40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

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#35: Red Hook Sol Goldman Recreation Center Pool

Red Hook Pool view from the lap area

Photo from the Parks website.

Location: Red Hook, Brooklyn

Configuration: quite a few lane-less lap lanes of 40 meters

Fee: Free

Fees to Date: $166.74

The Sol Goldman Recreation Center & Pool at Red Hook Park is the best outdoor city pool for lap swimming because it has designated space for laps even outside the early bird and night owl hours. In fact, you can come swim laps here any time the pool is open for general swimming, i.e., 11:00-3:00 and 4:00-7:00 in season.

The other major draw at Red Hook is the convergence of food trucks that pre-date the food truck craze and offer delicious and inexpensive Central American fixings across the street. What could be better for more Fourth of July fun following the early start at Riverbank?

Red Hook pool entrance and rule-enforcement areaAs at all city outdoor pools, entry is free, however you have to prove your compliance with a number of rules in order to get in. Be prepared to show your lock, which had better be sturdy; your bathing suit; and, for men, your bathing suit’s mesh lining before you enter the building. If you are bringing young children, their diapers will be checked for seaworthiness. When crossing the threshold from locker room onto pool deck, you will have to shake out your towel a number of times to prove that you are not hiding contraband items such as electronic devices–notice I took no pictures here–water toys, or colored T-shirts. (Prior to making your first visit to a city pool’s general swim session, be sure to study up. Forewarned is forearmed, or in this case, unarmed.)

Having cleared these challenges, we found this 1936 WPA pool to be a delight–cool, clear, and with interesting aids to navigation such as trees, poles, and pyramids. I was especially excited to swim here because of its unconventional length: 40 meters! In honor of this special number, Piez, Lisa Lisa, John and I did a set of 40 x 40s, where we each got to choose the pattern for a few laps. My selection was patriotic freestyle: 2 laps with a 7-4 breathing pattern followed by one lap with a 12-beat kick. (7-4-12, get it?) We sometimes had to dodge other lap swimmers, given the lack of lane lines and the erratic swim habits of some of our fellow pool-goers, and we observed some interesting multi-legged aquatic life, but all of this is part of the price of admission.

If you get lucky on the pool deck, you can snag a lounge chair for sunbathing. Otherwise, there is plenty of room to spread out your towel. In fact, this abundance of space is what allows Red Hook to have unfettered lap swimming set off from the free-swim area by a no-man’s-zone. Farther north in Brooklyn, the new McCarren pool isn’t so lucky; its lap area has been consistently turned over to the general swim population that fills the pool to capacity every day.

lunch downed

Piez, Lisa Lisa, and John with the remains of our food-truck lunch.

After we had our fill of 40-meter laps, we filled up across the street with huaraches, sopas, and mystery juice. The large array of food trucks that usually come on weekends weren’t there since it was a Wednesday, so the sole truck present was lucky to get all the business of our hungry group. We were so hungry, in fact, that I forgot to take a picture of our loaded-up plates.

For those not coming by bike, Red Hook is a bit remote, however IKEA is here to help, offering a free shuttle from Downtown Brooklyn as well as ferry service. What are you waiting for?


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.


Thoughts About Swimming in Australia

me with the Aussie flag towel by the fast laneI’ve been back in the New York winter for more than a month now and wanted to get down some final observations before they completely escape me. Overall, my simple advice to anyone contemplating a swim trip to Australia is go. You’ll pick up the lingo, adapt to swimming on the left, and fall in love with the swim culture in no time.

Their pools are made for swimming. Wide lanes, taught lane lines, clear markings on the bottom, built-in start blocks, backstroke flags, pace clocks, clean water . . . the pools I visited were all wonderfully suited for lap swimmers. Many even had wave-reducing gutters and competition walls. If only the lane designations (for example, “fast, no breaststroke”) were heeded by swimmers or enforced by lifeguards, it would have been just about perfect, but that breach of etiquette proved a minor nuisance given the lack of crowding.

As locals tell it, the pool movement dates to Melbourne’s winning bid to host the 1956 Olympic Games–not only Australia’s first Olympics, but the first time the Games graced the entire Southern Hemisphere. Towns across the continent embraced the spirit by building their own competition-ready pools, and when they say “Olympic-sized,” they do in fact mean 50 meters. I could have racked up many more blog-worthy pools given the time.

Sydney pool signGood design extends beyond the pool. In Sydney especially, I was impressed by the design in and around the pools. The signage and literature were consistent in look and feel and utility not only from pool to pool but throughout the whole city. I was rarely confused about where to go or how to get there (MSAC being the glaring exception), rules, or use of facilities. It was lovely. Meanwhile, water conservation is an important consideration, with pool covers, recirculation systems, cogeneration plants, and timed showers all helping to reduce energy water usage.

Which came first, the pool or the café? There is still a visible enthusiasm for building and maintaining community pools, but they sometimes seem to be just an excuse for a café. Aussies take their coffee seriously–and frequently. At beaches and pools alike, they don’t like to be far from the next cuppa joe.

