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City spotlight on New York:<br> the legend of Gleason’s Gym
Eve Reed

by Eve Reed
June 14, 2018

Filed under Cities

City spotlight on New York:
the legend of Gleason’s Gym

Continuing our cities spotlight series on what sustains our urban spaces globally, we look at sport in New York, how it brings people together and makes communities stronger, healthier and more sustainable.

As the oldest active boxing gym in the U.S. and perhaps the world’s most famous, Gleason’s Gym is an inspiring community sports space. It has a fascinating history that began during the Depression, flourishing after this and managing to stay strong in the 1960s as the last remnant of New York’s golden age of boxing. From this, it became beloved of Hollywood script writers and ad agencies, with a long and illustrious list of film and sports stars gracing its doors.

But it’s the transition from fight gym to boxing gym that has seen Gleason’s become a true community space, somewhere that welcomes everyone, from all walks of life. We talk to Gleason’s owner, Bruce Silverglade, about the gym’s journey over the years and what makes it so unique today. As a man who really knows the DUMBO neighbourhood, we also hear about its evolution and Gleason’s place in connecting communities.


Photo credit Micheal McLaughlin

How important do you feel sport is for communities to help people grow and thrive?
I think sport is as important to communities as anything else. Exercise, which is certainly sport, and the food we eat are 90 per cent of all our physical problems. Introducing young people to sport in schools is particularly important. If they can get excited about it as youngsters, they are likely to stay healthy their whole lives.

Sport helps to create the soul of a city. People from all walks of life can connect and can also find hope, prospects or whatever they’re looking for. It makes communities stronger, healthier and more sustainable.
Yeah completely. Culturally everyone plays or can play sport – it doesn’t matter about your age, ethnicity or sex. Once you’re on a team or playing a sport, that’s the common denominator. So people meet and understand one another and it’s so much better for life.


Riddick Bowe, Buddy McGirt, 
Iran Barkley and Juan Laporte
(Photo credit Gleason's)

The story of Gleason’s feels so positive and inspiring. What do you think makes it special?
I think it’s the attitude of the gym. We welcome everyone and are a friend to everyone. People know they can come here – if they want to do a commercial shoot we make it convenient for them, if they want to train, we help them. There is no attitude. I’ve had many world champions training here, like [Muhammad] Ali and [Mike] Tyson, but we are just as friendly to clients who aren’t professional fighters. Everyone pays the same. If a local neighbour is on the bags when Mike comes in and he wants to compete on that bag, he has to wait. Everyone is equal in here.

An environment of openness and acceptance, where everyone can feel equal; these sorts of places are so important to communities, to society.
They are very important. Everyone here is doing the same thing: we are trying to make everyone a world champion. Obviously most people don’t go on and compete but it’s this idea of trying to do your best.

It really is a great atmosphere, very soothing and fun, and everyone works together. I’ve got members who have been with me for years and years. It’s a family-style environment: as much as it’s a gym, it’s a community centre. People bring in their babies, girlfriends and so on. Gleason’s connects people from all walks of life.


Pro boxer Kimberly Tomes 
(Photo credit Micheal McLaughlin)

Many of your boxers are now women. So obviously Gleason’s is a really welcoming place for both sexes. When did women become interested in boxing there and why?
It goes back a couple of decades. Before Gleason’s moved to DUMBO, when we were in Manhattan, we had a much smaller gym and there was only one bathroom, one changing facility, and we only had men. But the women were coming in, constantly saying they wanted to train here. My business partner at the time, older than I was, was opposed to women in boxing.

But this was in the 1980s and the women’s movement was coming through. Finally, because we were going through a recession, I convinced him the women’s money is just as good as the men’s. So we experimented, closing the gym three nights a week and letting women come in and use the space. It became very successful, very fast.

A couple of years later, when I moved here to DUMBO, we built female facilities and were letting them train. But they still couldn’t complete legally in the amateur programme and one of the Gleason’s women, a Japanese lady, sued the amateur organisation and won. So we were the first gym to really accept women and we dominated the sport because of that. And then the movies came out: Girlfight with Michelle Rodriguez, Million Dollar Baby with Hilary Swank, and then England allowed women to compete in the sport. So it’s grown and continued to grow and now a good portion of my membership [over 400] is female.

I’ve had 135 world champions and currently have seven – all of these are women, so they can be terrific athletes.


Legendary world champ Roberto Durán
(Photo credit Gleason's)

Talk to me about this sense of history and strength that’s kept the gym going over the decades. It says a lot about what Gleason’s stands for.
I think Gleason’s is a reflection of New York City, which was a mecca for boxing back then. Madison Square Garden (MSG) was the place everyone wanted to train. As boxing flourished in New York, Gleason’s Gym flourished, it was where all the champions wanted to be. We relocated from the Bronx to Manhattan but when we were in Manhattan we were one block away from MSG. Gleason’s was where all the managers and promoters were – all the contracts were done there and most were done by handshake in those days.

