Frenchie’s Gym – Not Your Local Crunch

Hidden on the second floor of this building adjacent to the JMZ elevated train line in South Williamsburg is Frenchie’s Gym, a slice of authentic old school Brooklyn culture that has somehow managed to avoid the gentrification wrecking ball rapidly swinging toward it.

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Blink and you’ll miss it. From the ground level, the only evidence of a gym is this red awning over a wooden door. No neon signs with enormous fist icons, eXtreme in-your-face fonts, or toned girls with clipboards trying to sucker you into trading your soul for a duffel bag.

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But to those that look closely, the door alone should give an early indication that Frenchie’s has infinitely more character than any modern gym you’ll find anywhere in New York City. Old polished wood, worn with age, surrounds chicken-wire glass. The type of door they don’t make anymore. The type of door no one would ever put on a modern gym.

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This is the kind of door that reminds me of a Raymond Chandler novel – private dick Philip Marlowe standing in front of it, hand on the knob, sucking on a cigarette and debating whether or not the low pay he’s getting for the case is worth the risk of going upstairs to question a suspect who looks like the guy on the glass.

Of course, Marlowe would go up, and I had to too.

Frenchie’s Gym is pure old school – there is simply no other way to describe it. Meat and potatoes. Bare-bones equipment, all iron, no frills.

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The type of place you expect to find Rocky training in (pre-comeback, of course). A place where people work out because being ripped is not just a vanity/health issue – it’s a necessity to get by.

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Adding to the character of the gym is the fact that it is located right next to the elevated JMZ track. Every five minutes, a train roars by, rattling every work-out machine and dumbbell on the floor with nerve-shaking intensity.

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Like the passing subway, there’s a raw energy in Frenchie’s that you won’t find in most gyms. It’s about power, pure and simple.

The machines ooze history. The worn foot presses and rubber handle bars suggest countless muscle-building sessions dating back to God know’s when. Does anyone even make this type of equipment anymore?

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Iron, iron, and more iron…What else do you need?

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Frenchie’s Gym has no A/C. Getting hot? Hopefully these (unintentionally) vintage ceiling fans will cool you down, provided you happen to be working out at a machine directly under one (is there ANY other place in Williamsburg where you could find this type of thing installed for non-retro/vintage/ironic reasons?).

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Luckily, Frenchie’s Gym is also lined with enormous windows on both sides of the room, all of which are wide open in the summer. A pleasant breeze travels through, a nice change from the stale recycled air of your typical gym.

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But really, the most important and unique aspect of Frenchie’s Gym is the man himself – Frenchie.

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Also known as Papi to his clients, Frenchie has been in business here for decades, dating back to a time when the idea of twenty-something, college-educated kids flocking to the area in droves for the hippest bars, clubs, boutiques, galleries, and restaurants, was downright batshit fucking insane.

Frenchie is one of those endlessly interesting guys who you want to chat with for hours. He’s full of wit, stories, warmth, and wisdom. Frenchie reminds me a bit of Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid – bottom line, do not underestimate him, especially not for his age. He’ll surprise you when you least expect it, with a kick on the ass so you don’t forget.

There are no computers at Frenchie’s Gym. Customer information is kept in a single ledger, beautifully warped and worn. Not that Frenchie ever refers to it – he knows every customer by name.

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I really wish I took a better picture of his desk. When was the last time you saw a similar array of items (note the antique calendar/pen holder)?

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One of the best parts of Frenchie’s Gym are the literally hundreds of pictures and signs that line the walls. Photos of body-builders and wrestlers dating back to the 1970s are hung beside amusing, hand-painted signs with reassuring messages like “Don’t Worry, Frenchie’s Gym Is Fully Insured – Unless You Hurt Yourself Working Out.”

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I dig the “Please Be Carefull (sic) of the Mirrors” sign below, but even better is the small hand written note in the corner: “Drop the weights…& you’re out!!!”

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“Mr. Frenchie’s Gym 1989″ – a body-building competition?:

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Hand-painted sign advertising Frenchie’s Gym:

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Frenchie is the nicest goddamn guy on the planet, and as I was leaving, he tossed me a free t-shirt. Stop by and pick one up for yourself, if only to have an excuse to see the gym.

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The fact that Frenchie’s Gym has not a single review on either Citysearch or Yelp speaks volumes about its clientelle and relevence in modern day Williamsburg, and it’s disappointing. I’m certainly not trying to convince you that you’d have a better workout experience at Frenchie’s over your local Crunch or Equinox or similarly embarressingly-named place. But Frenchie’s is a reminder of what we sacrifice in gentrification – soul for modernization and convenience. Is it worth it? Unfortunately, before we can even debate the issue, inevitibility makes it all moot.

