40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

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#38: Crotona Park Pool

me in a giant empty pool

Location: Claremont Village, Bronx

Configuration: However many 100-meter trajectories you can squeeze in without lane lines or markings

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $166.74

Read closely, because I am about to let you in on a big secret. 100 meters big, to be precise. The Crotona Park Pool is hiding in plain sight in its namesake park in the Bronx, and my visit there last Thursday night found a giant, loooong, empty pool that you can have all to yourself during lap swim hours. It’s a true, blue, New York miracle.

In case you are unfamiliar with 100-meter lengths, consider that completing a 400 IM here takes just four laps. The mile, 15. If you happen to be the type of person who forces yourself to do two laps of butterfly in every pool you visit, beware this behemoth. A lap of fly here is no joke, let me tell you. Don’t let me tell you anything else, though–go see for yourself.

John, Janet, Rondi, Piez, John, Lisa Lisa, Andrew, and Miriam with the attractive bathhouse in the background. Not pictured: Willard.

My first visit capped a 2008 Pool Tourism Club outing that is still one for the record books: a four-pool, all-day tour of the Bronx. The more recent visit may have broken the record for most lap swimmers here. Our contingent was nine people strong last Thursday for Night Owl swimming and frolicking as a brutal heat wave was finally breaking. There was evidence that the pool had been well used during the day, but no one remained for lap swimming. If not for us, in fact, the handful of lifeguards and staff on duty would have had nothing to do except watch the white cat wandering around the bleachers. Instead, we enlivened their evening with a show including closed-eye swimming (I held a straight course once and veered left between pyramids into the shallow-end rope another time), pyramid-circling figure eights, and the dreaded lengths of fly.

I was especially glad to have Miriam and Rondi join in, as they have been excellent swim buddies and adventurers for years, yet they managed to avoid showing up in this blog until now.

pool entranceThe pool dates to the annus mirabilis of NYC pool, 1936. It is not the biggest facility to have opened that summer, but it ties in length with a few others and is the only one to offer lap-swimming on the long axis. You can check it out during Early Bird or Night Owl sessions. I’ve only ever visited in the evening, when the setting sun makes for a beautiful twilight, with pretty row houses and trees completing the view.

What’s wrong with it? Well, there are no lines on the bottom, and the locker room presents the opportunity for voyeurism with its wide-open doors onto the pool deck, but neither of these things is much of a problem when no one else is around.

Some of my fellow pool tourists have already returned for a loooong-course workout, and I may well join them for a break from the John Jay masses. Plus, I need to figure out what’s up with the four-foot pies. After the supersized laps, a giant slice o’ pie would really hit the spot.

4 ft pies


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.


#59*: Sunset Park Pool

The lap swim end of the pool

Location: Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Configuration: 50 meters lap area with the lane count determined by the cooperation of fellow swimmers. The pool is 162 feet (aka 50 meters) x 259 feet.

Fee: Free

Followers of this blog may be forgiven for thinking I’ve fallen off my swim habit, but that is not the case. Rather, I’ve been returning to pools I covered last summer, namely, my local John Jay and the ginormous Crotona. With just a week and a half left of outdoor pool season, and Janet on a pool tourism tear, I motivated to get in on some “new” pool action. Where better than another 1936 masterpiece on a hot August hooky day?

Sunset Park Rec CenterThere’s no denying Sunset Park Pool’s WPA provenance: beautiful brickwork inside and out, uplifting murals, emergent pyramids, and a thriving pool community being some of the hallmarks. Word is that, like at Red Hook, you can swim laps here whenever the pool is open. However, Janet and I went at the officially designated early bird session, scoring cards #430 and #431 of the season, surprisingly low numbers at this late date.

lobby mural(Speaking of early bird swimming, kudos to the Parks Department for implementing online-only registration this season and for sending out invitations to the awards dinner electronically! Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we won’t need to bring hard-copy printouts of our registrations and RSVP by phone.)

We stayed the full session in the far side by the rope sectioning off the rest of the pool. Because the rope was right over the lane marking, we swam between lane markings rather than around one. We had just a couple other people in our “lane,” and no one minded that we chatted plenty in between laps of corkscrew butterfly and twirly breaststroke.

Lower Manhattan skylineAfter the whistle sent us on our way, we enjoyed another highlight of this park: the view. The hilltop behind the pool sees it all–the Statue of Liberty, the Staten Island Ferry, Lower Manhattan, and a disturbing amount of smog this morning. I know from other visits that the view at sunset is even better, true to the park’s name.

*There is a #58 from the spring. Stay tuned. 


Lap Swim Awards Dinner

lap swim 30th birthday cake

As if the twice-daily free outdoor lap-swim programs in more than a dozen city pools weren’t generous enough, the Parks Department throws a giant awards dinner and pool party at the end of the season. The date is usually the second-to-last Wednesday of the season, the location Hamilton Fish Pool during night owl hours. This year’s took place on August 22, and I was glad to attend with some friends who are more recent converts to the wonders of this Parks program.

Early Bird swim T-shirt and John Jay pool mug

Check out my John Jay Pool mug! Is that me swimming in the corner?

There are a few different ways to score an invitation to the dinner, and each comes with its own swag. The most certain is to swim the minimum number of miles to earn a T-shirt. This year was the 30th anniversary of the program, so the cutoff was raised from the usual 25 miles to 30 miles–and in addition to the T-shirt there were beautiful, customized pool mugs as prizes! As I explained at the start of the season, you report your lap tally to the pool staff after each swim. They keep track through an elaborate, error-prone system, so you may want to keep your own log and cross-check their tally if you are on the borderline or a stickler for accuracy.

