Swimming in Dysfunction?: McCarren and the Long Perspective on Municipal Pools

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This is the third installment of our Summer 2013 pool series:

Part I – A Dive into the Deep End: The Importance of Swimming Pools in Southern California – a cultural history of the pool in Socal (published at KCET Departures)

Part II – Waters of Community, Waters of Hostility: The Messy History of Urban America and the Municipal Pool

After reopening in summer of 2012 following decades of dormancy, Brooklyn’s Robert Moses era 1937 landmark, McCarren Pool, resumed operations for its second season in late June.  In New York,  media outlets from the New York Times to Curbed NY  to New York Magazine eagerly jumped on stories emanating from the pool; Curbed enjoyed deploying the term “shit show” to describe McCarren.

Admittedly, there were several hiccups. One day after opening, “an unruly crowd” of patrons attacked lifeguards, resulting in no serious injuries but several arrests.  Within a week another fight occurred and the New York Times pronounced the surrounding community’s misgivings. As one local proprietor told the paper of record, ““I thought, ‘O.K., it’s Brooklyn, it’s not that surprising … But then, 30 minutes later, I went outside to water my plants and I found someone had defecated right in front of the salon. It’s shocking.” So fights inside and, well, problematic issues outside, one might gather had aroused concern.  So yes, everyone knows the pool’s first year did not go smoothly

You could read a bit of schadenfreude into Times writer Lisa W. Foderero’s description of McCarren as some sort of utopian fantasy out of Fourier Farms: “A place where the children of hipster artists, attracted by the upscale restoration with its designer flourishes, would play Marco Polo with youngsters from public housing.” Gawker assailed the Times for its inevitable take on Williamsburg hipsterdom. “It’s more than just a pool where there was no pool and people like to swim in pools because it is hot: it’s a hipster/ project Marco Polo Zone! The Williamsburg Trend Story vibe is strong in this one,” wrote Hamilton Nolan.

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How much of this was accurate and how much was a case of Gawker’s inherent love of assailing the NYT is hard to tell, but undoubtedly, the politics of McCarren Pool (see Aaron Short’s excellent piece in the Awl) do revolve around race and class.  The presence of middle and upper class white collar types, particularly those that fancy themselves more cosmopolitan and liberal than your typical New Yorker (which is saying something on average), played a clear role in the pool’s revitalization and eventual refurbishment. The fact of the matter is just as private pools have often served as reservoirs for larger issues and societal complexes, municipal pools reflect the current state of city politics and economics. In reality, though media outlets treated McCarren Pool as a sort of outlier or unique situation, truth be told, its historical trajectory, and that of municipal pools more generally are clearly  linked to city budgets, moral reform, and fears over crime and dysfunction.

 The Big Bad 1970s

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When the city hit the economic skids in the 1970s, pools, like every other public resource and service, did as well.  At the time, one could make the same point about most large municipalities.  “Rising budget deficits combined with diminishing tax bases precluded many cities from building new pools or even repairing and maintaining existing ones,” asserts historian Jeff Wiltse. “Pool closures became commonplace at the end of the century.”[1] New York’s own inattention to its pools led to deteriorating conditions that by the 1980s left McCarren and other municipal sites in disrepair.

In 1979, the Parks Department pumped $6.5 million in restoration funds for McCarren.  Around the same time, local residents formed The Friends of McCarren Park to “’make demands on the parks, police, and sanitation department for a cleaner safer park’”; the implication being that local residents had become skeptical of the pool’s value.[2]

Of course, in the post WWII period, particularly the 1960s, the communities around the pool had changed. On the Greenpoint and Williamsburg border where McCarren more or less sits, the immediate population consisted primarily of white ethnics – Italians and Poles – but the larger Williamsburg area had become browner and blacker as Latinos and African Americans had moved in and white residents left. Between 1950 and 1980, the Latino population grew from 5% to 49% of the neighboring communities. Likewise, Williamsburg’s Italian population declined from 23,000 to 11,000 in the years spanning from 1960 – 1970.[3] So if you combine rapid ethnic and racial change with a city on the brink of economic disaster, one can see where problems might arise.

