As Matt Loter prepares to give a Newhallville indoor rock-climbing gym a second chance, he’s also hoping for a second chance for himself—to reach the kind of kids he taught at a city turnaround school.
Loter is preparing to open City Climb, a rock climbing gym at 91 Shelton Ave. in Newhallville, on Sunday. He’s moving into a site formerly occupied by CT Rock Gym, where he was an employee until the business folded last year amid financial trouble.
Loter will manage the new gym, reaching his next step in the sport and business of rock climbing. Loter, who’s 30, has been climbing and working in gyms for years; only in the last couple of years has he fully embraced it as a career. The embrace followed a brief and challenging stint as a social studies teacher at Domus Academy, a New Haven middle school for troubled kids run by a not-for-profit social services agency.
When Loter (pictured) taught there in 2011, he was frustrated that he couldn’t address the personal difficulties that kids were bringing with them to school, he said. A student in the eighth grade, reading at a first-grade level, might tell him for instance, “My dad got shot last night.” He wanted to try to address the constellation of difficulties such a student might be facing. But federal curriculum requirements made it so that all he could do was try in vain to get that student interested in Christopher Columbus, Loter said.
After getting burnt out at Domus, which he called a wonderful program, Loter said he realized he wanted to make a full-time career out of the business of rock-climbing. With the opportunity to run his own gym, Loter said, he’s going to work to make sure it’s a place for more than just the typical rock-climbing types—middle-class white people.
Loter said he’s going to team up with local community organizations to bring in the kind of kids he was teaching at Domus. And he plans to reserve a few spots on the gym’s climbing team for young people who get hooked on climbing but don’t have the money to pay to do it.
On Tuesday, Loter sat in front of an open garage door, at a table at the back of City Climb, talking about his plans. Ropes dangled from anchor points above the gym’s angled walls. The padded floor was strewn with plastic hand-holds waiting to be installed to create color-coded climbing routes with various degrees of difficulty.
Loter, a former punk rock singer, has been working in climbing gyms for over 10 years, starting at Go Vertical in Stamford, his hometown. About three years ago he moved to New Haven, bought a house in the Annex, and got his teaching certification, planning to begin a life as a teacher.
After “burning myself out” at Domus, Loter needed a career change. He did the “life assessment thing” and realized he already had a career. “It hit me that I love climbing.”
He’d always worked in climbing gyms, but never thought of it as more than a side job. Then it dawned on him: “That’s a legit career. I could do that.”
Loter said he’s looking forward to bringing his enthusiasm for teaching to City Climb. At Domus, despite his difficulties, “I loved connecting with the kids,” he said. “With climbing, I can still do that.”
He said he wants to offer low-cost or free climbing to kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it, and to create scholarships for the gym’s climbing team. He said the team will have 20 to 25 young people who will enter competitions based on their age group.
If a young person comes “gets really stoked about climbing,” Loter wants to make sure they are able to keep climbing, he said.
During and after his time at Domus, Loter worked at CT Rock Gym as a manager. He was there until the business withered and died. Loter said the owner stopped paying rent or taxes and walked away from the business, leaving his employees with bounced checks. The former owner is now a defendant in a contract collection civil suit in Milford.
Loter then worked at Prime Climb in Wallingford, where he was the program director until a North Branford couple contacted him about re-opening the CT Rock Gym. Crystal and Dmitry Tananyki, the owners of the City Climb, recruited Loter to set up and run the gym.
Loter said he’s been working to create a space for both devoted climbers and what he called “experiential climbers,” a category that includes kids and families looking for a fun activity as well as “bucket listers” who just want to try it once.
Much of the work of opening a new climbing gym is route-setting, an art unto itself, Loter said. He’s had a team of about 20 experience route-setters in City Climb, putting up ascents of all kinds. On Tuesday, Virginia Beach route-setter Jeff Eckert (pictured) was putting up holds.
As at a fine restaurant with a constantly evolving menu, the 125 routes at City Climb will always be changing, with new routes every week, amounting to a complete route turnover every three months, Loter said.
An adjoining room (pictured) will have 75 to 100 bouldering problems—shorter, low-altitude routes done without ropes.
Loter said the gym will offer climbing classes, after-school programs, birthday parties, field trips, and a Wednesday night competitive team “climbing league.”
The gym’s activities will go beyond just rock climbing, he said. An experienced Krav Maga instructor, Loter will be teaching the Israeli martial art. He said he hopes to have classes in other “specialty fitness” subjects, like weight-lifting and Chinese acrobatics and hula hooping, as well as more established disciplines like yoga and Pilates and Zumba.
The all-embracing vision is part of the DIY ethos from his punk rock days, Loter said. “I’m an old punk rock kid.” He said wants the gym to be a center for all kinds of other non-physical community programs—maybe a club for people who play the board game Go, or knitting nights, or pop-up art shows.
Loter is also rejecting the traditional brownish, nature-inspired rock gym aesthetic. He said he’s going for something more urban. “We’re called City Climb. You’re climbing in the city.”
To that end, City Climb already has graffiti murals by artist Ryan Christianson of New Haven’s Hi Crew. One, inspired by the classic video game “Rampage,” depicts monsters scaling city buildings and tearing them apart. Loter said he plans to have more graffiti art around the gym.
City Climb will host a public party on Saturday, with a limited-time half-price deal on annual memberships. The grand opening will be on Saturday, with free climbing for all and 25 percent off all memberships and sign-ups.