Bring your own toys, and leave your lock at home. Accessories such as kickboards and pull buoys were not commonly available, so people toted their own. For a suit spinner, you’re out of luck. Meanwhile, the one thing I did bring to every pool–my combination lock–never saw use. Almost everywhere, lockers were a revenue stream that required renting a key or purchasing time via a machine. Plus, they were usually on or near the pool deck rather than in the locker change rooms. I prefer the US system on both counts.

find the lifeguardIt’s all good. People were remarkably relaxed about pool entry and use. No full-body scrubdowns as in Iceland, no full-body searches for contraband as at NYC outdoor pools, no restrictions on food, photos, or other fun activities.

The lifeguards lack chairs (and therefore weren’t sleeping and texting) and were fully attired in shorts, polo shirts, hats, shoes, and walkie-talkies–seemingly more ready to go deliver a package than dive in for a rescue. Amazingly, the beaches were staffed with volunteer lifeguard corps only, except for the pros in Bondi, and there seemed to be a lot of local fundraising for these surf rescue squads’ equipment and clubhouses.

I’ve seen a lot of superfast Aussie swimmers in my day, and I was worried about being left in the wake of the whole country, but the breadth of abilities I encountered was more or less like what I see in New York. Jo told me that swimming is no longer compulsory in the schools, so Australia’s aquatic edge may slowly start to fade.

Bondi Icebergs club and beach viewWaterfront privatization OK if it’s been going on long enough. Much as I loved the sea baths, I’m not comfortable with the practice of turning over a stretch of waterfront to a private operation that restricts access and charges admission. Shark protection may have something to do with this, but history was the stronger force. Many sea baths were built on sites used for bathing and fishing by Aborigines, and those that survived to the present became beloved landmarks for the newer settlers–excluding Aborigines until relatively recently.

Pools should be free. If I could change one thing about Australia’s outdoor pools, it would be to make them free. We are spoiled in that regard here in New York, and I’ve come to regard outdoor pool entry fees as an unfair shakedown. At the very least, I would suggest that a municipality’s pools have a standard rate and a multi-pass, sort of like mass transit, the perfect ticket for this pool-rich, tourist-heavy country.


#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. 


Post-Sandy State of the Pools

Asser Levy outdoor pool almost full

Asser Levy outdoor pool in late October. Photo by Lisa Lisa.

Hurricane Sandy surged into town more than a month ago, upending life throughout the region in countless ways. New reports about its effects continue to pour forth, even as business is back to normal in some parts of the city. In the suburbs and parks, the high winds toppled trees willy-nilly, crushing whatever was in their path. In much of New York City, though, seawater reaching heights nearly 15 feet above normal was the biggest problem–the same seawater that is usually such a comfort and pleasant escape.

For those of us lucky enough to escape the most direct wrath of the storm, everyday concerns like where to swim became complicated despite feeling trivial compared to the many more serious problems. With the reopening of Chelsea Piers today and the Polar Bears starting their season tomorrow, here’s a report on what the storm meant for some local pools and beaches.

Mass transit was one of the first casualties, closing on Sunday evening and thus forcing the closure of gyms whose staff rely on transit to get to and from their jobs. Even if they weren’t damaged by the storm, most facilities did not reopen until at least Thursday, when some trains were running again. Riverbank State Park’s indoor pool was in this category, although its outdoor track remains closed ostensibly due to wind damage to one of the light towers.

Most CUNY campuses stayed closed through Thursday, with those that hadn’t lost power reopening at the end of the week, including John Jay and City College pools. Baruch was without power all week, and even when it returned the pool’s heater didn’t work, so the pool was out of commission another two weeks. It was chilly when it reopened but is now back to normal. NYU and its pools were also closed and without power for a week, and I don’t know if they experienced other complications.

Asphalt Green‘s member locker became temporarily one with the East River, and as usual the Battery Park City outpost’s completion is delayed. Roosevelt Island’s pool took a beating with the rest of the island and finally reopened on November 26. Chelsea Piers was also hit very hard and just came back online today. In the intervening month, the McBurney Y and my team welcomed their swimmers.

City rec centers also suffered. That’s Asser Levy’s outdoor pool in the photo at the top of this post, nearly filled with water again–saltwater–long after it was drained for the season. It remains to be revealed whether this caused problems here or at other low-lying outdoor pools such as Ham Fish and Red Hook. Asser Levy’s indoor pool is still closed due to damage to the rec center, likewise the Tony Dapolito pool and rec center and a number of others throughout the five boroughs.

Brighton Beach cleanup

Photo by Hsi-Ling. [More pictures by Capri]

Meanwhile, the receding floodwater left Brighton Beach covered in debris of all shapes and sizes, including boardwalk planks, decks ripped from homes, refrigerators, and telephone poles–much of it with nails poking out. CIBBOWS and Polar Bears helped consolidate the debris into piles for easier pick-up by the Parks Department. The Polar Bears canceled their entire November schedule due to damage at their home base–the Aquarium–and worries about what’s in the water, so they will be doing their first dip of the fall tomorrow. (One of the few other times they canceled a swim in recent memory was their prescient protest against climate change in 2007.) The Shorefront Y became and remains a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center, meaning it is up and running and welcoming community members who need assistance.

In short, the pools all suffered, but the extent of damage was widely uneven. Those that reopened within a few days saw new customers: pool refugees. Those that took harder hits are now facing difficult questions relating to their formerly prized or at least benign waterfront locations. The story will continue to play out in the coming months and years.


#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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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.


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!