Saturday, February 24, 2024
HomeHealth and MedicalThe Power and Purpose of Harlem's Citizen's Gym

The Power and Purpose of Harlem’s Citizen’s Gym

IT’S THE TYPE of late-spring afternoon that nudges all of New York City toward outdoor activities, and Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem is buzzing. The 20-acre public park sits just south of the neighborhood’s main boulevard, 125th Street, where shiny new apartment buildings and retail stores have been popping up around cultural landmarks like the Apollo Theater in recent years, signaling a steady shift toward gentrification. Today there are dog walkers and joggers, kids getting out of school and burning off some excess energy, elderly folks looking for some fresh air, and, of course, the guys hustling chess games. But I’m headed to the southeast corner of the park to do something I haven’t done in a long time—an outdoor workout.

My instructor is Luis Melo (friends call him Melo), 43, who functions as the unofficial manager of the unofficial community gym where we’ll be working out, the Lion’s Den. He waves me over to an exercise area that’s made up of a collection of faded blue pullup, dip, and monkey bars, basically your standard metal playground fare from the days when children’s safety was of little concern; it doubles nicely for calisthenics. But there are a few more freshly added pieces of equipment there, too, including a heavy bag, a bench, assorted dumbbells—and even more gear stowed in a large green storage container nearby.

“As the summer comes, we’re going to put more of it out, and it’s going to just give people more motivation even to come here,” Melo says. “There’s people that walk by that just be like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that your space is here.’ ”

the lions den in harlem

Luis Melo, 43, has trained at the Lion’s Den since 2018.

Andre D Wagner

Melo is tall and trim with broad shoulders, and only his gray-tinged beard gives any hint of age. He’s been a mainstay at the Lion’s Den since 2018, after the Upper West Side native moved to Harlem. Two decades earlier, Melo had helped Mount Saint Mary College reach the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time in school history, but he arrived at the park searching for his jump shot again after surgery for kidney stones. “I needed to start getting back in shape, and I just needed to get my body back,” he says. “I would come outside every morning before work to shoot around, and I would always see Jamel out there.”

Jamel—one of a few men who join us— is Jamel Ali, the person credited with organizing what would become the Lion’s Den. A former construction worker in his mid-40s who’s currently unemployed, Ali himself was inspired decades ago by the groups of guys he saw already working out there. Over time, he added a little more structure and offered free training to kids in the neighborhood. “I was an athlete—boxing, basketball, football,
basically,” Ali says. “And as the community changed over in this park, I just spent some of my money to buy things that I felt could better people as far as health and some morale out here.”

On a typical day, hundreds of people now stop by the Lion’s Den to use the makeshift gym. And seeing that helps boost Ali’s own morale, too. He hasn’t been able to work out since an August 2022 car accident, which resulted in a few herniated discs and tears in his shoulder. He does physical therapy three days a week, but it’s coming out to the Lion’s Den, the thing he has put his money and sweat equity into building, that keeps his spirits up.

Especially after the city tore it down last year.

breaker

HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED: On April 12, 2022, officials from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation arrived with several uniformed police officers to confiscate the Lion’s Den’s workout equipment, including benches, heavy bags, and kettlebells. While Ali had been improving the space with gear for years, he was doing so without permits or the proper insurance—costly barriers even if you’re employed full-time.

This was the city’s second major purge at the Lion’s Den. Some gymgoers remember another mandated cleanup, in 2019, after which Ali was apparently able to secure a truce to have the fitness squad left alone, in part by explaining that Harlem exists in a fitness desert. Yes, plenty of gyms may have popped up in recent years, but many residents can’t afford them. Besides, the men at Marcus Garvey were building something bigger.

“It’s not just dips, pullups, and pushups,” Melo says. “Mental health is a big thing here. There’s a lot of community people that come to this park that have struggles with mental health and they might not have the access to services. And this just provides them a place to come and vent off some of that stress, whatever they’re going through.”

Before the parks department showed up to remove the Lion’s Den’s equipment in mid-April, however, the agency had begun taking a harder line, it seems, and regulating by the book, rather than making decisions based on what locals said they really needed. One issue was an improvised tent that the group had added to store much of its gear.

