Jerusalem Pool closed YMCA Pool opens

Going back to an unchanged place tells us a lot about how we have changed. But, what happens when we go back to a familiar place that has changed? This question was rolling in my head as I walked into the new YMCA underground sports center, behind the historic YMCA building.

I was a member of the YMCA swimming pool for the duration of my studies at Bezalel in the 1980s, when a group of dedicated swimmers would spend about half an hour working out in the historic pool in the basement of the south wing of the YMCA building. It may look like a Byzantine church on the outside, but on the inside it felt like a combination of College pool and Turkish hamam, with sunlight pouring from the stained glass windows. Every lap was an experience, as the sunlight hit the water and the colored glass shapes were distorted in the water, as they met the mosaic tiles of the pool walls and floor. Like a David Hockney painting coming to life, with light, color and the moving reflections of blue crystal water.

Years passed. I left Israel, then returned to Jerusalem in 2010. I settled with my family at the Greek Colony next to the German colony, behind the Greek community club compound. A few blocks away from our apartment was another pool, the Jerusalem Pool, a 50m Olympic size light covered community pool. A small heaven in the middle of the city. The sunlight that penetrated the covered roof, every time a skylight was slid open, as the sunlight hit the water, it reminded me of the YMCA pool many years back. Being a regular at the Jerusalem pool, I soon learned that, similar to the entire German colony area, the pool site was also slated for development of luxury housing. The pool site owners Kibbutz Shoresh and Ela Bros were planning to close the pool soon.

The Jerusalem pool was opened in 1958. It included three swimming pools – an Olympic size pool, and two pools for children in an 8 dunam site. After the construction of a commercial and office building on the site facing Emek Refaim in 1993, the owners saw the opportunity to also build on the rest of the site, to replace the public pool. The first change came in 2006 and then in 2009, when the owners got the approval of the city engineer to change the use of the land from a private open space to housing. This was decided without consulting the community or giving the local community the right to object. Then the owners decided to build, and in order to get the pool evacuated started to neglect it and raised the membership costs. Given the condition of the pool, the Health Ministry requested closure and maintenance in 2010. This gave the owners an additional opportunity to declare their intention to close the pool, which was rejected by both the city and the community. In 2011 the pool was closed again for repairs, which were approved by the Health Ministry, although their scope was minimal.

The community started to get organized in 2009 to object the plans of the owners, when their membership was not renewed and feared that this meant that the pool would be closed. A community group to oppose the plans to close the pool was organized and supported by the Community Center Ginot Hayir. What made the community campaign relevant – and inevitable – was the clause in the agreement between the owner and the city, that the closure of the swimming pool ought to have the agreement of the commnunity. The community worked methodically to gain support both from the community and from the entire spectrum of the city council. Beyond the communication of messages in support to keep the pool open, the community soon realized that the battle would have to be fought in court. The legal process started in 2010 and ended in 2014 at the Supreme court, after a second round of legal mediation. The result was that the housing project would proceed, but a new pool (33m length instead of 50m) would be constructed for public use, to be managed by the community center. After nearly 6 decades, the Jerusalem pool in Emek Refaim was closed to the public on 31/10/17. Although the community organized a party to mark the occasion in good spirit, the owners made sure to start emptying the water the same morning and to close hot water in the showers, so that the last swimmers would get a clear message: ‘don’t come back’.

The Jerusalem pool was a great place to exercise and socialize right in the heart of the neighborhood. I once even had a chat at the locker room with the architect Amir Kolker, who is now the architect of the new luxury apartment complex to replace the Jerusalem pool. Having gotten ‘addicted’ to swimming several times a week, walking the Railway park was not enough. I had to look for a new swimming pool in the vicinity.

The options around the Greek colony are plenty, but not all suitable. For example, the Givat Ram swimming pool is a great option – 33 m long – but it is closed to those associated with the university. The Inbal pool is almost perfect, and near-by, but out of my budget. The YM&YWHA (Beit Hanoar Hayivri) has great facilities, but it would require driving. The Israel Goldstein Youth Village of Hanoar Hatzioni on Shai Agnon is within walking distance, but only offers swimming lessons. It seemed like the perfect choice was to wait for the new YMCA sports facilities to open.

The historic YMCA building on King David street is a truly inspirational architectural jewel in the city, built in 1933 by American architect Arthur Loomis Harmon of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the architect of the Empire State Building in New York City. The building is a mix of styles, combining stories from the Bible, the New Testament and the Koran, and local architectural historic styles that characterize the city – Herodian, Byzantine, Mameluke, and Ottoman - in its rich decoration. Interior and exterior. For architects and architecture students it is a great site for inspiration, exploration, and sketching.

The new YMCA sports center is part of the luxury housing development at the back of the historic building, which architects Spector Amisar of Jerusalem designed on the site of the legendary YMCA stadium. The sports center is located under the central plaza of the housing complex. It covers about 8600 sq.m. in three underground levels. It includes an indoor 10-lane 25 m swimming pool, a health and wellness center, a gym, three squash courts that can be transformed to a large multi-purpose room, six group exercise rooms, a martial arts studio, child care, a juice bar, a spa with six treatment rooms, three separate lobbies for social gatherings, a shop for sports clothes and accessories, locker rooms, and a rooftop plaza. The center finally opened in mid-November 2017, and shortly after, I took my bathing suit and towel and arrived to the YMCA to join – again – the club.

I climbed the stairs on Kind David street, passed the replica of the Madaba map mosaic of Jerusalem on the entrance floor, walked through the historic building, through the Beaux-Arts lobby with the Mamluk ceilings, all the way to the new plaza on the back, where the entrance to the new underground sports center is located.

The sports center lobby is welcoming with natural light and big glass windows connecting us visually to the old building, whose ground floor exterior walls are covered in stone carved with the characteristic ‘Herodian’ frames. The staff was welcoming and polite. I greeted Christos at the door in Greek, Ezz at the front desk in Arabic, and Ilana at the office in Hebrew. After signing up, I walked down the main stairs to the second basement. On the way to the locker rooms and pool, I saw the new closed basketball court and impressive workout gym already in full action. What is beautiful in the new center, is a balanced combination between modern design, stone facing and soft relaxing colors, and the freshness of a new facility. The architects also worked out the section wisely, allowing natural light to come down to the second basement, giving a feeling of openness and vitality. The sunlight and the beautiful pool reminded me of the older YMCA pool. It really felt like coming ‘home’. Until the Jerusalem pool is open again, it is good to be back to the Jerusalem Y.