On March 18, area residents and Ald. Ronnie Mosley (21st Ward) gathered outside Esporta Fitness in Morgan Park at 11520 S. Marshfield Ave., for a rally to protest the gym’s upcoming closure. 

“All you did was put up a sign on the door stating that you’re closing one month from now. So you guys did not consider the health of our seniors,” gym member Michael Brammer said, referring to the owners of Esporta Fitness. “You did not consider the health of our youngsters. All you want to do is close the place, and that, to me, is an abomination.”

Hearing about the looming closure propelled Brammer to action. He said he and other gym members recently circulated a paper petition for about two weeks, urging members to sign it, and they’ve gotten more than 1,000 signatures from Esporta members. 

“This staple in our community brings adults and youth together for positive mentorship through exercise and camaraderie. The health club has far too many members who will be displaced to smaller clubs, causing overflow at peak times. Please do not close another positive institution in the African American community,” the petition reads.

Marsha Eaglin, a Beverly resident and gym member, also helped raise awareness about the closure. She suggested a community co-op model to keep the gym open. 

“We are asking other investors to step up to the plate,” Eaglin said. She is also the executive director of Impact Family Center, a human service organization dedicated to improving the lives of youth, children, and their families.

“We will make this [gym] community-run and community-owned,” she continued. 

Earlier this month, Esporta Fitness members learned that the club would permanently close on April 1. Signs were placed outside the club’s doors, at the front desk where members check in, and throughout the club. 

It’s unclear why the club is closing at the moment. The TRiiBE reached out to both Esporta Fitness and LA Fitness for comment but could not be reached at the time this story was published. 

Esporta Fitness opened in Morgan Park under the LA Fitness brand in 2011. In 2020, LA Fitness announced that it would launch its new Esporta Fitness model, meaning that select LA Fitness locations nationwide would be renamed Esporta Fitness. Esporta Fitness is the more affordable subsidiary of LA Fitness. 

Mosley said he and other community members have not been able to reach LA Fitness or Esporta. They found out the gym was closing because there were notices on the door.  

“We refuse to sit idly by as essential community assets are stripped away, leaving behind a void in our hearts and lives,” Mosley said. “We refuse to accept a future where our health is compromised because of decisions made without considering our well-being. That is why we are here today to raise our voices and demand action.”

Following Monday’s rally, Mosely and community members presented a written letter and the petition to management at Esporta. 

There have been rumors circulating that the club doesn’t have enough paying members to remain open. Brammer argued that couldn’t be the case because they’ve gotten more than 1,000 signatures from gym members for the petition. 

“When I heard that it was closing, honestly, I was just shocked because there are so many people who use it each day. The parking lot is always packed,” Shardonnay Hawthorne, a South Side native, told The TRiiBE on March 15. Hawthorne has been an Esporta gym member since 2018. Today, she exercises weekly at Esporta Fitness in Morgan Park. 

“I always have to park all the way down by the Dollar Tree,” she added.

Since the announcement, some gym members have expressed confusion and disappointment with the looming closure. Due to the closure, members are also concerned about potential overcrowding at other Esporta and LA Fitness locations and whether other locations have the necessary amenities and classes. Some also see this announcement as disruptive to their fitness routines and the communities they’ve built at the gym. 

The written notices about the closure direct members to use the LA Fitness gym in Oak Lawn once the Morgan Park gym closes in April, because it is the nearest facility. The distance between each gym is about six miles, or a 16-minute drive. 

There are four Esporta gyms in Chicago, including the Morgan Park location. The Morgan Park Esporta is located within the 21st Ward, which has also recently seen Walmart and the Chatham Theatre abruptly close. 

Phillip Middlebrooks, an LA Fitness and Esporta fitness instructor, sees the upcoming closure as disappointing and as a sign of the times. He has been an instructor at LA Fitness/Esporta since 2014 but was previously an instructor at Bally Total Fitness beginning in 1998. In a deal valued at about $153 million, LA Fitness bought 171 Bally clubs in 2011. There were 23 Bally’s clubs in Chicago.

Phillip Middlebrooks (center) is an LA Fitness and Esporta fitness instructor. He's pictured here with Esporta Fitness members. Middlebrooks' Wednesday night Kickbox Cardio class draws 50 people weekly to the gym. Photo provided.

Due to state-ordered lockdowns, gyms were closed for much of the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, and when the Esporta in Morgan Park reopened in the summer of 2020, the number of people attending classes drastically decreased, he said. 

Middlebrooks is one of the more popular fitness instructors at LA Fitness/ Esporta gyms, according to Esporta Fitness members that The TRiiBE interviewed for this story. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, his Wednesday night Kickbox cardio class, a martial arts and dance class, drew 75 people weekly to the Morgan Park gym, but now that number has dipped to about 45 to 50 people, according to Middlebrooks. 