In early April of 2022, gymgoers were told about new complaints from the community: that the tent to keep weights dry was an eyesore and that the workout equipment blocked a path. (In an email to Men’s Health, a department spokesman said that maintaining a tent in a park without a permit is prohibited.) Ali says he was notified that he had one week to remove everything, which proved insufficient time for such an undertaking, with little in the way of resources not only for moving the heavy equipment but also for storing it someplace else.

the lions den

After much controversy, the Lion’s Den now stores its gear in a container provided by the parks department. It’s one of several ways the group is becoming more official.

Andre D Wagner

That’s when park officials returned with police reinforcement and tossed much of the Lion’s Den’s gear into waiting garbage trucks. In one video posted to TikTok, you can hear a man shouting, “This is a public fucking park! It’s public and we need time to move our shit. And you gotta give us time!”

The incident brought about renewed charges of gentrification displacing Black communities, perhaps because the complaints seemed to coincide with new residents moving into the area. “We at some point was being antagonized by the newcomers in the community,” says Indigo, a 28-year-old Lion’s Den patron, “with them not knowing [what we’re about].” Kioka Jackson, a Harlem native and president of the Community Council for the 25th Precinct (which helps bring neighborhood concerns to law enforcement), whose grade-school-age grandson became enamored with and eventually started training with Ali, says some of the gym’s defenders didn’t understand the history between the gym and the city. That led to more-intense reactions on the day of the incident. “The guys that were out there that began to film had no knowledge about the previous conversations that had happened,” she says.

Regardless of motives or misunderstandings, a familiar narrative emerged: a Black community, deprived of adequate resources and determined to forge something of its own, versus a city apparatus apparently equally determined to ensure that citizen-led revitalization never happens. But the stakes for Black Americans are especially high because decades of historic and ongoing systemic racism have created a national health crisis, one in which they’re likely to die far earlier than their white counterparts, often due to health issues related to stress and a sedentary lifestyle. In Harlem, the average lifespan is still ten years lower than in more affluent parts of New York City.

Getting outside and exercising more regularly could help change that, but communities of color often have far less access to park space. In the 100 most populous American cities, the neighborhoods where most residents identify as nonwhite have an average of 44 percent less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods do, according to a recent report from the Trust for Public Land. In addition, the cost of a gym membership at places near Marcus Garvey Park ranges from $15 to $75 per month, which impacts someone earning the area’s median income of $40,000 far more than it would people who live elsewhere in the city and typically make twice as much.

But Marcus Garvey Park was now being more heavily regulated, supposedly for the public good. The space previously filled with equipment was empty, and dozens of Harlem residents who’d depended on it for their strength and health and wellness were left stranded. With enforcement standards shifting, Ali, Melo, and others realized that the public park system was failing them. They needed a new way to organize. “I started fighting for what we need instead of what they say we [can] have,” Ali says.

breaker

OVER THE NEXT month, as eyewitness videos and social media posts helped news of the confiscation go semi-viral, Ali met with parks officials and negotiated a compromise: The department provided the large green container now used to store equipment overnight and waived the $25 monthly fee for a “special events” permit for its long-term use. “Our priority here has always been to ensure a clean and safe park that is accessible to all its users,” said the department’s Manhattan borough commissioner, Anthony Perez, in a statement to Men’s Health. “We endeavor to work with community groups and leaders to promote safe recreation and fitness in our parks, and look forward to continued conversations with the Lion’s Den.”

That sounds nice, but the workout area looks closed for some minor renovations on the day I arrive. The rims on the nearby basketball court have been taken down while the asphalt gets a fresh coat of paint, so in order to get to the Lion’s Den, I have to duck underneath yellow police tape attached to the gate. It feels appropriate, given everything the group has been up against to maintain this space.

Melo wants to lift anyway. He’s going to run me through what he and other regulars call a “mega-set.” At least, I’ll be attempting to complete a partial mega-set, which is made up of a series of dips, pushups, inverted and regular pullups, squats, and battle-rope moves. Usually they time people on this circuit, with the aim being to complete it forward and backward in ten minutes or less. Luckily for me, no one has taken out a stopwatch. By the time I get to the pullups, which I would struggle with under normal conditions, my arms, shoulders, and back are screaming.