By the 1970s and 1980s, in part due to suburbanization as well, most urban municipal pools consisted of largely Latino and black patronage.[4] This proved no less true at McCarren as many of its patrons passed through the predominantly white ethnic communities that immediately bordered the pool on their way for a swim. While many local residents argued that the pool had become “the epicenter of growing neighborhood racial conflicts and crime,” others pointed out that locals had as much to do with problems as any outsiders. Patrick Drexler, who had grown up in Williamsburg admitted that “kids like him from Greenpoint and Williamsburg were equally responsible for the pool’s downfall,” wrote Jed Lipinski in 2012.  At night they’d jump the fence after hours getting high and drunk in the pool’s waters.   The NYPD peered in once in a while but in general took a “hands off” approach, an unlikely outcome had Drexler and friends been black. “There’d be a hundred kids in there after hours, indulging in alcohol and marijuana,” Drexler told Lipinski. Again, McCarren’s problems with dysfunction and racial conflict were indicative of a national trend. From 1970 to 2000, municipal pool attendance dropped steadily.  Publicized incidents of crime—gang shootings, drug use, and sexual assaults—marked them as sources of delinquency, danger, and dysfunction. Ironically, pools had been seen in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s as responses to urban blight but by the 1970s and 1980s symbolized the urban crisis of the late twentieth century.[5]

McCarren in the 1980s

After the 1983 season the pool closed down for renovations, but when workers arrived the following year protestors greeted them and more or less barred the contractors from entering the facility. The Parks Department noted that protesters believed restoration would not benefit the local community and demanded a hold on the project. The pool remained closed during the dispute and fell into disrepair.

Community Board Meetings in 1985 led to acrimonious votes that broke down along racial lines. The Daily News reported that Polish and Irish residents wanted a smaller pool, more easily controlled and attracting fewer patrons, while Latino and African Americans locals wanted a larger pool. Opponents of restoration openly admitted that McCarren’s size drew “too many outsiders who were generally minorities from other neighborhoods.”[6]  The community board voted for a small pool, which, at the time happened to be the trend in municipal pool construction.  By the 1960s and 1970s, the kind of grandiose pools built with WPA funds in places like NYC had given way to smaller, less impressive spectacles. “[U]nlike the New Deal resort pools, the prototypical municipal pool of the late 1960s was small, shallow, offered no leisure space, and attracted only children,” notes Wiltse. “They were comparatively inexpensive, quick to construct but failed to provide viable recreation for America’s urban poor.”[7]

Juvenile Delinquency and Pools from 1900 to 2000  

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Gawker’s Hamilton, however guilty of slagging the Times unfairly, did make a critical point regarding McCarren: teenagers running amok is not really news. “What do these incidents have in common? Kids, being idiots. If every incident of a kid doing some idiotic violent thing in the summertime made the New York Times, the New York Times would be one thousand million (one billion) pages long, per day,” Hamilton asserted. “No matter what race, creed, nationality, or socioeconomic stratum they come from—teenagers are punks.” Indeed, the history of inappropriate pool behavior dates back to the turn of the century when middle class reformers attempted to use pools first as means to improve the hygiene of working class children, later to improve moral rectitude and inculcate equivalent values, and for many Progressives, a tool in the Americanization process of immigrants. Boisterous activity – running, yelling, pushing people into water, back flips – disrupted Victorian sensibilities.  Officials at Brookline, MA’s municipal pool constantly dealt with what the pool’s committee saw as problematic youth. Brookline’s Bath Committee admitted that the police assigned to the pool could not control the young charges reformers hoped to save and that “some means” needed to be established in order to “’regulate both the number of bathers and the use they were in some cases inclined to make of the bath house.’”[8] In other cities, mobs sometimes rushed lifeguards, tossing them into the pool along with other employees. This was in the early 1900s, so McCarren’s stumbles in its first year hardly seem surprising.

From the late 1930s to through the 1950s, physical violence at municipal pools occurred frequently when black swimmers in places like Pittsburgh and St. Louis challenged segregation. White youth literally beat and nearly drowned African American patrons at St. Louis Fairgrounds and Pittsburgh’s Highland Park Pools.  In the late 1930s, African Americans attempted to integrate Dowd Pool in Elizabeth, NJ, subjecting themselves to intimidation, violence, and robbery.  “Every black swimmer that entered the water quite literally risked his or her life,” Wiltse argues. While Highland Park (Pittsburgh) and Fairgrounds (St. Louis) experienced these frictions over a decade later, white swimmers at both sites also engaged in similar practices. Local officials often pinned riots and violent outbursts at these sites on a small group of hoodlums rather than widespread racism. Few observers have noted this intersection of juvenile delinquency and municipal pool.

