It was the summer of '36. New York was sweltering?not only from the heat, but from the seemingly interminable Great Depression. That year, controversial Parks Department chief (and erstwhile collegiate swimmer) Robert Moses, bolstered by essential ribbon-cutting assistance from mayor Fiorello La Guardia, opened 11 pools across the boroughs, from Astoria and Brownsville to Harlem and the Lower East Side. There was more to these cool blue outposts, though, than recreation alone. Using federal funds from the Works Progress Administration, the pools and their construction provided much-needed jobs, from concrete workers to lifeguards. At the same time, research in psychology and other fields was pointing to signs that leisure time and athletic activity were paramount for the physical and mental health of cramped city dwellers.
Then there's the slightly more sinister explanation, which borders on social manipulation: that because Moses and others of his ilk were concerned about street riffraff and potential problems stemming from the lower classes in general, especially when stoked by poverty, opening pools in specific, tenement-packed areas allowed for a safe, monitored place for street urchins to roam where beaches were inaccessible. McCarren Pool, for example, was specifically built for the relief of residents of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, where the population had boomed in the early part of the 20th century, leading to unhygienic living conditions. What's more, race also played a role in this seemingly light-hearted PR move. The opening parties were gala affairs, with ceremonial flicking of switches for underwater lights (!) and countdowns till suited-up citizens could dive in. Many of the pools could hold thousands of bathers, and did. So, pools: fun, clean, safe, carefully controlled, marvels of architecture and engineering?in short, urban necessities in a tough time. Know anything more about this era in recreational priorities, civic architecture, and city planning? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and enjoy the photos before NYC's public pools close for the season on Labor Day.
· Parks' Swimming Pools History [NYC Parks]
· Race, Place, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City [CUNY]
· Big Chill of '36: Show Celebrates Giant Depression-Era Pools That Cool New York [NYT]
· WPA Swimming Pools, Helping New Yorkers Stay Cool for 75 Years [Epoch Times]