But Melo’s encouragement never ceases, and between him and Indigo, who completes our mega-set with ease, I’m hearing every variation of “keep going,” “one more, one more, c’mon,” and “you got this!” you can imagine. When I reach the ropes at the end, my arms (which haven’t lifted much more than my four-month-old daughter recently) are noodles, but my partners have me convinced that a 30-second push is entirely doable.

the lions den in harlem

Melo and all of the Lion’s Den members share the same mission: staying healthy and making the park a welcoming place.

Andre D Wagner

When I finish, I feel like what Indigo says is true: Three months working out with these guys and I’d be ripped. Except this is just their warmup.

During the early days of Covid, the Lion’s Den saw constant activity; at peak hours, dozens of people looking for a safe outdoor alternative to an indoor workout rotated in and out. Ali would be there every day, offering instruction to anyone who sought it. “No matter what time I went, he would be there,” Melo says. “He would already be in full training mode.”

Since Ali’s injury, Melo has assumed responsibility for some daily duties, which he balances with his day job as a data scientist while also running his own consulting business. As one of two people with a key to the storage locker, he typically arrives around 8:00 in the morning before work, sets out some gear, and does his own workout. After work, he exercises again and makes sure the equipment is locked up for the night.

On a sunny Saturday this summer, I met men like Fiveio (“the original one,” he jokes), a 40-year-old herbalist; Shakeel Taylor, 33, who works in a detox program called Project Renewal; and Christopher Ford, 25, a teacher’s assistant. A dozen or more guys showed up to bench, hit the heavy bag, do yoga stretches, and put on a pullup display that felt like gymnast training.

I was witnessing the Lion’s Den in its full glory—fitness and camaraderie—which makes it the kind of place that has become a more attractive option than a traditional gym for people like 33-year-old Lamar Griffin. The Bronx native, who is built a lot like an NFL running back, says he found the area only a few months ago, after moving to Harlem to care for his mother, who is in hospice. “I’m paying for a membership in Blink. It’s crowded, small for a gym,” he says. After visiting the Lion’s Den, he realized he “could come out here in the park—open air, good vibes, nice people. I was like, ‘Yeah, good energy over here.’ It’s nice. It’s actually a luxury.”

the lions den in harlem

The Lion’s Den provides Harlem residents with a safe clean outdoor space to exercise.

Andre D Wagner

That’s not something you typically find—at least not immediately—at your local gym, but Melo says regulars try hard to keep the environment welcoming to all: “You have people that do boxing, then you have the yogis that come out and practice their yoga. You got the basketball players that come out and do some plyometric work with calisthenics. You have a group of women that come out; some women run the steps. It’s a real community.”

They’re following a long history of fellowship in the area that includes, most prominently, 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, also known as “Black Woodstock,” with performances by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and Sly and the Family Stone. The community’s self-advocacy vibe is even reflected in the park’s name: Marcus Garvey was a Pan-African activist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. In the early ’70s, community organizers lobbied to have his name replace the park’s older one, Mount Morris Square, a reference to a politician from the 1800s.

And the Lion’s Den’s existence feels more vital than ever. In the first year of the pandemic, at least nine fitness or wellness spaces in Harlem closed, according to the local-news network Patch. This in a neighborhood where the rates of obesity and related health conditions are higher than in the rest of the city. “It was crazy to me how, though we’re a community that had the high rate of diabetes, high rate of hypertension, high rate of heart disease, there were no cardiovascular-workout options,” says Tammeca Rochester, owner of Harlem Cycle, the spin studio she founded in the neighborhood in 2016. Rochester has since discovered that running a fitness business in an area where the median income is at least $36,000 less than in the rest of Manhattan means she can’t serve everyone. “At the end of the day, we have free classes and we have free programs for our community to get people in, but we have to charge something, because I have a landlord I have to pay.”