So here’s the larger point: municipal pools have long been sites of public culture but also depending on the prevailing economic and political winds, they reveal the underlying conflicts in the cities in which they exist. For example, the typical northern big city arc begins perhaps with Victorian reformers trying to impose middle class hygiene, values and morals via recreation but struggle when working class youth resist.  In New York, McCarren opens with New Deal every-(white)-man-and-woman flourish as it serves the needs of the city’s burgeoning white ethnic population. While New York practiced de facto segregation, most other northern cities jealously guarded against integration. Violence erupts in places like Elizabeth, NJ, Pittsburgh and St. Louis as African Americans asserted their right to access.  When court rulings and African American protests demand integration, whites retreat to private pools or clubs or flee to the suburbs.  By the time minorities gain entry to municipal resort pools in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s attendance drops as whites refuse to swim in integrated waters.

Along parallel lines, a wave of African American mayors achieved election victories in the 1960s and 1970s, just as municipal decline slowly applied its death grip on American metropolises.  Blacks had gained valuable positions in city government, just as most municipalities fell off a fiscal cliff.   Likewise, just as African Americans and women gained the right of equal employment opportunity in industries like steel or automotive manufacturing, these jobs moved to far flung suburbs that found ways to make minority homeownership difficult or were sent overseas all together. Fast forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s as cities enjoy a renaissance. As noted, the gentrification of urban communities like Williamsburg by white collar workers – many of them women and gays – and sometimes on a lower but no less impactful level by immigrants (see Saskia Sassen), has created a new milieu for public pools, more tolerant and perhaps more hopeful despite all the hysterical coverage.

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Is it any wonder that artist Phyliss Yampolski, who described even the dilapidated McCarren as a “moving, a lonely abandoned, graceful, and majestic immensity of space—a big silent hole in the middle of a world of urban congestion,” spearheaded late 1980s efforts to open the pool as a performance space and helped to establish the “Independent Friends of McCarren Park”? Her efforts along with others secured the pool from renovations and demolition that the community boards had earlier agreed to but the pool remained empty.  By the time, Clear Channel decided it had an interest in staging concerts in the space in 2005, many of the pool’s opponents had left the area, cashing out on Williamsburg rising real estate prices.  Mayor Bloomberg’s rezoning of the community ensured new residential housing along the waterfront in formerly industrial properties. When in 2007, Bloomberg announced the city would fund the restoration of the pool, some cried foul.  The money only came after the area had been gentrified. Whatever the accuracy of these allegations, clearly the debate around McCarren like other municipal pools in the other U.S. cities often hinges on these external factors.

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“After a whopping ten days of relative peace at Brooklyn’s McCarren Park Pool, four teens ages 15 to 19 were arrested on Sunday evening for refusing to stop diving, horsing around, and running on the pool deck,” reported New York Mag’sDaily Intelligencer” on July 8 of this year. After more than a week of leisurely repose, McCarren once again witnessed a handful of teenagers behaving poorly, shoving pool administrators and resisting arrest. “This is why we can’t have nice things,” one commenter remarked.  Yet, in the weeks following the incident, very little news at all has come from McCarren as the pool has performed remarkably well this year.  “We increased enforcement,” spokeswoman Megan Lalor told reporters. Collaboration between pool officials and local police she assured residents would ensure that thousands of New Yorkers would continue to enjoy a dysfunction free dip in McCarren pool this year.  So far Lalor’s assurances seem to be holding, but just remember if things get dodgy again, its more a reflection of our current state of affairs than any comments on McCarren or municipal pools in general.


[1] Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 2007, pg. 182

[2] Benjamin Luke Marcus, “McCarren Pool”, in Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York , Eds. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2007, pgs. 146-149.

[3] Benjamin Luke Marcus, “McCarren Pool”, in Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York , Eds. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2007, pgs. 146-149.

[4] Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 2007, pg. 182

[5] Ibid.

[6] Benjamin Luke Marcus, “McCarren Pool”, pg 148.

[7] Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters, pg 182.

[8] Ibid, pgs. 42-43.

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