Thursday, November 20, 2014

If you feel "down," the "Y" not the place it used to be

Has it actually been 40 years since “disco” music took control of the “dance” scene, if not necessarily pop radio? Back in 1974,  “Rock the Boat,” a catchy little song by the Hues Corporation that at first was a “hit” in “disco” dance clubs before someone thought it was good enough for wide release, and it eventually reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 that summer--and suddenly the "disco" craze was unleashed on the country.

But I’m not here to write about disco music, even though some of it was alright. But one song kind of “stuck” with me because it was one of the few that was a “message” song, albeit one that to most listeners was “subversive” in a sense, especially given the reputation of the group who sang it, The Village People:

Young man, there's no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, 'cause you're in a new town
There's no need to be unhappy
Young man, there's a place you can go.
I said, young man, when you're short on your dough.
You can stay there, and I'm sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time…
You can get yourself cleaned, you can have a good meal,
You can do whatever you feel ...
Young man, are you listening to me?
I said, young man, what do you want to be?
I said, young man, you can make real your dreams.
But you got to know this one thing!
No man does it all by himself.
I said, young man, put your pride on the shelf,
And just go there, to the Y.M.C.A.
I'm sure they can help you today.

The song may still be cringe-worthy in context, given the group’s none-too-subtle “alternative” lifestyle suggestions. But that isn’t the reason why the substance of the song is now an anachronism; today, the Young Men’s Christian Association has little to do with helping a “down on his luck” young man or even Christianity. In fact, today even boys with “issues” have a tough time getting “help” from the organization. I once saw a commercial trumpeting a “self-esteem” camp for girls sponsored by the YMCA; isn’t that what the YWCA is for, which has just as large a structure as the YMCA in downtown Seattle? 

Of course, neither one accommodates their original purposes. Today, while the “Y” is a community service organization that still supplies “recreational” opportunities to keep kids off the street, the days when it offered free lodging or meals to teenagers or young adults who needed a new “start” in life, provided that they abide by the moral rules of the “Christian” organization, are long gone. How did this change come about?

The YMCA was actually founded in the UK in 1844 by George Williams, who wanted to provide a “refuge” for religiously-inclined young men and youth looking to get off the mean streets of London. In 1851, Thomas Sullivan, a ship captain who observed it operations while in London, became impressed with its goals and founded the first “Y” in Boston. The “Y” didn’t discriminate, and from the start was active in assisting blacks and immigrants. It’s free or cheap overnight accommodations for those wanting to get off the streets due to “bad luck” was at one point 100,000 rooms across the country—larger than any accommodations chain in the country. More than a few “famous” people took advantage of this assistance: Jack Kerouac, Martin Luther King Jr., Dan Rather and even Malcolm X.  

Besides teaching “upstanding” citizenship along religious principles and providing recreational opportunities for young men to stay out of “trouble,” the “Y’ provided vocational training and even college-level teaching for those who could not otherwise afford higher education. During the early 1900s, the “Y” became “famous”—or rather infamous—for its swimming program, as a “confidence” builder. In the 1920s, its mission expanded to include a more “family” oriented model, to foster better relationships between father and son, and eventually to include mothers and daughters. 

However, the YMCA was not without its critics—some of whom “suggested” that some things better left unsaid were going on behind closed doors. For example, O. Henry—writer of short stories that usually had  ironic  “surprise” endings (the best known being  “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief”)—wrote a magazine article that implied, among other things, that the “boys” liked to “play” at other things besides games and sports. By the 1950s and 60s, the “Y” was the subject of mirth as some suggested that it had become a “safe haven” for males of “alternative” sexual orientation—a “theory” aided by the fact the “Y” had for decades a policy of enforcing a rule that those using their pools for swimming lessons do so naked (claiming that detergent and fibers form swim suits clogged pool drains). And then, of course, was that infamous song by the Village People.

By 1980, the “Y’ was in financial trouble, and its “motel” function declined and disappeared, and it had trouble being socially “relevant.” For example, locally the YMCA of Greater Seattle trumpeted its fundraising totals, yet it nevertheless fell far short of its funding goals. It “streamlined” its program offerings, claiming that it was “modernizing” itself. Yet it could not be hidden that its former intentions were no longer viable. 

By the late 1980s, it could no longer afford to offer shelter to just any young person claiming to be “down on their luck.” Before that part of its function eventually ceased, the large downtown facility had become a homeless shelter apparently not fit for youths in need of learning “Christian” values. Today it supposedly provides 20 studio apartments for a very select clientele.  And no longer does it provide substantial job skills or educational training, beyond high school equivalency testing. 

The YWCA, which was founded in 1855, is still functioning, but in the U.S., its function has largely been merged with that of the YMCA. Since women and girls are seen to be in greater “need” of assistance, they have largely become the principle “customers” for targeted programs; obviously, with so many “young men” turning to gangs for “assistance,” such a switch in focus is hardly productive—let alone in keeping with the organization’s original intent.  

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