In the park, the violence that often thrives outside its borders isn’t welcome. “It’s a divide between West and East [Harlem],” Ali says about the park being a safe space for everyone. Except for gymgoers in disputes with the city, of course.

breaker

TO REPLACE THE gym equipment confiscated last year, the Lion’s Den set up a GoFundMe page that was able to raise enough money to buy new gear— dumbbells, kettlebells, boxing gloves, free-weight plates, resistance bands—thanks to deals on Craigslist and Amazon. People who learn about the group are always looking to donate their used gear, too. Sure enough, while Melo, Ali, and I sat talking after my workout, a man walked up and asked if they might have use for a heavy bag that was sitting in his basement.

But while the gym may have broader community support, full-fledged institutional support still seems questionable. During one of my visits, several parks department officials were present for a cleanup day. They even brought a DJ. Men from the Lion’s Den participated, picking up scrapers between sets to chip away at the old paint on the toddler swings. They shook hands and took pictures with the parks representatives. The reality, however, is that one cleanup doesn’t come close to the large-scale investment the park needs to adequately serve those who use it. Connie Lee, a former president of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, says a proper upgrade of this section of the park should include a full renovation, which could cost between $35 million and $45 million. Against that backdrop, the department’s recent $7.9 million restoration of the park’s landmark watchtower seems tone-deaf; it’s not significant to regular users. Kioka Jackson points out that the playground is the same as when she was a child.

As for the Lion’s Den, its future hinges on the formation of a nonprofit organization, which requires securing the proper permits and paying about $1,500 annually for insurance. “It’s something that is being worked on right now, [writing] mission statements and putting together a group and a board,” Melo says. Their working name is the Lion’s Den United Community Action Network—UCAN. As with any nonprofit, the greatest barrier is raising funds, which they’re currently doing by selling merch, writing letters to local businesses, and using GoFundMe. It’s another hoop to jump through to accomplish their mission, but one Melo would rather not focus on as a negative.

the lions den in harlem

The Lion’s Den gets busy on a Saturday this summer as gymgoers work out together and inspire one another.

Andre D Wagner

“Although I felt resentful at one point, seeing the support that the park has received helped me see that this is an opportunity to do something that’s really giving back to the community,” he says. “I’m trying to look at this nonprofit process the same as the progressions it took me to learn to do a muscle-up or do 100 straight pushups.”

The city may have neglected them, but Lion’s Den members still pay attention to others. During my own workout, Melo didn’t laugh when I couldn’t do a pullup. He adjusted the routine, offered an alternative exercise (a series of flexed arm hangs that weren’t that much easier than the pullup), and then cheered me on through the rest. It’s the kind of thing you get when the ambition is bigger than profits or the muscles being worked.

The Lion’s Den, above all else, is a community forging bonds that can help it weather the storm of neglect, divestment, and despair that has tried to dim Harlem’s light. “Kids come here; they feel safe. It’s a kind of no-gun zone, no-gang zone pretty much,” Melo says. “When you come here, it’s really more about building yourself up, getting good energy, and just being around like-minded people from different backgrounds.”

And when we learn to embrace the variety of ways a good workout can look and feel, we all get stronger

what the lions demeans to others the citizen run gym has created a healthier space for all here's how that inspiration continues to spread

connie lee, former marcus garvey park alliance president

CONNIE LEE, 65, Former Marcus Garvey Park Alliance President

“Everyone is welcome. I walked through [The Lion’s Den] yesterday and a guy said, ‘Can I work out here?’ They’re like, ‘It’s free. Of course.’ That’s the vibe.”

Andre D. Wagner

joshua clennon, community manager

JOSHUA CLENNON, 30, Community Manager

“I like doing pull-ups. Whether it’s playing a game, working out, or just listening to the drummer circle, this is a safe space to come outside, be healthy, and be ourselves.”

Andre D. Wagner

kioka jackson, community council president

KIOKA JACKSON, 48, Community Council President

“This is a place to come and get some air. My neighbors and myself do walks around the park and mimic some of the things that they are doing [in the fitness area]”

Andre D. Wagner

This story appears in the September 2023 issue of Men’s Health.

Headshot of Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith lives in Brooklyn and is the author of Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching and Stakes Is High. 

Read More

RELATED ARTICLES

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular

Recent Comments