Celebrating 10 years on the Hill — the Thelma Lovette YMCA

Thelma Anniversary

Above and around the bikes are twinkling star-like lights. From there it’s a short walk to an azure pool, which is located next to a sauna. Those features lend a resort-like quality to the ground floor of the Thelma Lovette YMCA.

Located in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, this Y branch is celebrating 10 years of promoting fitness, diversity and community while forging partnerships with other nonprofit organizations, including the Community College of Allegheny County and nearby Macedonia FACE — Family and Community Enrichment Center.

Thelma Lovette was a Hill District native and a longtime community and civil rights activist. After earning bachelors and masters degrees in social work at the University of Pittsburgh, she became the first Black social worker at Mercy Hospital. Volunteering for decades for the betterment of the Centre Avenue YMCA, she was the first woman to serve on the YMCA’s board of management. 

In 2012, Ms. Lovette attended the grand opening of the facility named in her honor. She died in 2014 at the age of 98.

“We are located on the Centre Avenue corridor in between Oakland and Downtown,” said Aaron Gibson, regional executive director of YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh. “We have members from the neighborhood as people who work in Oakland and Downtown. Members of this YMCA come from more ZIP codes than any other Y branch.”

Up on this beacon on the Hill’s roof that offers panoramic views of the neighborhood, a “10 Year Rooftop Celebration” will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, April 21. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at pittsburghymca.org/thelmalovette or at its welcome center.

The party includes live music by the Bill Henry Band. The ATU Food Truck, operated by the Athletic Trauma Unit, will be selling food that is healthy as well as tasty. Drinks will be provided by Hop Farm Brewing in Lawrenceville and the Clink ‘92 Bar Truck will have wine and soft drinks.

The rooftop is often used for parties as well as yoga classes, Mr. Gibson said.

“Sometimes we bring the bikes up here,” he added.

Stationary bikes are used for spin classes in a windowless room with black walls and ceiling, sprinkled with twinkling white and pastel lights. The soothing, cocoon-like setting shuts out the rest of the world.

Mr. Gibson is one of the spin instructors, and he credits spinning for noticeable improvements to his own health.

A wide array of exercise equipment and classes are offered throughout the building, along with after-school programs and child care.

The 25-yard swimming pool is a big deal in an inner-city neighborhood. It’s heavily utilized by lap swimmers of all ages and by the 46 competitive swimmers on the Gators team, which competes with other YMCA teams.

“The Gators is the most diverse swim team in the area,” Mr. Gibson said.

Competitive swimming has been a notoriously white sport. Many Black people simply have had little or no access to pools and learn-to-swim programs.

“A 2006 survey said only 30% of African Americans know how to swim,” said Charles Bonner, aquatics director at Thelma Lovette. He doesn’t know what that percentage would be now, but the YMCA is working hard to change those stats, he said.

Mr. Bonner, 31, a former competitive swimmer, has been coaching and teaching swim lessons since 2008. He estimates he has “taught more than 12,000 kids how to swim.” Adults can learn to swim, as well. 

Thelma Lovette YMCA memberships for adults are $43 per month. Residents at the other Centre Avenue Y, now known as Centre Avenue Housing, can use the facilities at the “new” Hill District branch. The two buildings are about a mile apart, and Port Authority buses run up and down the avenue.

“We keep rates low so everyone can join,” Mr. Gibson said.

There are currently 1,200 members. The total was 1,500 to 1,700 before COVID shutdowns, but all branches are steadily rebuilding their memberships. Thelma Lovette YMCA has had the highest rate of return members and new members, said Carolyn Grady, chief development officer of the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh.

“There has been so much transformation in this community in the last 10 years, and the YMCA is proud to be part of it,” Ms. Grady said. “Ms. Lovette would be so proud.”

The 10-year celebration includes a community open house on from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 23. Free activities include a family swim, exercise classes, cycling events, youth programs and health assessments.

Member appreciation festivities begin Monday, April 18. Members can earn raffle tickets for prize baskets throughout the week by taking group exercise classes and bringing friends to try the Y. 

Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com