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.
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.
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.