77 Front Street
I first entered Gleason’s Gym at 77 Front Street in January 1997. It was a late morning, during the week, and I’d been working up the courage to cross the divide into a “real” boxing gym for some time.
Entering the second floor boxing emporium was like stepping into history. It fit every image of a boxing gym I’d ever had. It was somewhat dark, even with the light streaming through the wall of south-facing windows. It was cavernous and peopled inside and outside of the three rings with mostly men, but at least one women punching a heavy bag—who I later learned was Jo, wife of gym owner Bruce Silverglade.
The gym also had a smell to it of old sweat and new sweat, and steam heat and wringing wet gym clothes, that was in strong counterpoint to the almost antiseptic feel of every other gym I’d ever been in—health clubs really, which had been where I’d started my first rudimentary foray into the sweet science.
Standing in Gleason’s for the first time, taking in it all, with Bruce touring me around, I felt a mixture of awe and more awe and a dose of anxiety, watching real boxers spar and train, and finally a sense of triumph for having placed myself among the acolytes of a sport that had been contested since Homer had written about it in the 7th century BC.
It was then I came across the quote from Virgil that so lovingly adorns the wall at Gleason’s:
Now, whoever has courage, and a strong collected spirit to his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.
What I realized on that morning, was that was going to be me. I was going to face my fear. Face a lifetime of not having understood that I could always have crossed the divide of a boxing gym to box—even though I was a girl, it just took doing it to make it happen.
Back when Gleason’s Gym first opened in 1937 in the South Bronx at 149th Street and Westchester Avenue, it was the largest gym in New York City—no mean feat given the popularly of the sport in a town that had been associated with boxing since it first crossed the Atlantic Ocean from England in the 1820s. There were many, many gyms packed into every corner of the City back then, but Gleason’s became synonymous with boxing in the 1940s and 1950s when such champions as Jake LaMotta, Phil Terranova, and Jimmy Carter, called the gym home. Visiting boxers such as Mohammad Ali continued to give Gleason’s even greater cachet when they came up to the Bronx to train ahead of important fights at boxing’s Mecca, Madison Square Garden. The occasional woman boxed there too—including Jackie Tonawanda who trained there shortly before the gym relocated to West 30th Street in 1974.
Gleason’s continued to maintain its legendary status at its new location for the next 11 years before getting the boot when the building they were in turned co-op and they moved out of Manhattan to 77 Front Street in Brooklyn in 1985. Back then, before DUMBO was even a name, the industrial area was a pretty scary place. Bruce said, at the time, anyone coming to the gym was told to “get off in Brooklyn Heights at Clark Street on the 2 or 3 train and walk down along Henry Street.” He told them to walk the long way around rather than risking the walk through Cadman Park from the High Street A and C station or the route from the F train at York and Jay Streets.
The new home while out of the way had everything a great boxing gym needed: space and lots of it, a new owner in Bruce Silverglade who having become a full-time partner with Ira Becker brought the enthusiasm needed to keep the sport going at a time when it was waning in the imagination of the public. Bruce also brought the foresight to commit to having women in the gym and at his insistence built a locker room for women and well as men so that women always felt welcome in the gym.
As place, however, Gleason’s has always meant more, at least to me. It’s the place where I came into my own physically. I learned to overcome fear not of the ordinary kind, but the fear of my own power. Of being able to release my full physical being onto a boxing bag, and eventually in the ring against a person. It’s also where I learned the generosity of boxers. Of the myriad of tips and tricks my fellow boxers offered, and of hearing the ubiquitous “hi ya’ champ,” from one person or another every time I walked through the gym.
Morning, noon, or night, weekdays or weekends, there’s always someone to offer encouragement–even as they may be breaking one’s “chops” so to speak. And if I happen to get something right in the ring, I’ll hear someone sing out about it.
These days, Gleason’s sports six female boxing champions: Alicia Ashley, Heather Hardy, Ronica Jeffries, Sonya Lamonakis, Keisher “Fire” McLeod, and Melissa St. Vil. And if there’s one thing the gym has brought is a feeling of comfort for women from 6 to 60, and beyond.
When I first stepped into Gleason’s I was 42. These days, at 62, having boxed at Gleason’s on and off for 20 years, I feel it’s my home. As home, however, it’s come to have many meanings: For one, it’s the place where I can feel truly ageless.
It’s where I’ve penned my Girlboxing blog, and due to the true support and generosity of Bruce Silverglade, it’s where I wrote parts of my book, A History Of Women’s Boxing. More than anything, however, even more than boxing, Gleason’s Gym is where I came into my own as a writer.
Today, November 26, 2016, marked the last full day of Gleason’s 31 year history at 77 Front Street.
Come Monday, November 28th, the gym will begin its next incarnation around the corner at 130 Water Street. As Bruce put it, the gym in its fourth iteration is “starting a new chapter.”
For those of us on the early Saturday morning crew who rattled around this morning, embracing each other and otherwise reminiscing, there was a feeling of camaraderie, awe, and for sure a twinge of sadness. Gleason’s is after all, our collective home, but as Heather Hardy said, “it’s exciting that we are all going over there. And this right here, it won’t be any different from today to Monday.”
If place is location–then yeah, things will be different, but if place is a state of being then 77 Front Street, will live on for all of us that have called this iteration of Gleason’s Gym home. And sure the paint won’t be peeling in the new place, and it’ll be C-L-E-A-N clean, we all figure after a few weeks that special Gleason’s odor will start to permeate the space, and before we know it the paint will start to peel there too.