When we came to DUMBO, I still had a monopoly on boxing, so even though we left the city, most of the fighters came with me. As the environment changed and prospered in DUMBO, boxing training started to become very, very popular, not only with women but with businessmen and now youngsters.

We currently have members from 67 nationalities. There are Israelis training with Palestinians, blacks with whites, men with women and children. We have charities, people with Parkinson’s [disease], children with autism, and a programme for wounded veterans. I’ve transitioned from a male-only fight gym to a boxing gym that absorbs the rest of the community. It means we are a microcosm of the city – a gritty cultural melting pot. The gym has had to change to survive and I’m tickled to death that we did as it’s brought in a magnificent number of people from varying backgrounds, income and educational levels.


Photo credit Micheal McLaughlin

But I like to keep the ambience in here old fashioned and that’s why we do so much television and commercial work. There are hundreds of nice, new looking gyms but if people want to see a retro place, they come to Gleason’s. So it’s been a very big benefit to me. As early as the 1970s ad agencies and Hollywood script writers were falling in love with it – they couldn’t believe such a place existed.

Gleason’s has been in DUMBO for 33 years. How did you come to be in this neighbourhood and what transformations have you seen?
I remember how disappointed I was back in 80s when we lost our lease in Manhattan and couldn’t find anything else we could afford or was adequate. The developer David Walentas [from Two Trees] had the foresight to develop the DUMBO area and he approached us. He showed us what was going to happen to the neighbourhood, and it all sounded great, but all we were concerned with was that the rent was dirt cheap.

But there was nothing here in DUMBO at that time – it was dirt roads, no streets or sidewalks. It was a very dilapidated area. And there was no one living here legally. There were squatters and the streets were littered with drug addicts and prostitutes. Just two businesses had come here prior to Gleason’s but they’ve since gone out of business, so we are the longest surviving business in the neighbourhood.


Photo credit Micheal McLaughlin

We watched the area start to develop and transform from this desolate spot to being ranked the fourth wealthiest neighbourhood in New York City – so it’s gone from rags to riches and is now a very vibrant area that is really flourishing.

Though my rent has gone up considerably since those days, the area has attracted so many people and businesses to live and work here. So my membership has increased enough that I can live with these rent and insurances rises.

What other reasons would you attribute to Gleason’s success?
Definitely the quality of the trainers. I have 92 trainers, many of them Olympians or ex world champions.


WBC featherweight champ
Heather 'The Heat' Hardy 
(Photo credit Micheal McLaughlin)

But it’s also this great mix of people and the family atmosphere. Whether a member is a successful athlete or someone who has just written a book or produced a show on Broadway, everyone is a family, sharing in each other’s successes. When one of our boxers wins a title it’s thrilling, as we are all part of it – our members know them and train with them.

It’s not like going into a weightlifting gym, where you pump your iron and go home. It’s a great social equaliser in here. These kids come in from the projects to become fighters and then they meet women and business people and realise how nice they are. It happens the other way round too – some of the fellas from Wall Street and the CEOs come in, meet these black and Hispanic kids and see they are kids who are focused and are actually the type of people they want in their businesses.

So when you train you become a successful person because of your focus and concentration. What you learn here in the gym and through this sport you can take back into school or your working life and do better. People come in here and they just see so many good character traits.

When you have a place where backgrounds and differences just fade away, everyone can see each other simply as fellow humans for their basic unifying character traits. What a great environment you’ve created.


Joey LaMotta and former world champ
Jake LaMotta (Photo credit Gleason's)

Let’s talk about you. You’ve been involved in Gleason’s for many years now.
When I graduated back in the 80s, I was recruited by the top retailer at that time [Sears] and was in their management programme for 16 years. I went that way because my dad was involved in boxing as I was growing up and I wanted to be my own person, do my own thing. I realised I was wrong. I hated working for a large corporation, wearing a suit and tie every day, following all these rules and regulations. So along the way I got involved in amateur boxing as a volunteer and worked my way up to become president of amateur boxing in New York. It meant going into all the different gyms and doing my thing.

One day I walked into Gleason’s and was having a coffee with the owner, who happened to mention he was looking for a partner. I said: “That’s it, don’t go any further, I’m your man”. I went back to Sears and resigned. That was 38 years ago and it’s just been a fabulous journey. It was a big transition but I’ve met so many wonderful people and it’s worked out very successfully. It’s a very rewarding and enriching experience.


World champ Ronica Jeffrey
(Photo credit Micheal McLaughlin)

Bruce Silverglade is also treasurer of the DUMBO Business Improvement District (BID), a partnership of the neighbourhood’s property owners, merchants, businesses and cultural organisations.

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Eve Reed
Written by Eve Reed
June 14, 2018
Filed under Cities