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A Brief and Selective History of NYC's Most Political Pool

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All eyes have been on McCarren Pool since it opened two weeks ago, and not for positive reasons. The lifeguard attacks, cop-punching, locker room robberies, and a "toilet incident" have taken over the narrative, prompting many to say that the pool is doomed to the same fate it suffered before. But what exactly was that fate? There's the vague answers of "neighborhood tensions" or a lack of funding, but the pool's history is much more complicated than most realize. For a 5,600-word piece in the Awl, author Aaron Short delved into the swimming hole's political past, talking with longtime residents, former community board members, and dozens of people involved in the decades-long discussions about what to do with McCarren Pool. Here, we've excerpted some of the most interesting points.

1) McCarren Pool opened on July 31, 1936 as the largest public pool in the world with a capacity for 6,800 swimmers. The high reached 106 degrees. Short talked to three people who experience the pool in the beginning, all who remember a diverse crowd without violence or many incidents. "This was an Italian neighborhood and nearby neighborhoods were black and Latino. Everybody went along," said a 94-year-old who has lived his whole life in Williamsburg. "We weren't rich people either. Most of the people came from Bed-Stuy, places like that, because it was the closest pool they could get to. This was a white neighborhood, so there may be an incident here or there. It wasn't that bad."

2) McCarren, like many other pools, started to languish in the '70s when the city was almost broke. “There wasn't enough money to take care of projects, which fell into a state of disrepair, and bridges, tunnels, and pool suffered the same type of deterioration," said Joe Lentol, a third generation Assemblyman. "As a result, it wasn't used as much as by the white population. It was being used in the late 1970s and 80s mostly by folks coming from other neighborhoods, including Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Fort Greene, and there was a lot of discontent from residents in Greenpoint."

3) The pool closed in 1984. Plans were underway to renovate it, but residents protested by chaining themselves to the construction fence. Mayor Koch listened when a councilman suggested they hold off on renovations. Thus began years of debates between the community board and the city. "Why give money to McCarren if the community was divided?" said Henry Stern, who was Parks Commissioner in the '80s. "Some people liked it but others, typically older white residents, complained about it. There were racial issues. The neighborhood was afraid of violence and that the police would be unable to contain it."

4) CB 1 Parks Committee Chair Jan Peterson starting holding town hall meetings to discuss the pool in 1986. Throughout the '80s and '90s, several renovation plans were approved and then roadblocked, either by preservationists, fiscal issues, or community debates. "Peterson bristled at the way race and class entered the debate over the pool. 'Race gets used to cover up everybody's sins, instead of the fact that it had to do with management,' she said. 'That pool was designed to be a big wading pool for poor kids. It was just a place to get out of the heat. It was not designed for swimming. I'm not saying there isn't a racial dimension, there's a racial dimension in everything that goes on. It's what you do with the racial dimension.'"

5) Mayor Bloomberg took office in January 2002 and appointed Adrian Benepe as Parks Commissioner. Benepe made reopening McCarren Pool a priority, but debates over how to do that continued. Then PlaNYC was announced, and the $50-million McCarren renovation was accepted under that umbrella in 2007. "People say, now that it's become gentrified, the city is building it," said Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Julius Spiegel, who's held the title since it was created in 1981. “I'm convinced it would have happened without the concerts and it had nothing to do with gentrification. No councilmember is able to come up with $50 million to fund one swimming pool. It was revolutionary for City Hall to fund it."

6) And that brings us to today. After 23 years of debates and trashed plans, McCarren Pool is once again open. Despite the incidents, Short says "the pool manages the remarkable feat of dispensing a sensation of calm." Many note that simple things like more signage of the pool rules or porta potties for those waiting in line would improve the overall experience. To deter more fights, security has increased from four police officers and four parks security guards during the opening weekend to 35 officers after the second fight occurred. As with many major projects, more focus on the details would have made things go smoother, but if the Parks Department continues to fund the beefed up maintenance and security, many believe that the pool will stay under control.
· The Politics of McCarren Park Pool [The Awl]
· McCarren Pool coverage [Curbed]