Ralph Ellison waited tables there, Paul Robeson was discovered on its stage and Jackie Robinson coached basketball in the gym.
This bastion of black history is the Harlem Y.M.C.A., sometimes called the “living room of the Harlem Renaissance.” The 11-story brick building, on 135th Street off Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, also played a critical role throughout segregation, when blacks were barred from other Y.M.C.A.’s and were similarly unwelcome at many hotels, theaters, restaurants and other public places in the city — including Harlem itself. But even in a neighborhood where history carries a premium, the Y.M.C.A. is now largely an afterthought among the neighborhood’s cultural sites.
And as Harlem has shifted into a place with fewer poor, working-class and black residents and a growing number of Latinos and whites, the Y.M.C.A. has changed as well.
Its offerings now include a New American Welcome Center, where immigrants can learn English and become familiar with the mores of their adopted country; guitar lessons (guitar provided) for children; mambo, salsa, belly dancing, yoga and pilates classes for adults; and Saturday morning tumbling for 3- to 5-year olds.
The result is that since its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, the Harlem Y.M.C.A. — whose building, a city landmark, is celebrating its 75th year — is known less for its history than for its effort to re-establish itself at the center of the neighborhood.
Jack Lund, president and chief executive of the Y.M.C.A. of Greater New York, said that as part of its $300 million plan to refurbish, replace and build new Y.M.C.A.’s in the city, the proposed $39 million investment in the Harlem branch would be the centerpiece of the organization’s fund-raising campaign.
“It’s famous all over the country,” said Mr. Lund, who arrived in New York from Milwaukee four years ago. “Almost no philanthropist in the country isn’t going to understand what we’re doing.”
So, at some point after the current international financial crisis wanes, the Harlem Y.M.C.A. will most likely either move to a larger space or give its interior an extensive overhaul.
The plans include establishing a charter school, building an aquatic center where every second grader in the neighborhood would be offered swimming lessons, and setting aside space for a large kitchen, where people would learn how to cook healthful meals to help curb the area’s high rates of diabetes and obesity.
On a recent weekday, the Y.M.C.A.’s Little Theater — where Paul Robeson is said to have been offered the lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” after a performance in the 1920s — was empty.
The Little Theater, apparently so named because it can accommodate no more than about 200 people sitting in metal folding chairs, is now used mainly for neighborhood church gatherings, baby showers and political club meetings.
It still has its original black and red checkerboard floor, where dancers from the Cotton Club, Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater once rehearsed, and which Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee crossed on the way to the small stage.
Near the front of the building, in a small room used for English classes, is a 1935 mural by Aaron Douglas called “Evolution of Negro Dance.”
The mural’s figures, which appear in silhouette under rays of dappled sunlight, have faded badly. In some sections, the green and black paint has chipped away, leaving Mr. Douglas’s pencil tracings on the white wall peeking through.
Upstairs are spartan rooms, and while who slept where has long since been forgotten, the modest room of a more recent guest, former President Jimmy Carter, bears his name.
The accommodations have changed little since luminaries like Joe Louis and Jesse Owens bunked there more than half a century ago. European tourists writing on travel Web sites caution that the rooms are quite small. They are — even by New York standards. And the bathroom is still down the hall.
Inside the men’s locker room on the third floor, two half-dressed septuagenarians, William Still, 70, and Edward Joseph, 74, held court as a group of similarly attired gentlemen looked on.
The men talked about how Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright had been coming to play pickup basketball every Saturday for years. They spoke of the friends they once saw regularly, but who have either grown too old to get out or have taken ill and died.
Mr. Still, the more energetic of the two, has been coming five days a week for the past 20 years. Mr. Joseph’s first day was 50 years ago.
“I come here to get exercise,” said Mr. Still, who had just finished a water aerobics class. “You need to work out at least three times a week.” He paused and glanced around at his scantily dressed colleagues. “I certainly don’t believe in coming to see these dudes!”