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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Iron, iron, and more iron…What else do you need?
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?).
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.
But really, the most important and unique aspect of Frenchie’s Gym is the man himself – Frenchie.
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.
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)?
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.”
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!!!”
“Mr. Frenchie’s Gym 1989” – a body-building competition?:
Hand-painted sign advertising Frenchie’s Gym:
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.
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.
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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