40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#18: Hansborough Recreation Center Pool

on April 3, 2012


Location: Harlem, Manhattan

Configuration: 3 lanes of 25 yards

Fee: Free (first Mondays only; Parks & Rec membership required otherwise)

Total Fees to Date: $139.41

See that 12-foot-wide lane in the middle of the pool? Reader, I had it all to myself for part of yesterday morning, during which I swam plenty of backstroke smack down the middle underneath the skylight’s center set of windows. It felt like I’d died and gone to pool heaven.

The entire visit was the best of all worlds: good company, a beautiful “new” pool, and a real workout. It was the first Monday of April, no foolin’, so Meg, Piez, and I met here at Hansborough Recreation Center to take advantage of NYC’s monthly free day at a pool none of us had been to previously.

The most stunning visual features of this 1925 bathhouse are the huge skylight and the ornate tile-work, the latter of which you can admire in this virtual tour. I also really liked the music playing loudly enough for swimmers to groove to. It seemed to have the effect of making people extra friendly and relaxed. We got there for the “general swim” between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. and stayed into the “adult lap swim” between 8:00 and 9:00, and there was no discernible difference between these two sessions except that the pool gradually emptied out, with the middle lane going from five to one and then gaining a couple more people. Because it’s so wide, people don’t start circle swimming until there are four or more in the lane.

70 feet marker

70 feet. Congratulations, you're almost to the wall!


Easy in, easy out.

I’m noticing similarities among the various bathhouse pools this project has introduced me to: classically inspired architecture, an airy and light-filled pool hall that serves as the building’s centerpiece rather than being buried in the basement, an elevated balcony or rooms overlooking the pool, built-in ladders or stairs, and lane lines that do not align with the bottom-of-the-pool markings. In this case, there were five lines of black tiles on the bottom–with novel markers every 10 feet to help you gauge your progress–but only three lanes designated up top.

No mention of this pool is complete without discussion of the Honeys and Bears, a group of water-loving seniors I first learned about in this 2007 New York Times article. I’ve since encountered them at meets and award ceremonies, but this was my first time seeing them in their “fountain of youth.” From the pool and locker room chatter, I could tell that the group has many similarities to my circle of swim friends, in that members know each others’ quirks and habits intimately, encourage newcomers, support their pool buddies through thick and thin as they work to maintain fitness or achieve specific goals, and carry on conversations between swims as if there were no gap at all.

Meg on her bike outside the pool

Due to a camera malfunction, I don't have a picture of me and my pool buddies at this swim, but I did catch Meg as she arrived at the bathhouse.

The difference is that the Honeys and Bears are all at least 50 years old, and that most of them are African American. On many teams, and in many pools, the majority of swimmers are white, and stereotypes about black people not being able to swim are not uncommon. Lynn Sherr’s Swim shows the historical inaccuracy of this stereotype, and groups like the Honey and Bears and Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones’s Make a Spash Tour are changing the reality on the ground.

Originally called the 134th Street Bathhouse, the recreation center was renamed in 1984 after John Rozier Hansborough Jr. (1907-1981), who was the first of two African Americans in the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials. It’s a thriving community hub for all types of athletics as well as self-improvement classes such as hat-making! From the entrance lobby, which seems like the kind of place you could easily pass the day, to the friendly and helpful staff, it’s clear that pool tourists from near and far are readily welcome here.

16 responses to “#18: Hansborough Recreation Center Pool

  1. Great tip, Hannah! Free first Mondays seem to be drying up in NY, but Hansborough Recreation Center had an Open Day today so I went to check out the pool. It was as sunny, beautiful, clean, and friendly as you describe. Add the free hot dogs and hamburgers, the free tasters for all the Center’s classes (Zumba, fencing, martial arts, hooping, and more), and the rooftop yard – and this Dutchman had a NICE New York day today!

  2. Hannah, this is the most amazing blog ever. I was disheartened at Lasker closing for the summer and found out about Hansborough and tripped on your blog looking for a photo to show people how beautiful it is.

    But warning to those who want to try it — it’s going to be closed from October 1, 2012, for probably a year. when I went there yesterday, there was a sign up saying it’s closing October 1st for 9 months to a year of renovations — which in NYC means could be even longer.

    I wish they’d started them in the summer when an indoor pool is less at a premium. So to start a membership now — $75 for six months — when it’s only open 3 more weeks — is a sad prospect. Even though you can use the membership at other NYC pools, there aren’t any nearby.

    • UPDATE: They have extended the pool’s open hours another month, it is now not closing until November 1. I can’t get a straight answer if this is due to delay of the West 60th Ederle Pool reopening — or because the contractors for this job are behind. In typical NYC bureaucratic style, they only informed us of this development on September 28 — 3 days before the original closing.

  3. Hannah says:

    At this rate, you may regret not buying a full-year membership.

  4. Hannah says:

    Update from June: Hansborough has reopened after being closed for 18 months. They were supposed to renovate the locker rooms and the pool but only did the locker room in that time. The beautiful tiles remain until a future closure for further renovation.

  5. […] pool heaven at Hansborough and understated elegance at London Terrace came to mind as I worked through my Monday Morning […]

  6. Hi Hannah! Thank you so much for this article, i too swim here at the bathhouse, i didnt know about the free first Mondays swim ,I need to renew my membership, which just expired, I am called the Harlem Mermaid, and i love that they let me swim in my tail,there the Honeys Bears and I are friends, they enjoy watching mermaids too and i enjoy watching them 🙂 like finding new articles regarding our bathhouse earlier history

  7. […] thought I’d found pool heaven at Hansborough in Harlem, but it turns out that there is an even bigger, more light-filled pool paradise across […]

  8. Caroline says:

    Which would you choose: Hansborough (i.e., city rec center membership) or one month at the 92nd St Y? Neither is especially convenient to my Inwood home, but as outdoor lap swim season draws to a close and Riverbank prepares to be closed for the month of September, I am left without a place to train for the Spuyten Duyvil 10K on September 16th.

    Thoughts on this choice? Hansborough is about 10 minutes closer to me by bike.

    Other ideas for the month of September? I might also see if I can get a one month membership at the Columbia Gym, though there are no morning hours there for lap swim, aside from a far-too-early-for-me coached workout.

    As I think about it, I really only need two weeks of the month of September, though, leading up to the race, as I’m having a medical procedure on the 19th that will keep me out of the pool for a week. The best solution might be some kind of bricolage of trials and passes before returning to Riverbank in October. But I admit, I like routine, especially early in the morning. I find it strangely difficult to change pools!

    Any and all advice greatly appreciated!

    • Hannah says:

      Can you swim at the beach during that time? The city pools are open another week from 11 to 7, so if you could make it to a place like Red Hook or Sunset Park (or even Lasker sometimes) that has lap lanes during the day, you could do some swimming. Brighton Beach is always an option too. Riverbank sometimes reopens after just two weeks. You could also do pay-per-swim visits at Sacred Heart on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I don’t know what Hansborough or the 92ndStY would be like during the morning but they may well be good for your needs.

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