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Paula Lupkin

Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Urban Culture

by Paula Lupkin
Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, 2010
312 pp., illus. 126 b&w,11 col. Trade, $82.50; paper, $27.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-4834-4; ISBN: 978-0-8166-4835-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Architectural history, sociology, gender studies and cultural studies come smoothly together in this very interesting publication by Paula Lupkin (assistant professor of architecture at Washington University Saint-Louis) on the "Y", as the YMCA is often called. The book is an exemplarily inviting and challenging study on something that has been so ubiquitous and so "typically typical" that it had become almost invisible in American history: Indeed, thanks to the success of the organization after the Civil War, when it was rebuilt and reorganized by the new generation of WASP entrepreneurs, and to an ambitious building program in the first decades of the 20th Century, when more or less standardized Y centres spread nationwide, the YMCA - both a building and as a center of social life (later often associated with gay culture, hence the still popular song by the Village People) - has long-time been of the major landmarks of America's Main Street urban life. Lupkin's book does not only tell the story of the building culture of the Y's, although this story itself, technically speaking a variation on a neo-classical ideal and institutionally speaking an example of the shift from philanthropy to business, is quite fascinating in itself. What Lupkin is most interested in, is the social, political, ethical, ideological, and commercial aspects of what the YMCA buildings were actually standing for. The answer to this question proves to be very complex, since the meaning of the Y has changed dramatically over time.

Broadly speaking, the main changes were twofold, yet each of them had to do with the necessity of adapting the organization to new forms of urban culture in which the original WASP values were no longer at home. In each case, Lupkin describes very well how a change of function corresponds with a change of meaning (and vice versa).

First, from an ideological point of view, Lupkin analyzes the gradual shift from a half-social, half-religious center to a merely social center in which (more and more) athletics, social activities and (less and less) religion were blended. In the former model the initial customers were invited to train themselves in typically WASP ideals such as honesty, hard work, self-control, paternalistic responsibility -all pre-incorporation era values that in the first decades of the Republic it was still possible to transfer for the sphere of family life to the different world of business and commerce. In the beginning, the Y functioned as a kind of informal school in which unmarried young men learned to behave well so that they might become successful in business as well as in social life and marriage. In the latter model, which did not appear overnight, the sporting and social facilities of the YMCA gradually erased the religious function, although this function had never been the main focus: young men were invited to get themselves exposed to religiously tainted activities, but this invitation was never an obligation. The Y became rapidly a social center representing "honest" activities, rather than a place of indoctrination or manipulation. Initially strongly opposed to modern entertainment, at least in comparison with competing entertainment forms such as the saloon and the brothel, the Y had to negotiate its place in the new market of mass culture and commercial entertainment, hence the progressive opening to athletics (the swimming pool and the gymnasium were not present in the first YMCA buildings) and new forms of urban culture (the billiard pool soon replaced the lecture hall, at least in the eyes of the visitors). In a still later stadium, the ideological dimension of the Y faded away like the religious dimension had done and the organization's function became purely social (in that later period, the YMCA started also to rent rooms, a decision to had of course a strong impact as well on the structure of the buildings).

Second, from a management and financial point of view, Lupkin examines as well the increasing tension between the original aims of the YMCA, whose driving force had been the desire of modern captains of business to fight the moral and social dangers that menaced the male workforce of incorporated capitalism, with its widening gap between employers and employees, and the necessity of becoming an incorporated business itself, with all that implied at the level of fund-raising, membership, organizational structure, and strategic policy. These transformations strongly affected the way in which the YMCA was managed as well as the public it was catering to. In the beginning, membership was not only necessary, but in practice limited to white-collar workers having left their country home in order to find a job in the city, hence the strong gender, social and ethnic undertones of social life at the Y. Women, blue-collars, immigrants, non-whites were excluded, or rather encouraged to socialize in separate YMCA's (for Germans or for coloured people, for example). The difficulties in coping with the changes of society as a whole are well analyzed by Lupkin, who rightly emphasizes the importance of competition between various types of organizations devoted to the construction and management of social centres, some of them explicitly religiously or ideologically oriented, others no less explicitly defending a policy of neutrality.

The great merit of Lupkin's book, however, is not just to offer a very readable and interdisciplinary approach of a crucial social phenomenon that until now had escaped serious scholarship, but also to introduce some important hypotheses on the exceptional success of the YMCA. Ideological and social adaptability is certainly one of the major causes that explain the incredible expansion of the Y over the whole nation (and even abroad). Management culture is another, and perhaps less expected one. But also urban development and planning proved to be a decisive factor, each city being eager to host a Y that was bigger, more original or better situated than that of comparable cities (if Richard Florida would have written his book on the creative class a century ago, he would certainly have stressed to role of a well-equipped YMCA to attract and keep young promising people!). Finally, image-building and mass communication are included as well, as for instance in the very illuminating analysis of the post card fashion that invaded the US after the invention of that new medium (first launched at the Chicago World Exposition of 1893).

Lupkin succeeds in presenting her subject with a perfect mix of sympathy and critical distance. The iconography of the book is gorgeous, and used in a way that is both efficient and permanently surprising. And the style of her writing is elegant and smooth from the very first till the very last sentence. A must-read for all those interested in American cultural history, and for all those who are looking for what interdisciplinarity in cultural studies may represent at its best.


Last Updated 1 December 2010

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