Not A Swimmer's Paradise

by Anne Schwartz, Jun 01, 2002

They are the Hamptons for New Yorkers without a summer house. On sweltering days, hundreds of thousands of people find cool, watery relief at the city's public beaches and pools, from Orchard Beach in the Bronx to Brooklyn's Sunset Pool.

But with 14 miles of beaches and 53 outdoor pools, many of which have been renovated in recent years, there are not enough aquatic facilities in the city to meet the demand. New York City has the lowest number of public pools per capita of the 25 major U.S. cities surveyed in Inside City Parks, a study published in 2000 by urban parks consultant Peter Harnik. New York City has .7 pools (including its playground mini-pools) per 100,000 residents, compared with Chicago's 3.3 and Boston's 5.7. Many New York City neighborhoods lack a swimming spot, and people don't tend to visit pools outside their neighborhood - although pools are generally located in the poorer neighborhoods where they are most needed. During peak times, people often wait more than an hour to gain admittance, and even though the parks department limits the number of bathers at any one time, the water can be as packed as the sidewalks of midtown. A shortage of lifeguards sometimes forces the parks department to close sections of the larger pools, resulting in more crowded water -- and lots of complaints.

The city's first public pools were floating baths -- decks around a pool with a slatted bottom -- placed in the Harlem and Hudson Rivers between 1870 and 1910. These and indoor public bathhouses were built as an antidote to the unsanitary conditions in the tenements. In 1910, the Health Department closed down the floating baths because the rivers were too polluted. Five were retrofitted to hold fresh water and operated until 1935, when Robert Moses began building pools on land with funding from the federal Works Progress Administration. Moses opened 11 enormous and beautifully ornamented pools in the summer of 1936, setting the standard for public pools in the city. Ten of these are still in use today, including Astoria Pool, where Olympic trials were conducted in 1936 and 1964. Most of the existing city pools were built from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Today New York City has 33 large outdoor pools (10 Olympic-sized), some paired with wading pools, as well as 20 mini pools in neighborhood playgrounds. During the nine-week summer season, the city's public outdoor pools are used intensively. Last year, they logged 1.1 million visits, slightly fewer than previous years because it was a cool summer.

Swimming pools are expensive to build, maintain, and operate. Budgetary restraints have worked against increasing the number of pools in New York City.

Cities with more extensive aquatic facilities spend far more money per capita on parks and recreation than New York City, according to the information compiled in Inside City Parks. Chicago, with a dedicated source of park revenue, spends $108 per resident on parks compared to the $41 spent in New York City. It has more than 100 indoor and outdoor pools as well as 24 miles of lakefront beaches for a population of 2.7 million, less than half that of New York. Cincinnati, a city of just 350,000 people, has 47 pools. Cincinnati's recreation commission spends $83 per resident; it has a separate Park Board that spends $41 per resident.


There is a shortage of lifeguards all over the country, which has been attributed to various factors, including fewer qualified swimmers and the preference of high school and college students for summer jobs in the fields where they hope to work. In spite of an aggressive recruiting campaign, including visiting every public school and recruiting lifeguards from overseas, the parks department has not yet met its goal of hiring 1200 lifeguards. Over the past five years the department has been able to hire only 950 lifeguards, on average, each year, according to Liam Kavanagh, deputy commissioner for operations. In New York City, a decline in swimming programs in public schools -- both swim instruction and competitive swim teams -- has reduced the number of teens with the superior aquatic and lifesaving skills needed to pass the rigorous lifeguard test.

In recent years, the parks department has offered free swim instruction in the public pools. "We are trying to develop the next generation of swimmers," Kavanagh said. Last year, upwards of 6,000 children participated in the summer "Learn to Swim" program, and 2,000 children took classes during the school year at the recreation center indoor pools. Three years ago, the department also began organizing competitive swim teams for kids ages 6 to 18. There are 12 swim teams in the five boroughs. Kavanagh said that the department would be meeting soon with the Board of Education to try to partner with the public schools in training swimmers who could eventually become lifeguards.

Providing extensive swim instruction and working with the schools has proved successful in Chicago, which has not had a problem staffing its pools, according to Chicago Parks District spokesperson Angelynne Amores. Last year, the district started a paid sports internship program in the high schools, in which students learn to lifeguard as well as to work in other sports. More than 50 graduates of the program became lifeguards. The Park District also finds lifeguards by working closely with the police and fire departments and marine units, says Amores, offering spots to "seasoned lifeguards" -- older, experienced lifeguards whose regular jobs have flexible hours.


New York City would benefit tremendously if swimming facilities were available in all of its neighborhoods. Even for those who can afford a membership in a "Y" or a private health club, swimming is not an easy sport to pursue in this city. Lap lanes are crowded, and parents wait for hours to sign their children up for limited swim classes. But for recreation and exercise -- especially in the summer -- swimming is many peoples' sport of choice.

It is unlikely that there will be a major new initiative to build swimming pools any time soon. One project in the works is an Olympic-sized indoor pool in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. In Greenpoint, the community seems to have reached a consensus on how to renovate McCarren Park pool, which has been closed for 18 years in part because of lack of agreement about how to restore it. This plan could well be postponed because of the city's financial problems, but Commissioner Kavanagh said, "It remains one of our top priorities." If the city is chosen to host the 2012 Olympics -- a long shot, at best -- the plan calls for tearing down Astoria Pool and building three new pools in a more accessible part of the park. After the Olympics, the new pool is envisioned as a "premier aquatic center" for the city within a traditional landscaped park space.

Another idea that sounds far-fetched but may turn out to be a cost-effective way to increase swimming options for New Yorkers is an effort to revive the concept of floating pools. Ann Buttenwieser, an urban planner and author of a history of New York City's waterfront, has been pursuing this goal for more than 20 years, with support from the Municipal Art Society and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. The Neptune Foundation, which Buttenwieser established to build floating pools, now has architectural and engineering plans for a prototype pool on a barge, has raised the $2 million needed to build it, and is negotiating to locate it off the Hoboken, New Jersey, waterfront.

According to the project's architect, Jonathan Kirschenfeld, the floating pool would be 81 by 50 feet and have all amenities -- locker room, showers, bathrooms, a terrace where parents can sit and watch their kids (and enjoy the waterfront views) -- as well as self-contained electrical, waste treatment and water systems. It could move from community to community, or arrive seasonally and depart when it is not in use. Kent Bartwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, says, "Our belief is that once one or two got going, other communities would want to do it."

And those who don't want to wait for floating pools -- and have the skills and stamina -- can brave the rivers and harbor, which are much cleaner than they used to be, except after a rainstorm when there are sewage overflows. The Manhattan Island Foundation sponsors marathon swims every summer. There are seven races this year, from a half-mile "Cove to Cove Swim" off Battery Park City to a 28.5-mile marathon around the island of Manhattan.


The outdoor pools open for the summer on June 29, with public swimming hours from 11-7 daily. (Beaches opened Memorial Day.) Many pools offer lap swim, hours for seniors, and swimming classes in the early morning or evening. Admission is free. There are also 10 indoor pools in city recreation centers, which are open year-round. For information, call the Aquatics Hotline at 718-699-4219.