40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

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#44: Lasker Pool

Lasker Pool by Janet

Thanks to Janet for this picture.

Location: Central Park, Harlem, New York

Configuration: Oval with lap crossing of up to about 60 meters. The max width and height are 190′ x 240 ‘.

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $181.74

Lasker Pool has been torturing me all summer. I pass it on my way to work as I bike down the big hill in Central Park toward the park exit. There it is, all blue and sparkly, beckoning me to come swim. Fortunately, at the time I pass by the only activity allowed is children’s lessons, so the fantasy of stopping for a dip is not a possibility in reality. Other times of the day are fair grab, as it has a busy early bird and night owl lap scene, and there’s usually a lap lane open in the middle of the pool during daytime and weekend general swim sessions.

pool view from the Loop Road

Hannah, come swim here, the pool beckons as I pass by on my way to work.

Piez organized a Pool Tourism Club visit to the pool last Friday for early bird lap swim. Joining us were Janet, John, Kent, Joe, and birthday-boy Larry. We marked the occasion by seeing how far we could get in 58 strokes and estimated that the lap area we chose was 58 meters across–suitable for a 58th birthday.  Afterward, Kathleen met up with us at Piez’s for breakfast. It was a great combination of swimming and socializing.

In fact, Lasker seemed to serve a large social function, with much more talking than swimming among all users. We were lucky to get a spot in the pool with lane lines nearby and a black line on the bottom. On the way across, a perpendicular current in the middle of the pool provided an interesting challenge to navigation, likewise the curved metal walls, which test the mettle of even the most dedicated flip-turner.

phone, anyone?As I learned thanks to Van Cortlandt, this pool was the only oasis built by the city Parks department between the WPA era and the 1970s. It opened in 1966, and I’d like to think that the circular shape, which is mirrored in the bathhouse, is a nod to that time period’s grooviness. The bank of phones in the bathhouse also seemed very 1960s to me, though it’s quite possible they came later.

Kathleen, Janet, John, Piez, me, and birth-day boy Larry at brunch. Photo by Kent.

Kathleen, Janet, John, Piez, me, and birth-day boy Larry at brunch. Photo by Kent.

While the Flushing Meadows pool is housed in a complex with a skating rink, this is the only pool I’ve been to that actually turns into a skating rink in the winter, for a time period much longer than swim season, I might add. In other words, if I liked ice skating, I would be tempted to stop off here for a quick spin on my way to work in the chillier months. Instead, starting next week, I’ll just long for the pool to start torturing me again.


Outdoor Season Preview

New York City’s outdoor pools open on Saturday. I’m looking forward to many of the same treats as last summer: home base at Thomas Jefferson Park Pool, omnipresent lap lanes and weekend food trucks in Red Hook, occasional social swims at Lasker Pool in Central Park, which was green earlier in the week but is enticingly blue now. I prefer early bird lap swim (starting July 6, 2015), and at other times I triple check that I have my lock so as to not get turned away by the pool staff. I can’t stress enough the importance of adhering to the Parks pool rules.
view to the High Bridge water tower
plaque about poolSo what’s new this season? A new way to get to Highbridge Park Pool, for one. New York City’s oldest bridge–built as an aqueduct in the mid-nineteenth century–the High Bridge is also the newest byway for pedestrians and cyclists, having just reopened after being off limits for more than 40 years. It’s beautiful and sure to help many Bronxites get to the pool in Manhattan. I’ve been turned away at Highbridge Park Pool due to arriving too close to closing time, and in fact I was also shooed off the bridge before closing time the other night, but I’ll try again this summer. I at least managed to visit the splashy Splash House (and meet the rec center’s orange tabby mouser-in-chief) during Open House New York last fall.

I thought we might have a longer pool season to celebrate, but it’s looking like just the beach season will be extended until mid-September. The beaches already open more than a month before the pools, so this change heightens the disparity. It’s too bad. I’ve certainly been known to swim at “closed” beaches, but a drained pool is a no-go.

