40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

New York City’s WPA Pools

on June 27, 2012

Parks Department image: A busy McCarren Park Pool keeps Brooklynites cool on July 12, 1937.

The biggest pool news of the summer may well be happening this morning, with McCarren Park Pool‘s grand reopening after a 29-year closure. As exciting as that is, it is only one of dozens of fabulous City of New York Parks & Recreation outdoor pools opening today. I am unable to attend the McCarren event, but I look forward to hearing all about it and checking out that “new” pool sometime soon.

McCarren was just one highlight of an unprecedented and unequaled season of pool news back in 1936 when it first opened, in the midst of the Great Depression. During that record-hot summer, eleven incredibly beautiful and spacious new pools opened all around the city, and with McCarren’s restoration all eleven are still in service. They are architectural delights and engineering marvels, and I recommend that you visit all of them: Astoria (Queens), Betsy Head (Brooklyn), Crotona (Bronx), Hamilton Fish (Manhattan), Highbridge (Manhattan), Jackie Robinson (Manhattan), Joseph H. Lyons (Staten Island), McCarren (Brooklyn), Red Hook (Brooklyn), Sunset Park (Brooklyn), and Thomas Jefferson (Manhattan).

Adding to the attraction, most of these pools as well as several others participate in a city-run lap swim program, with “early bird” (7-8:30 a.m.) and/or “night owl” (7-8:30 p.m.) hours for lap swimmers only. I discovered early bird lap swimming in summer 2000, and it is now one of my favorite things about living here: free, reasonably well run, full of characters, and replete with incentives such as T-shirts, trophies, and a dinner! I’ve made a number of good friends thanks to the program and had some amazing pool tourism experiences as well. July 5 is the start date of the all-too-short season this year.

Now back to 1936. I would be remiss not to thank Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and especially Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, himself a swimmer, for this pool bounty. They were raring to go with plan for neighborhood pools throughout the five boroughs when the Works Progress Administration was doling out funds for shovel-ready projects, and the story of the design and construction is as amazing as the end result. Once opened, the pools provided relief and safe recreation to 43,000 “bathers”–not without segregation–at a time. They have since served as sites for Olympic Trials (Astoria, 1936 and 1964), learn-to-swim programs, performances, and lots lots more. A great exhibit in 2006 celebrated the 70th anniversary, and there was a 75th birthday party in Red Hook last summer. They are an incredible resource for the city, and I can’t say enough good things about them; please read more here.

Long live our WPA pools!

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