LONG BEACH — They began rolling in about 5 p.m.
There were several black teen-age boys looking tough in their red and blue sweat suits; a young Latino man sporting firm biceps and determined brown eyes, and an olive-skinned Anglo with the short-cropped hair of a punk rocker.
For awhile they hung out together, chatting amiably and sipping Gatorade. Then as the rhythmic jolts of rap music on the stereo began energizing the gym with a primordial beat, the youngsters gradually rose to the call. Staring at their own images in mirrors, they threw shadow punches in the air with tightly wrapped wrists. Some touched their toes or lifted iron weights. Others pulled on boxing gloves to spar in the ring.
Just a typical weekday evening at the American Fitness Gym on one of the most barren stretches of Long Beach Boulevard in this city's economically depressed central area. For nearly a decade, owners say, the grimy boxing gym has served as a beacon to inner-city youths, pointing to a life outside the ghetto. Dreaming of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, they have come here in droves, leaving the dangerous streets behind them to beat up punching bags instead of each other.
"Most of them are tired of being pushed around," said owner Charles Williams, 44. "They want to be able to express themselves and to identify with something positive. It's a way to escape from the neighborhood, to widen their vision, to shake hands with people other than the home boys on the block. For minority kids, this is a way out."
But it is a way that is about to be closed. Faced with mounting costs, Williams says his gym--the last of its kind in Long Beach since the Seaside Gym disappeared five years ago--is on the brink of shutting its doors. In fact, he says, unless he can make up about $15,000 in back payments almost immediately, the place is likely to go into foreclosure within a month.
"It makes me very sad," Williams said. "I wonder about all the kids."
It was wondering about one of his own kids, in fact, that inspired him to open the gym in the first place. A native of Iowa and former owner of a window-cleaning business, Williams is also a retired amateur boxer and lifelong aficionado of the sport. So in 1979 when his 7-year-old son showed a propensity for boxing, Williams says, he decided to train him himself.
"I began thinking about my baby boy," he said. "I wanted to see what I could do if I put boxing gloves in front of him instead of trains."
Instead of relying on the vagaries of other trainers, Williams, who is divorced, leased a 10,500-square-foot tropical fish store on Long Beach Boulevard and began the laborious process of converting it into a gymnasium, including upstairs living quarters for himself and his five children.
For a time things went well. The gym built up a sizable number of regulars, especially among black inner-city youths. Muhammad Ali has visited the place no fewer than eight times, Williams said. And Williams' son, Jeremy, now 16, has blossomed into a national heavyweight champion who won a gold medal in the Junior Olympics last year. The youth is seen as a bright prospect for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Lease Ran Out
But two years ago Williams' lease ran out. Exercising an option to buy, he negotiated a deal that gave him title to the gym for $265,000. As a result, his monthly payments--which for years had been $1,100--immediately tripled to $3,320, he said. The mounting deficit was created by the fact that his income did not increase accordingly.
Part of the problem, Williams said, is that although he technically charges about $25 per boxing lesson, few of his customers are able to pay. "You can't collect money from people who don't have it," he said. And while the gym has attracted lots of patrons from the immediate neighborhood, its lure has failed to penetrate the more affluent areas whose residents could better help keep it afloat.
Williams says he has already received several pointed letters from the bank and expects to be given a 30-day notice to vacate within a week. "Unless a miracle happens," he said, "I don't see (the money) coming."
Fears for Future
All of which makes him fear for the futures of the 20-or-so young would-be boxers with whom he spends most of his evenings at the gym. With no place to go, he predicts, many will succumb to the gangs and drugs that have already claimed so many of their peers.
"They'll have to do whatever is happening on the block," he said. "They'll find something (like a gang) to be part of in order to survive; you can't be a loner out there."
Others in the community echo those sentiments. "My image of the young men who go to that gym is positive," said Wayne Piercy, principal of Poly High School where many of the gym's regulars are students. "Any activities that keep students busy help. That's been one of our problems in the inner city; we just don't have enough organized activities."
As the daily workouts continue under the walls plastered with old newspaper clippings, pictures of famous boxers and covers of Ring Magazine, some of the youngsters themselves seem to sense the special precariousness of their situation.
"If it weren't for this place," said James Evans, 17, an admitted former gang member who took up boxing two years ago after his cousin was shot in a gang-related incident, "I'd probably be roaming the streets like I used to. If they close it down, where is everybody going to go?"
Jerrel Mosley, 16, had a possible answer. "You'll have people punching people's faces instead of bags," he said.