Meanwhile, pools have been in the news of late due to a yet another racially charged, overpoliced situation in Texas. Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters documents the changing norms around pool use and shows how pool segregation became completely commonplace, setting the stage for exactly this type of incident. One of this blog’s followers also recommends a children’s book relating to pool discrimination experienced by Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds, and I plan to check that out.

Mindful of this troubled history and the contemporary situation, what can we do to ensure that pools are welcoming to all? Use them! While there, be sure to thank the staff, politely heed the regulations (provided they are reasonable and fairly enforced), and swim with, play with, and chat with people whose skin color is different from your own.


#77: Astoria Park Pool

Miriam, Janet, HannahLocation: Astoria, Queens, New York

Configuration: 9 50-meter lanes for lap swimming in 50- x 100-meter pool

Fee: Free

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.

DSCN1322_astoria loooong pool

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.

entryway and SWIM posterAstoria 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.

diving well

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.

former Olympic torchTwo 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.

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Officially Summer

lap swim 30th birthday cakeIt’s swim time! New York City’s outdoor pools open tomorrow, and the weather couldn’t be more cooperative. Expect tens of thousands of cool, happy people drip-drying throughout the boroughs all weekend.

We lap swimmers have to wait until Monday, July 7, for our early bird and night owl programs to begin, but you may be able to get in some laps in pools with designated areas such as Red Hook or Sunset Park. Just be sure to know and follow the rules, lest you be denied entry to pool paradise for lacking a lock or liner.

I took this opportunity to register for adult lap swim at a bunch of pools to give myself added motivation for pool tourism. Registration is instantaneous and free if a bit cumbersome. Should you wish to register for six pools, for example, you will have to type in your name twelve times. It’s worth it. Be sure to check the box for award eligibility so that you can earn an invitation to the annual awards dinner, which is a veritable poolapalooza.

me in a giant empty pool“New” pools I hope to hit this season include WPA gems Astoria Park Pool in Queens and Lyons Pool in Staten Island. My usual summer routine of mornings at John Jay Park has to change due to a new job location and schedule, so I may become more of a regular in Central Park’s Lasker Pool or East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park Pool.

Here for good measure, are a few more possibilities to whet your appetite: Jackie Robinson, Asser Levy, and Hamilton Fish in Manhattan and the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park and of course lake Crotona Park Pool (pictured at left).

Even before it’s begun, pool season is passing too quickly, so get out there and enjoy immediately.


#45: McCarren Park Pool

Location: Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Configuration: Lap swim area is a mere 8 x 25 meters despite the pool being 100 x 50 meters in parts.

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $181.74

McCarren was the pool story of the summer, the young upstart that burst onto the scene and stole all the attention from its more established, more reliable forebears. That’s how it seemed, anyway, but in reality this “new” pool is actually from that favorite year in NYC swim history, 1936, revived after sitting empty for a generation save for rock concerts. Its return to life as a pool is a happy tale of historic preservation, complete with repurposed wood from the Coney Island boardwalk, mixed with 21st-century budgetary and demographic realities.

The locals embraced the pool en masse, and not always peacefully, overwhelming the capacity and the lifeguards from day 1. That lap-swim area that you see in the lower right of the pool rendering could have been used during regular hours, à la Red Hook, if only the pool weren’t so crowded. Reinforcements were called in from NYPD, and the media spewed out a steady stories of unsportsmanlike conduct.

pool entranceGiven the plethora of pool options available in New York in the summer, I decided to let this one cool down, occupying myself in other venues nearly until the end of the season. Finally, on a day that started out at Lasker Pool in Central Park, I ventured to Brooklyn to see what all the fuss was. John joined me for the ride from Manhattan, and we met up with million-meter-man Ethan at the pool. I was happy to see two other friends also there for the night owl lap session: bike-buddy Wentworth and my swim teammate Charles.

