In the 40 years since the Village People released “YMCA,” the song has become a cultural touchstone: a gay anthem famous for its innuendos and double entendres about young, fit men “having a good time,” as well as a staple at Yankees games and bar mitzvahs.
The song has also immortalized the Young Men’s Christian Association in pop culture. Yet former residents of the McBurney Y in Chelsea — the building that inspired the song, and which was featured in the video released in late 1978 — say the reality of stays at the YMCA in those days was more complicated than the lyrics portray, with gay culture and working-class workouts coexisting in a single communal space.
“There was certainly a party aspect to their video and that time was the height of all the gay clubs in Chelsea,” recalls Davidson Garrett, who lived at the McBurney Y from 1978 through 2000. “[The YMCA] did have some overlapping of gay cruising. But it was a serious gym for people who really wanted to go and work out every day, and a nice place to live for working-class people.”
It was around May 1978 when part of the ceiling of Garrett’s Hell’s Kitchen one-bedroom apartment fell in, and the then 26-year-old actor and taxi driver put down $40 for what was supposed to be a week stay at the McBurney Y. The temporary arrangement became a 22-year stay.
“It turned out that I actually liked room living,” Garrett said. “It was in that room where I was able to finish my college education, where I was able to do acting auditions and work in the theater and know that I had a place to come back to that wasn’t going to cost an arm and a leg to pay for.”
Several months after Garrett moved in, the Village People filmed exterior shots of the McBurney branch for the “YMCA” video.
The full story appeared in Gothamist on Dec. 20, 2018.