Mott Haven’s oasis of fitness

St. Mary’s Recreation Center's dance room

St. Mary’s Recreation Center serves thousands

By 3 a.m. on a freezing January 30, two dozen people had already lined up outside St. Mary’s Recreation Center to be sure they got one of the 100 available slots for the center’s free swimming program.

Some brought pots of coffee. Some wrapped themselves in blankets. Some who showed up later that morning were wearing pajamas, and said that they’d rushed down after calling the center and being told of the line.

One mother explained that her family had missed out last year. She got her children up so early because she wants them to learn to swim, she said.

The Parks Department boasts that St. Mary’s is the city’s first indoor recreation center. Last year nearly 80,000 people walked through its doors, according to Shawn James, the center’s manager.

On a recent morning, the smell of chlorine greeted visitors to the U-shaped, three-story building. In the pool, swimmers were swimming laps. In the computer lab, residents were using the center’s five Macintosh and seven PC computers. Basketballs thudded and sneakers squeaked on the basketball courts. Music spilled from the dance studios. Men and women worked out on the machines in the weight rooms.

Many of the participants said they were grateful for the center. “The rec center is an oasis and place to have fun and socialize with friends,” said David Cordova, 17. “They have resources I don’t have in school. I can do work on the computers or be on a social networking website.”

Anthony Loves-Rhodes, who runs the computer resources room, said he’s tried to make the lab a place that fosters thought and imagination for young people. “For example, youth come in wanting to rap and I curve them towards something positive, like creating a ‘Go green’ video,” he said.

Nick Diaz and his family have enjoyed the recreation center and St. Mary’s Park for years. Even though they’ve moved to Soundview after living in Mott Haven for seven years, they return to for aerobic classes and to use the gym. “It’s a safe space that is family orientated,” said Diaz.

Others, though, complain about the facilities, saying affluent neighborhoods get newer equipment. “They haven’t gotten the best of anything,” grumbled Clarence Williams, 62. If a piece of equipment breaks down, he said, “it takes six months to fix.”

Bur Stefanie Knight, 28, believes, “There’s more motivation here.” She says, “You are more likely to stay committed here versus a regular gym.”

Mirrors cover the entire front wall of the dance room. Other walls are painted with murals of dancers dressed in bright clothes. On a recent night, 15 young people moved bodies, legs, hands and heads to the rhythm of Hip Hop as they choreographed a dance routine.

Each month, the room showcases the work of another group of dancers. A recent “Living Through Dance” program called “Tradicion Y Cultural” featured a group of seniors performing a visual tour of the history of Latin folklore, music and dance for a delighted audience.

James says St. Mary’s has always prided itself on its cultural offerings. The monthly programs, he boasts, reflect the diversity of the Mott Haven community.

Since 2006, the Parks Department has charged adults a $75 fee for use of the facilities, but the swimming classes remain free. As part of the “Be Fit NYC” citywide campaign, all the city’s recreation centers are free on the first Monday of each month to introduce the range of activities they offer. Shape Up New York classes, described by Kim Carr, the instructor, as “a fitness program aimed at overcoming obesity issues in the Bronx community,” are free, as well.

Because a quarter of the neighborhood’s adults are obese, according to the health department, residents are also at increased risk of heart disease. Nearly one in five residents of Mott Haven, Melrose, Hunts Point and Longwood has adult diabetes, double the citywide average, according to the health department, which says more than half of area residents get no exercise.

As a result, St. Mary’s Recreation Center has made improving the health of local residents part of its mission, according to James.

The Shape Up New York classes, which began as an outdoor free fitness program have now been expanded by Kim to include yoga, cardio kickboxing and body sculpting. In a brightly lit classroom, participants ranging in age from five to 75, some wearing Spandex, others well-worn t-shirts, all work out together.

Three years ago the center began co-hosting a health fair with the American Diabetes Association, in an effort to improve the neighborhood’s grim health statistics. Sponsors from health organizations and hospitals offered free screenings, literature and cooking seminars.

Nearly 4,000 people attend the fair, James said, and because of its popularity, the center has begun to sponsor smaller health fairs, as well.

A version of this story appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Mott Haven Herald

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