Skinny dipping businessmen and other memories of the downtown YMCA

Downtown YMCA in Birmingham on December 31, 2022 (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

On December 31st, the Downtown YMCA in Birmingham officially closed. 

One of Birmingham’s longest running charitable, civic, religious and wellness organizations, the Downtown Y was established in 1884, 13 years after the founding of the Magic City itself.

Days after its closure, Bham Now reached out to former members for their memories of the Downtown Y. Here are their stories.

Many Changes Over the Years

Downtown YMCA in Birmingham on December 31, 2022 (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

Publisher of the local publication Comeback Town, David Sher has been a member of the YMCA since the late 1950s. On the news of the Downtown Y’s closure this fall, he penned an entertaining story about the history of the place, including members skinny dipping in the pool, au naturel sunbathers on the roof and handball players competing in the hot sun wearing only jockstraps.

Of course most of those activities had to stop when taller buildings were built around the Y and they began to receive complaints from women in the buildings across the way. 

When we caught up with Sher this past week, he reflected on the importance the Downtown Y had on Birmingham’s business climate from 50 years ago to today.

“I’m a small business person and probably went to the Y most every work day of my life. It was the heart and soul of downtown Birmingham. Most of the attorneys, bankers, utility executives, business owners, real estate people —they all belong to the YMCA downtown. I can’t begin to tell you how many relationships were built through the Y and as a result the commerce. All, just because people from very different types of businesses and professions had an opportunity to see one another most every day.”

“It was a different world,” added Sher.

Dadgum Women

Downtown YMCA swimming pool (Gail and Tom Cosby)

The YMCA went co-ed back in the mid 80s right after the new Downtown YMCA building, the one that was vacated on the 31st, was opened. One of its first female members was Gail Cosby who joined the Downtown Y through her husband Tom’s membership.

“When I joined I remember hearing stories of all these guys who had been going to the old Y, just complaining like crazy because “I have to wear bathing suits to swim in the pool because of the dadgum women,” Cosby laughed.

Despite the resistance, including some of the male members quitting, Cosby fell in love with the place. A resident of Forest Park, she used the Downtown Y to its fullest from swimming laps to taking self-defense classes.

“I loved it. And there was a woman named Minnie that was at the front desk for years.I really liked her. She knew your name and she was great. And so I just hate losing it.”

Noon time Runs to Spin Class

Kelly Holbert’s Spin Class (Kelly Holbert)

Tom Carruthers first started using the Downtown Y when he moved back to Birmingham after college in the early 80s. 

“I used it as a place to shower when I would run during lunch time,” he told us.

That was in the old YMCA. After a year or so, Carruthers went off to graduate school and when he came back the old YMCA had been replaced by the SouthTrust Tower. A couple of blocks away, the new state of the art Downtown Y was completed.

He continued to run daily, on a 3-4 mile trek with friends at lunch time, always ending back at the Downtown Y.  Over the years he added spin classes, joining a Tuesday and Thursday group. 

“It’s been a huge part of my life that has kept me in shape. I’ve made a lot of friends. I’m really sad to see the Downtown Y go away.” 

Fortunately, the spin class Carruthers has been taking with a group of friends for years will continue on at the Mountain Brook YMCA Branch. 

More than a Y – It was Home

Spin Class toasting last class at Downtown YMCA in Birmingham (Kelly Holbert)

Speaking of the spin class, the Tuesday group Carruthers has been taking for years, is led by Kelly Holbert. 

A native of Florence, Holbert started teaching aerobics during lunch when she worked nearby at SouthTrust. 

“Lots of people in banking would walk to the Y. That’s when I started teaching during lunch and just developed tons of friendships.”

Along with leading classes, she became a Downtown Y board member for ten years. She even got certified and conducted some of the first spin classes in Birmingham. She recalled asking the Executive Director to go “all in” and purchase bikes for spin classes at the Downtown Y some 20 years ago. 

“We’re still spinning,” she said.

Holbert misses the Downtown Y.

“The Y is like family to me. It has been with me when I got married, had my children, taught class while I was pregnant. It’s just been a really huge part of my life.”

What’s Next For Downtown Y?

Downtown YMCA in Birmingham on December 31, 2022 (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

It is important to note that despite the closure of the Downtown Y at 2101 4th Avenue North, the organization continues to look for a new location for its downtown services and programs. Members can also take classes at the Shades Valley YMCA Branch.

Stay tuned and watch this space for updates. Meanwhile, thanks for the memories.
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Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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