But for every new twenty-something who moved to NYC within the last six years or so and complains that the city has lost character; that Times Square is not Times Square; that New York is no longer dangerous, that there’s no more grit and grime; that it doesn’t resemble the tough, down-and-out black and white pictures in their favorite glossy coffee table photography books; that they pine for the days when things were a bit more dark and dirty and mysterious, a time when you had to fight tooth and nail to get by -

Frenchie’s Gym is waiting for you. Something tells me you’ll be going to Equinox.

-SCOUT

Info for scouts, potential customers, and anyone curious to simply check out the gym: Frenchie is really the nicest guy in the world, and happy to oblige pretty much any request. If you’d like to go and shoot the place simply for the sake of photography, nothing would make him happier. He’s also very much looking for the next film production payday for anyone looking for an old school gym.

You can give him a call at (718) 384-9461. Chances are, he’s the guy answering the phone. Or, better yet, go visit him in person at 303 Broadway in Brooklyn – JMZ train to Marcy Ave, then walk east on Broadway to the BQE overpass.

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20 comments

  1. Those are some awesome ceilings. And yeah, the place has character, but the fact of the matter is equinox has better equipment and less intimidating clientele.

  2. Those stamped tin ceilings are stunning. (So’s the t-shirt.)

    Thanks for pointing out the “Drop the weights…and you’re OUT!!” sign. That’s genius. Everybody hates the guy who has to drop his weights at the end of a set, proving he’s worked mega-weight to the point of exhaustion. I guarantee the guy who does that was also grunting like Maria Sharapova.

    Great post, Scout–a terrific example of what makes this blog so special!

  3. Thanks so much for this excellent post and beautiful photos.

    I have always wanted to work out at a gym like this (there used to be one on 6th Street b/t A/B in the East Village), but I’m neither a man nor a bodybuilder, so I always figured they’d laugh me out the door.

    :(

  4. Sometimes I wish I had a time machine just to get the soul and the romance back in our cities, but then a sinlge vestige of the old times like Frenchie’s gym convinces me that there will always be a resistance to what’s ransacking our world. Thanks a lot for that, from Philadelphia.

  5. That looks like a great place to workout! Love the feel the pictures give.
    That little green book says something like: ¨No credit today, tomorrow yes. The person who gives credit is out, looking for those who owe him¨
    I thought that was pretty funny

  6. You may be able to help me. At women’s only fitness locations, they had a machines that was electric, barrel shaped with free rolling bars on it that was rolling as you sat on it and it stimulated the legs before a workout, it was in every womans gym until after the 1980,s. Do you know of the machine that I am speaking of, do you know who made them, is there a way to obtain one, personal use at home. I can’t find anyone that knows what I am referring too. I will look forward to your answer. Thank you!

  7. Thanks for the great write=up on my dad. I live in Newport News, VA and it amazes me that my dad has blogs, a myspace page and had an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine! He is an amazing person and I couldn’t be more proud of him. He celebrated his 69th birthday on August 21st.

    Thanks, Chary Mangual 757-532-5881

  8. I’m always standing outside Frenchie’s window while waiting on the JMZ platform. Always wondered what it looked like inside.

    I’m surprised you didn’t take a picture of the Frenchie’s gym painted ad sign on the side of the building.

  9. I read this about a month ago and finally made my way over to Frenchie’s. I signed up for six months and got right to work. I’m digging it. Can’t wait to go back.

  10. Maria Sharapova’s legs are truly awesome and she also got a pretty face,:*

  11. The last post slipped away before I mentioned the history of building the gym sits above which was a turn of the century 5 and 10 cent store F.W. Woolworth with a lunch counter. Around the corner on S 5th & Rodney is my old church St. Pauls (amazingly preseved), continue down Marcy Ave to view an original YMCA building (now an LDS church I believe) and vintage a Brooklyn Public Library.

  12. I used to own a gym like Frenchie’s myself. WHen I moved to NYC I had to close it. I took me 3 years of living in NY before I found Frenchie’s. THe place literally saved my sanity. I was my sanctuary. I hate the phony Equinox/Crunch/whatever in hell other corporate place attitude. Those places simply can’t get you into it. Frenchie’s will make a real lifter feel at home. To the comment on top that said Equinox has better equipment- hell no. It might look newer but that doesn’t mean crap. Old school equipment will always get you better and faster results, back then machines were built for guys that actually wanted to train hard.

  13. Frenchie’s is the perfect place for anyone who misses the late, much lamented Fifth Ave. gym. Frenchie is just as nice and encouraging as the guys who used to work at that place, and it would be a great loss for all of us if he went out of business.

  14. Jovenus Fitness(GYM, Yoga, Aerobics, Spinning, Zumbaa) DLF Phase 4, Gurgaon. Membership Starting from Rs. 1500 – 4000 /- per month*. Jovenus is a GYM in Gurgaon which is centrally located at 7418, Dlf Phase 4 (behind supermart-2). It is divided into 3 floors and has a total area of more than 5000 sqft.

  15. I bet they have an overhead pullover machine there…maybe even a donkey calf-raise machine…new gyms suck

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