A small army of po-po let us know that we weren’t in Kansas any more, but they cleared out along with the free-swim crowds, turning the southwestern corner of the pool over to us lap swimmers. Even though the pool is 100 meters long with two 50-meter legs, lap swimming was relegated to this small area, crowding dozens of swimmers into just 8 x 25-meter lanes. The Williamsburg Swimmers petitioned for more space, but the Parks department stood firm: only 25 meters for you this season. Given the crowding, the lanes were pretty well organized, and swimmers had better etiquette than I’ve seen at most other city pools.

Image from Gothamist.

The card I got after checking in was #2520, the highest  number in my collection. This backs up what the commissioner said that the awards dinner earlier that week: Despite being the last pool to the party, McCarren was the most popular of the whole bunch. It’s easy to see why–it sits at the border of two rapidly growing and changing neighborhoods, and it fills a crucial gap in the city’s pool network.

Plus, it’s a very uplifting place to visit, at least when it’s not at capacity. The grand entryway (above left) makes you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere special, and the locker rooms (left) and shower corridor cleverly mix plein air and privacy. Those benches are where the Coney Island boardwalk comes in. If only the lap area could be expanded next year, this will be hard to beat.

After the swim, we continued the après pool tradition of hunting out good eats, satiating ourselvs a few blocks away in Greenpoint’s at Lomzynianka. The stick-to-your-ribs Polish food was the perfect ending to our action-packed day and is every bit an enticement to return as the pool.

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#41: Van Cortlandt Park Pool

Me, Michael, Janet, and Tony (in front) resting from our hare-like efforts. Photo by John.

Location: Riverdale, Bronx

Configuration: 12 lanes of 50 meters

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $181.74

The Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park is notable for many reasons. At 1,146 acres, it is the city’s fourth-largest park. It’s got the oldest house in the borough, the oldest public golf course in the country, and a world-famous cross country course (est. 1913) marked by a renowned statue, Tortoise and Hare. It’s also got the pool that ended a near-drought in NYC pool building in record time.

The Van Cortlandt Park pool opened in the early 1970s. My teammate Tony (above, at front) visited it that summer and then not again until last Thursday, when he joined me, Janet, Michael, and John in our own lane for early bird laps. Tony and Michael are not normally early birds, but we had such a lovely time that they said they’d be motivated to do more morning swims during the last weeks of outdoor-pool season.

We picked a great morning to go–the blue sky and puffy clouds looked especially nice together with the woods framing the pool. The complex feels to me like a country club, given the various pastel cabanas and out-buildings–fine concrete specimens, all. Swimming along, it’s easy to pretend you are far away from the busy Bronx streets and elevated subway line just outside the park.

Janet embraces tortoise and hare.

Janet dressed for the occasion, sporting a Tortoise and Hare T-shirt, and we chose this theme for our workout. Sets included a team pursuit-like drill where the last swimmer had to overtake the first and a race between tortoises doing 200s and hares doing 50 sprints with naps in between. I favor the tortoise approach but put some effort into the hare portions when appropriate.

The pool itself is something of a hare, having raced from conception to completion in just 11 months, a feat Mayor Lindsay claimed as a record. More impressive in my book is that this pool was the first of 19 to open in the early 1970s, ending a dry spell in new pools since the WPA Era (the only exception being the 1966 Lasker Pool in Central Park). Designed by Heery & Heery architects, the complex originally included a diving pool, wading pool, and Olympic-sized pool. The diving pool is no longer there; I’m wondering if beach volleyball marks the spot.

As explained on the Parks website, the pools built at this time “were handled in an accelerated manner, owing to the acute need for more recreational facilities. The ‘systematized’ design process explains the standard look of each site, which included cabana-like modules, 24 feet square, made of precast concrete and prefabricated aluminum pool tanks and filter systems.” It all looks good to me, and if this pool weren’t so far away I’d try to make it more than once a year.

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