The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool

Beloved, abandoned, then beloved once more, a Brooklyn pool transforms alongside its neighborhood.

Then

Robert Moses, 1936

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive

Then

Robert Moses, 1936

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive

On July 31, 1936, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia appeared before a crowd of more than 5,000 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint to open the community’s grand new pool. The McCarren Park Pool was one of 11 outdoor public pools that would open that year, paid for with WPA funds and orchestrated by then-commissioner of the New York Parks Department, Robert Moses—the infamous public official now known for his massive midcentury renewal and development projects, both the successful (the Triborough Bridge) and the stymied (a proposed expressway through downtown Manhattan that would’ve steamrollered SoHo).

McCarren Park, with the swimming pool and wading pool near completion in 1935. Courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive
McCarren Park under construction, 1936. Courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive

The McCarren Pool was designed by the architect Aymar Embury II, responsible for many iconic New York structures in his own right, including the Central Park Zoo and the Prospect Park Bandshell. Visitors to the pool were welcomed by a grand archway and bodies of water adding up to three times the size of an Olympic pool, capable of holding up to 6,800 people and boasting 54,450 square feet for swimming, with semicircular diving and wading pools at either end. A network of underground pipes heated all three pools and kept the water sanitary.

McCarren swimming pool. July 12, 1937. Courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive

For decades after the pools opened, they served as important recreation centers for the neighborhoods they served, including East Harlem and Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Red Hook, and Brownsville, among others. They were a respite for working-class New Yorkers who could not afford a vacation. During the colder months, drained pools operated as roller-skating rinks, as well as courts for basketball, handball, volleyball, and table tennis. In the summer, there were swimming contests, water ballets, and diving exhibitions. The pools were sometimes even preferable to the city’s beaches. A July 2, 1976 article from the New York Times about municipal pools reflected the shifting attitudes toward communal swimming: while the pools “lack the ambience of their suburban country club cousins,” the article asserted, they were preferable to the ocean, because they did not “contain sludge, sewage, or oil spills.”

McCarren Pool with its gateway arch on March 31, 1947. Courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive

Though WPA-era pools were intended to democratize public space, they weren’t always peaceful. “Throughout their history, municipal pools served as stages for social conflict,” wrote historian Jeff Wiltse in his 2007 book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. “Latent social tensions often erupted into violence at swimming pools because they were community meeting places, where Americans came into intimate and prolonged contact with one another.” In the mid-20th century, pools were desegregated throughout the North, “but desegregation rarely led to meaningful interracial swimming,” writes Wiltse; whites would simply stop frequenting pools where blacks were allowed to swim.

Blacks and whites did swim together at McCarren Pool in the 1930s, although there were sometimes violent confrontations. (In 1930, black Brooklynites only made up about 3 percent of the borough’s population.) Race relations were fraught at WPA-sponsored pools across New York City. In fact, one interviewee told historian Marta Gutman that he remembered African Americans swimming only in the afternoons at Betsy Head Park in Brownsville, as a kind of unspoken rule. Meanwhile, at Thomas Jefferson Pool in East Harlem, there were fights between Italian and Puerto Rican swimmers, as the pool was located in an area claimed by Italian immigrants.

Dancers rehearse a choreographer Noemie Lafrance's "Agora" in McCarren Pool in 2005. AP Photo

By the 1970s, McCarren Pool had fallen into disrepair. It was closed for renovations at the end of 1984, with plans to reopen it a few years later. But when workers showed up to begin repairs, they found angry local residents had chained themselves to the construction fence. They didn’t want a public pool in Greenpoint anymore—they wanted it demolished. The protestors felt that the dilapidated pool had become a nexus for drug dealers and vandals. Officials decided to call off the renovation. “Why give money to McCarren if the community was divided? Some people liked it, but others, typically older white residents, complained about it,” Manhattan councilmember Henry Stern told The Awl in 2012.

The battle over whether or not to renovate and reopen the pool raged for years. In 1990, the community split anew over what kind of pool the still-shuttered McCarren should be, following a years-long study undertaken by a committee that proposed reopening it with a reduced capacity—from 6,000 to 2,000. Some advocated for a smaller pool, to attract smaller crowds; opponents saw this as a surreptitious way to segregate the facility. “The pool will be so small that they could justifiably say to Latinos and African Americans: ‘It’s full already. You can’t get in,’” one local resident told the New York Times in 1990. Emptied of water, the pool spent much of the following decade slowly crumbling and gathering graffiti.

Noemie LaFrance's dance group performs excerpts from her work entitled "Agora" inside McCarren Pool. NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Singer Dan Keyes performs on stage in a concert at the McCarren Pool in Brooklyn on August 3, 2007. WireImage

In the 2000s, McCarren Pool took on a second life. From 2005 to 2008, the city operated it as a performance space: bands like the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth played in the empty bowl, while concertgoers availed themselves of dodgeball games, Slip ‘N Slide, and ice cream trucks. This version of the pool—which exemplified a rapidly gentrifying Greenpoint and its adjacent neighborhood of Williamsburg—had its critics, too. The pool’s “narrowly focused indie-rock programming was not always well received in the diverse neighborhood,” reported the Times in 2008, “with many longtime residents complaining that it attracted only the newer arrivals.”

Those performances were a prelude to McCarren Pool’s next act: it finally reopened as a public pool on June 29, 2012, after a 30-month, $50 million renovation overseen by the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which had rezoned much of the area in 2005. This grand reopening was also marred by tension; within the first week there were fights and arrests, and racially tinged debates over whether outsiders from “other neighborhoods” were responsible. (By the time it reopened, Brooklyn’s black population had increased to comprise about 34 percent of the borough’s residents.) After 28 dry years, today the McCarren Pool frequently fills to capacity—just as it did when it was first opened in 1936, with swimmers waiting in line for hours to cool off during hot summer months.

A lifeguard keeps watch on opening day of the newly renovated McCarren Park Pool on June 28, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Getty Images

Then

Robert Moses, 1936

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive

Now

Peter Rostovsky, 2018

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Now

Peter Rostovsky, 2018

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

I’ve lived in Greenpoint since 1997, and my partner Mary has lived in the area since 1989. Both of us grew up in immigrant communities: Mary in San Pedro, California, then a working-class town with a large Slavic population, and myself, for a time, in a small community of other Russians in the Bronx. (I was born in the Soviet Union in 1970 and moved to the United States in 1980.)

For these reasons, Greenpoint’s large Polish community always seemed familiar to us—an extension of our childhood homes, a compelling mixture of old and new. Since the rezoning initiated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in 2005, we’ve seen the area change dramatically. As longtime residents, we’ve marked the shifts, noting the influx of wealthier and younger residents, the multiplying high rises, fancy shops and restaurants, and changing character of a neighborhood caught in the throes of hyper-gentrification. From 1990 to 2014, the average percentage of rent increase in Greenpoint and Williamsburg was more than triple that of the rest of the city. Likewise, gentrifying neighborhoods like this experienced the fastest growth in the number of white college-educated young adults and non-family households while seeing increases in average household income relative to most other neighborhoods.

The following piece reflects my sense of melancholy accompanying these changes, as well as the lingering hope that what is most unique about this area—its architectural landscape and community—will be preserved despite rapid transformation and growing economic inequality.

Peter Rostovsky is a Russian-born artist who works in a variety of disciplines including painting, sculpture, and installation. He has exhibited at the Walker Art Center, MCA Santa Barbara, PS1/MOMA, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the ICA Philadelphia, and the Blanton Museum of Art. He is currently at work on his first full-length graphic novel, Fred Greenberg: Hell’s Therapist.

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