Another way to get an invitation is to be in the top three by gender and session at your pool. For example, if you are a man with the third-highest tally at your pool’s night owl session, you would be invited to the dinner. At my pool, all the people in these categories are well above the 30-mile threshold, but at some of the less busy pools, it is possible to be on the podium even if you do not earn a T-shirt. All top-three placers get trophies, and there are also trophies for the highest tallies among all the pools.

The third way into the dinner is to swim as part of your pool’s relay. The rules on this are a little fuzzy, but if you are someone who turns in your yardage tally and who has a competitive edge, you may be chosen or be able to nominate yourself to swim in the 4 x 50m mixed relay that kicks off the dinner. As with all other categories, the top three teams get prizes–and as with all other results, your mileage may vary. Caitlin was part of the Red Hook team that was awarded first prize this year, and yet they had not even won their heat.

The Parks Department pulls out all the stops for this dinner.

After you’ve cleared the technicalities, what can you expect? An invitation in the mail, for one, and a phone call from HQ in Flushing Meadows Park to confirm that you will be attending. When you arrive, you’ll find the pool deck festooned with balloons, the dinner tables decorated with framed photos from the various participating pools, and many familiar faces. My pool’s lead aquatic specialist was there, and he reported that breakdown lasted until the wee hours of the morning–and yet there he was at the pool for the 7:00 a.m. start the next day.

If you’re swimming in a relay, you can do a few laps to warm up before the competition starts. My pool’s relay members somehow did not all know they were swimming, so we had to scramble to secure enough bathing suits and then ended up with an extra person who we farmed out to the Crotona team. Competition was strong, so rather than worrying about placement I enjoyed the opportunity to swim with an Olympian. Special guest Bobby Hackett swam legs 3 and 4 of a Parks staff relay in the same heat where I swam leg 3!

After the relays, along with a dinner buffet catered by Katz’s Deli, there is much hoopla: singing, synchro, speechifying, award presentations, and more. You may even be asked to sing along to “He’s Got the Whole World in His Pool.” Outgoing Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe led the ceremonies, and other special guests included Nancy Barthold and John Hutchins of the Parks Department, both of whom deserve great credit for the success and growth of the lap-swim program, and former commissioner Henry Stern, another pool lover.

As a special 30th-anniversary treat, there was a beautiful pool cake (see above). I waited in a long line to get a piece of that delicious pool.

All this celebration is bittersweet, however, as it signals that the season is almost over and that time is running out for outdoor pool tourism. Pools I missed out on this summer include Sunset Park (Brooklyn), Astoria (Queens), the Floating Pool (Bronx), Marcus Garvey (Manhattan), and Lyons (Staten Island), not to mention the dozens of lovely pools that don’t have lap swimming. I’m already looking forward to summer 2013.


#42: Asser Levy Outdoor Pool

Asser Levy looking west

Photo borrowed from the Parks department.

Location: Gramercy, Manhattan

Configuration: 3 lanes in trapezoidal pool maxing out at about 40 yards

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $181.74

“This pool has issues,” the aquatics specialist told me part-way through my first-ever visit to Asser Levy outdoor pool last Friday evening. This was not exactly news. I’d already seen several verbal altercations and deliberate provocations as people got the tension from the week out of their systems. The issue I was unwittingly causing and being reprimanded for was breaking the unwritten rule of no kicking in the “fast” lane–despite my kick enabling me to pass most of the other swimmers. Speed was not the problem, but rather the example of allowing kicking, which could lead to a worse breakdown of the social systems. I was already lacking in motivation, so this was the sign I’d needed to declare my swimming done for the day.

Me, Lisa Lisa, and Stephanie captured from outside the pool fence. Ellen was too busy swimming for this photo op.

Lisa Lisa, who as you might recall lives quite nearby, had organized this get-together of stalwart pool tourists. The evening’s only newcomer to this blog was Ellen, who was diligently defending her crown as queen of the pool and polishing off her Ederle Swim training while the rest of us debated the merits of the various fights. The picture at left is courtesy of Lisa’s sister Kris, who stopped by a locked gate with her kids to wave hello. (Due to the pool’s issues, I was not allowed to take any pictures myself.)

Issues aside, what struck me the most here was the highly visible setting. The looming presence of some of Manhattan’s biggest apartment complexes (Waterside Plaza, Stuyvestant Town), hospitals (VA, Bellevue), streets, and highways mean that an incredibly large number of eyeballs could be gazing upon this pool at any time. Considering that proximity of populace, it was surprisingly uncrowded.

Another notable feature was the pool’s shape. Trapezoid, anyone? The “fast” lane was longer on its southern end than its northern end, and the other two lanes were even shorter depending on which direction you were swimming. Whatever prompted this odd shape did not sway the builders from adding lines on the bottom, however, and I was glad for that. Black lines are not common enough in Parks outdoor pools, an issue Lisa Lisa plans to address via a bequest if not sooner.

Side note: Andrew has developed an ingenious, portable replacement for the missing black line in the 100-meter Crotona Park pool. I benefited from it during a recent morning visit, and it works great! Many seeming issues are solvable with a little gumption.


New York City’s WPA Pools

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!