By Michael Shank

Anacostia’s main fitness center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue closed this month due to hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, and the community is now left wanting in the gym’s absence. D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) had moved to put a stay on the closure but to no avail.

The neighborhood is now both a food desert and a fitness desert.

The SPIRIT Health and Wellness Center was no ordinary gym, which is why the space’s landlord, The Salvation Army, is now looking for a new nonprofit tenant who can provide similar services to Southeast.

The center, which had a $20 per month fee that was beyond many potential members’ means, was more than a place for mere exercise. Beyond being well-stocked with equipment and space to pump iron, learn martial arts, do yoga, dance Zumba or hit the treadmill (atop the best view of the city), the gym’s greatest gift was in building community.

After I first moved to Anacostia in 2010, the gym was a reliable go-to for new friends. It was part community center for organizing, part family of familiar faces and part information exchange about events in Anacostia. The very night the gym closed its doors, in fact, I stood outside the building on MLK with two guys that I befriended at SPIRIT years ago. It was a sad moment. We knew that we might not see each other again — or at least not nightly as we’d grown accustomed. Indeed, the demise of the center is part of a trend of disconcerting closures in Anacostia, from the recent closure of the Yes Organic Marketto last year’s closure of Uniontown Bar and Grill.

I am not alone in estimating the loss here. I interviewed several of my neighbors, also regular members at SPIRIT. They said the same — and then some.

For Jonathan Moore, the gym was his only shower for several months when his bathroom wasn’t yet functional. This wasn’t uncommon. I’d noticed several guys who’d linger for a while in front of the televisions before going to use the shower without the exercise to warrant it. In fact, I did the same when a pipe leak in my house forced a shut off for several days.

For another neighbor, Kendall Graham, who is the ANC Commissioner for 8A06 where the gym is located, it got her out walking in the community, more aware, and more connected to her environment. On her walk to the gym, she’d meet neighbors playing with their children or walking their dogs and would notice things she hadn’t paid attention to before, like “the shortage of safe sidewalks, dangling power lines, our population of stray cats, a beautiful view of the Anacostia River, solar panels on the local children’s center and fragrant, colorful gardens along the way”.

Yet another neighbor, Nelson Davy, had a similar experience. The gym is what got him more integrated into the community. “When I initially moved to Anacostia I was hesitant about going to the gym,” he said. “I had hang-ups with walking past my loitering neighbors that were always congregated on the corner of MLK and Talbert. I came to the realization that the foot traffic is actually good for the community. My daily walk to the gym opened up the door for me to start visiting other businesses in the neighborhood: the local barber shop, the Chinese food take-out spot, the convenience store. Now I walk my dog down MLK every day. Some of those loitering neighbors I actually talk to now.”

These are all reasons that have little to do with the gym’s core function, that of exercise. Yet all my interviewees noted the gym’s convenience and said they were more likely to exercise since it was close, not an insignificant point when heart disease is the number one leading cause of death among African Americans. Now, the closest gym, Results, is across the Anacostia River on Capitol Hill, out of easy access for most of my neighbors.

Graham reiterated this fact: “In our black families, we know more than one person affected by diabetes, hypertension, cancer or stroke.”

This is another reason why membership costs, and ease of access, cannot pose an obstacle for the community.

Many of my neighbors would’ve joined, and thus reaped the benefits of better health, had the membership costs been more affordable. I heard this constantly.

Graham is now advocating for a “speedy and thoughtful replacement for the shuttered fitness center, knowing it will help derail a health epidemic and possibly awaken our next crop of vigilant community leaders.”

To be clear: What we are missing is what this gym provided to the community, which we trust Salvation Army will work quickly to restore. In my conversations with them, that is what they are pledging.

We are not defending a mismanaged effort or taking sides in what is now a lawsuit. The dispute apparently centers on a disagreement over the lease, with SPIRIT management claiming that the contract included reduced rents if revenues were insufficient, while The Salvation Army, which is owed over $160,000 in arrears, moved to evict SPIRIT with little notice.

It is clear that a new model is needed, one that includes sliding scale or substantially discounted membership rates for community members that need this healthy outlet most. One that also includes a multi-functional space that can serve as income-generating rental and/or community organizing space. But we need something and soon. The health of the community is at stake.

Michael Shank, a resident of Anacostia, is adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum. He is a regular contributor to TheRootDC.