“Anyone who doubts that people can turn their lives around quickly should meet Jose Colon. Over the past 10 weeks, the 33-year-old Colon, of Sixth Street near Indiana Avenue in North Philly’s Fairhill neighborhood, has morphed from a crepehanger whose depression and irritability threatened to cost him his family into an optimist with an infectious love of life.
‘My self-esteem was so low,’ Colon recalls of the days preceding his transformation, “that I just wanted to be by myself in a dark room. I didn’t want to deal with people. Now nothing bothers me. People can scream at me and I let it go. I’m like, ‘It’s okay. I’m doing right.’ Colon began ‘doing right’ on Jan. 13 when he followed a flock of his neighbors who—over the past five years—have endeavored to improve their bodies and overall health by joining the Watts Fitness Studio at Fifth and Lehigh in the overwhelmingly Hispanic community’s Centro de Oro. Peter Watts, a wellness guru and former professional dancer who was born in Puerto Rico and arrived in Philadelphia 19 years ago. He opened the gym in late 2003, partly because he sensed the community needed a fitness and nutrition center to counterbalance its innumerable cafes offering delicious but greasy fare as alcapurrias (deep-fried squash fritters), rellenos (fried potato balls), pastelillos (fried meat-filled turnovers) and fried plantains. But Watts was also sure that many Latinos—people like Jose Colon—would feel more at ease sweating in a gym that invoked their culture. Hence the salsa aerobics classes, the gleeful meringue music, the hanging tropical plants (okay, they’re artificial) and a Caribbean-style gold, maroon and blue decor that surrounding the standard weightlifting and cardio machinery. Financially, he’s making it, even in this economy. ‘It’s working out,’ he says. ‘They say if you pass the third year in business you’re pretty much okay, so it’s working. It pays the bills.’ To ensure that his clients—he currently has about 1,600—can afford to pay theirs, Watts eschews contracts and keeps prices well below what most gyms charge: yearly memberships are $220 and monthlies go for $25. ‘There are quite a few low-income people in this community,’ he says. ‘I want everyone to be able to come here.’ Other trainers around the city are impressed with Watts’ venture. ‘It’s a great place with a great vibe,’ says longtime friend Gina Moore, who’s taught aerobics at the 12th Street Gym and other clubs. Jose Colon, meanwhile, who wants to lose another 15 pounds, is feeling proud of himself. Recalling a 65-minute jaunt he recently made on a treadmill, he gushes, ‘Running, not walking, for 65 minutes. That’s an hour and five minutes. I never knew coming to a gym could take so much bad stuff out of me. I never knew it could make me feel so good about myself.’”