally and physically wounded soldiers trickled back to America, the Chicago Y began offering aid to prisoners of war, cots for servicemen and, after the war ended, free memberships and counseling bureaus for veterans.
The 1940s also marked the Chicago Y’s move toward youth. In an effort to deter delinquent behavior, the Y offered expanded its educational programs such as tutoring and mentoring.
Post-war, the Chicago Y renamed itself the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. The Y began to examine potential anti-discrimination policies and, for the first time, women were allowed on the board.
The baby-boomer years led to unparalleled expansion in the towns surrounding Chicago. As the economy boomed, so did demand for additional, well-equipped Y’s. To meet these demands, 13 centers were established, including Elmhurst, Buehler and Northwest Suburban.
In 1959, the first YMCA SCUBA instructors were certified in Chicago, paving the way for dive training organizations throughout the country.
At the start of the 1960s more than 300 Ys across the country remained segregated. At the1967 national convention the National Council required local associations to certify that both policies and practices for membership and program participation were made without regard to race, sex or ethnic origin.
The 1960s also marked incredible growth in the number and scope of Y programs. In 1961, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago introduced the first large-scale program serving disadvantaged youth, known as the Youth Outreach Services (YOS). Affiliated with the Mont-Clare Y, the program used federal funds to help unemployed youth undergo a basic, work-oriented education focusing on things such as human relations training, vocational skills and pre-employment training.
The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago also established the first childcare program, which evolved from the Y’s gang prevention programs. Staff members noticed that teenagers were bringing younger siblings to classes and realized that the older siblings were the families' only form of childcare. Soon, formal childcare programs were created. These programs were expanded in the early 1980s.
In the 1970s, more programs were established. Seniors Home Help, later known as Third Age-YMCA, provided cleaning services for seniors and helped them remain in their homes despite loss of hearing, sight or mobility.
The YMCA Youth Justice program was also created as an alternative to juvenile imprisonment. It allowed for the placement of young delinquents in YMCA group homes where programs, activities and education provided support and reform assistance.
Unemployment became a key platform for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago in the 1970’s as well. The YMCA Training Alliance and the New City YMCA’s Local Economic & Employment Development Council teamed with local businesses and agencies to provide Chicagoans with training and job placement, and helped to keep the unemployment issue at the forefront of public policy and debate.
The first after-school program was created in the 1980s as the Y began to see an increase in unsupervised children between the time the school bell rang in the afternoon and the time parents arrived home from work. In addition, the childcare programs that were originally created in the 1960s were expanded. The Y began offering childcare to multiple age groups.
Through specialized programs, the Y worked to meet each parent's needs offering Early Head Start, Head Start, Preschool, State Pre K and School Age. By the 1990s, half a million children in the United States received care from a YMCA. This service continues to be made available to all families through government subsidies and generous donations. Today, the YMCA is one of the largest licensed childcare providers in the city and the largest non-profit provider nationwide.
The Y was not only concerned about the children it cared for in its centers, but also those in the community. In the 1980s there were serious concerns over the growing infant mortality rate on the Near West Side of Chicago. The area had a well-documented history of elevated infant mortality, often reaching numbers comparable to Third World countries. The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago launched the West Side Future program, and through aid from the government began intervening in neighborhoods by providing prenatal and infant care. Despite the program’s tremendous successes and national acclaim, the battle against infant mortality continues in these communities to this day. The West Side Future program strives to save lives in an area where health warnings and advice often take a backseat amid poverty and other urban struggles.
The 1980s also marked the opening of additional centers such as the South Side YMCA and the expansion of childcare and youth programs at the Duncan YMCA.
In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the Wabash YMCA in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago would receive a National Preservation Honor Award. When the Wabash YMCA closed its doors in 1969 due to lack of funding, Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood lost an institution that had been a center of activity for half a century. After extensive renovation carried out by neighborhood churches and with the financial support of the city, this landmark stands as a center of the community.
The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago was founded on a community’s dream to create an organization where residents would be nurtured and supported—this is the realization of that dream.
Through its 65 locations and more than 100 extension sites, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago is the fourth largest charitable organization in Chicago. More than 100,000 members of YMCA facilities and over a half million Chicagoans rely on the Y for social guidance and individual empowerment. The Y’s mission to strengthen Chicagoland neighborhoods is supported through a diverse range of programs designed to meet each community's needs.
In 2008, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago celebrated its 150th anniversary. This milestone is a testament to the millions of lives the Y has touched. The Metro Y continues to expand and evolve towards the betterment of people at all stages of their lives through its breadth of programs, from swimming lessons to gang intervention, mentoring and family programming to prenatal care and elderly support. The YMCA is at the heart and soul of growing up in Chicago and will be so for years to come.
- Encyclopedia of Chicago Web site: www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org
- Dedmon, Emmet. Great Enterprises: 100 Years of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. 1957.
- There is a Tide: A history of the YMCA movement in the 1960s by the people who helped make it, Proceedings of the YMCA Historical Retrieval Conference, St. Paul, Minnesota; November 6-8, 1995.