“During COVID-19, it definitely got ugly because we could only have maybe 12 people allowed in the room,” he explained. He added that during lockdown, people started working out at home, outdoors, or at smaller gyms. 

The looming Morgan Park Esporta closure highlights what Black communities in Chicago have experienced far too often: corporations fulfilling a need in neighborhoods and then closing suddenly without much notice or an explanation to the community. 

“Let us work out. That’s it. We’re not bothering anybody. We’re not harming anybody. We are a close-knit gym family, and we come there to stay healthy. It’s such an inconvenience,” longtime Morgan Park gym member Johnetta “Candy” Sturvivant said.

She previously lived in Riverdale and moved to Melrose Park in 2020. So, she commutes more than an hour to the gym for evening group fitness classes taught by Middlebrooks.

Sturvivant also cited exercise as a way to improve mental and physical health and noted that the upcoming closure could impact people’s ability to maintain their health and wellness.

On average, the life expectancy for Black Chicagoans is nine years fewer than non-white Chicagoans. Black Chicagoans live 71 years, while non-Black Chicagoans live 80 years, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health

In addition, Black people nationally are at a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, cancer and asthma. Health care providers often present exercise as a preventive measure to combat those conditions.

Earlier this month, Esporta Fitness members learned that the club would permanently close on April 1. They found out the gym was closing because there were notices on the door. Photo by Tonia Hill for The TRiiBE®

The Morgan Park Esporta location is also convenient, especially for South Siders and people living in the South Suburbs, because it is adjacent to the I-57 interstate. 

“I have friends that live five minutes away from the gym, and sometimes they walk. They’re just really upset about it,” South Sider Laverne Magee said. Magee is a retiree and senior citizen who commutes to Morgan Park from the Burnside neighborhood to exercise on weekdays. 

She added that some of her friends are considering getting gym memberships at the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center, about a mile from the Morgan Park Esporta. Magee has been working out consistently since 2012. She arrives at the gym at 5:00 a.m. and completes water aerobics workouts. In addition, she attends evening group fitness classes with Middlebrooks on Wednesday and Thursday nights. 

Wednesday nights are lively at the Morgan Park Esporta. Middlebrooks’ double-header fitness classes, Kickbox Cardio and Bodyworks Plus Abs classes, a water aerobics and cycling class happen simultaneously in the group fitness classrooms and the swimming pool, as other people exercise on the gym’s main floor. 

Rocelle Cyrus, a Beverly resident, also regularly attends Middlebrooks classes; she and other members are concerned that his classes will be at other gyms that can’t accommodate the number of participants attending each week. Cyrus said she was told his Wednesday and Thursday night classes will likely be moved to LA Fitness locations in Hyde Park and Tinley Park.  

“It’s just a cruel inconvenience,” she said, referring to classes moving to other locations.  

Parking is challenging in Hyde Park, Cyrus added. Hyde Park’s LA Fitness is located at 5224 S. Lake Park Avenue, and the space is much smaller than the Morgan Park Esporta.

“I’m not happy about that. But I won’t lie. I know I will be committed to Phil at least a couple of days a week,” she continued.  

Middlebrooks also teaches weekend classes at the LA Fitness and Esporta gyms in Oak Lawn. 

Cyrus said Middlebrooks is invested in ensuring that participants get a good workout, and she appreciates his intensity and the music played throughout each workout, such as the Chicago house music mixes from legendary Chicago DJs and producers such as Boolumaster, DJ Corey, Andre Hatchett and more. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I am going to walk out of there having burned probably about 500 calories in one class, so I know I’m gonna get what I came there for when I work out with him,” she explained. 

Cyrus, Magee, and other members of the Morgan Park Esporta told The TRiiBE they spoke fondly about the people they’ve met while working out who’ve become an extension of their family. They say this community was formed within the gym’s walls but has expanded outside the gym over time. 

“We have a birthday club in the gym. It’s about 15 of us, and every month, we go out to celebrate birthdays,” Magee said. “The birthday girl gets to go wherever they want to go. It’s about $50 dollars monthly, and we pay for the birthday girl’s dinner. I really like that.” 

The relationships they’ve forged also serve as a level of accountability to stay consistent with their workouts. 

“Working [out] has become an integral part of my day-to-day makeup, and when I’m not able to do it, if I have an injury or I’m sick, or I’m traveling for work, I truly miss my community,” Cyrus explained.  

“I miss being able to be at the gym. When I come back, people hold me accountable, and they’re like, where have you been? That sense of camaraderie, it really has helped me,” she added.

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.