Location: Astoria, Queens, New York
Configuration: 9 50-meter lanes for lap swimming in 50- x 100-meter pool
At long last, outdoor lap season is here! It’s made for a busy week, with a thwarted attempt to swim at Red Hook on the Fourth, some good workouts at my newly adopted home pool of Thomas Jefferson Park, a social swim with the hordes at Lasker, and a Friday pool tourism outing across the river to Astoria Park Pool. Miriam and Janet met me there on this beautiful summer morning for early bird lap swim.
This is one of the closer outdoor pools to my apartment as the crow flies, but as the cyclist travels it involves two bridge crossings with a dip onto Randalls Island Park in between. The journey is perfect for contemplating master pool builder Robert Moses’s empire, which was headquartered in his Randalls Island hideaway. Astoria Park Pool was one of his glories, and the RFK Triborough Bridge (upper left) another. In fact, they opened within days of each other in 1936. I caught glimpses of the cool, blue pool water poking through the trees as I made my way across the span to Queens.
I arrived just in time for the 7:00 a.m. start, checking in alongside the tattooed, pool-crazed masses. Although the pool is 100 meters long, the lap lanes are squished into the south end of the pool. Is black paint so hard to come by? I grumbled to myself through some crowded laps. Later, I realized that the rest of the pool rises so shallow as to preclude lap swimming.
Despite the volume of swimmers, everything was orderly, and people self-sorted based on pace and fondness for aqua-jogging. Everyone was friendly, and I was impressed with the number of speedsters gliding through the deliciously cool water.
The park is situated between the Triborough and the majestic, magenta Hell Gate Bridge. While you can get great pictures of these landmarks from various vantage points on deck, the view isn’t quite as good from in the water. Still, it’s about as close as we can get to confusion with the lovely North Sydney Olympic Pool, which is nestled underneath the Hell Gate-inspired Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Astoria Park Pool is one of the city’s WPA treasures, and it still feels very in tact to me. Beautiful brickwork and massive locker rooms with layouts from another era, such that you can almost picture the swimsuit-rental stand, are some of the highlights. A giant WPA swim poster–at once progressive and racially charged–adorns the north interior tower for good measure.
The pool’s opening event was none other than the 1936 women’s Olympic Trials, which selected swimmers and divers to represent the United States in Hitler’s Olympics in Berlin. The Trials returned to Astoria with both men and women in 1964. Competitive pool standards have changed considerably since then.
The diving well hasn’t seen divers in some time, but the 32-foot, triple-tiered platform remains thanks to landmark status. A 2012 plan to convert it to a performance space has not yet been actualized, and the bottom of the diving well now hosts a small meadow.
Two Olympic torches, since repurposed as fountains but dormant during my visit, serve as further reminders of Astoria’s Olympic glory.
My first trip to Astoria Pool was in 2006, not for swimming or its historic merit, but rather to see the plumbing. A Parks & Rec pool filtration expert opened up the innards for infrastructure geeks during Open House New York weekend in October. I wish I remembered more from the tour, but about all I can tell you is that the pump rooms are enormous and the entire volume of water circulates through many times a day.
The plumbing excitement this time around came in the form of a busted shower in the women’s locker room. Because there were male plumbers working on the fix, Janet and I could not access the locker room after our swim. We milled around and commiserated with some other female lap swimmers, procrastinating using the shower-free “family locker room.” When the kids’ swim lessons ended, the throng of mothers and children overwhelmed the attendant who had been diligently shooing everyone away. The repair was called off and we got to shower and change.
It was a different plumbing problem that prevented my Red Hook swim the previous Friday. Something to do with the pool’s circulation needed attention, and after an hour of waiting for a repair that may or may not have been in progress, we gave up. The effort to keep these behemoths going certainly is impressive, and I’m glad the City had the wherewithal to get them started in 1936 and keep them going (more or less) up until today.