Eleven pools were opened within weeks of each other in the hot summer of 1936, bringing relief to thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers. Mayor Firorello La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses attended packed dedication ceremonies that summer. At Thomas Jefferson Pool, more than 10,000 celebrated the opening, at which the Mayor said, "Here is something you can be proud of. It is the last word in engineering, hygiene, and construction that could be put into a pool."1
Is this New York City or isn't it? Imagine an East River you could drive a car underneath. The depression has ended. The housing projects continue. Scaffolding as far as the eye can see. There is enough steel in my own gut to build a hundred bridges. Walk through a city with scissors and broken Champagne bottles, cutting red ribbons. See the world. Park Avenue. A photograph depicts him as a boy stranded in a swan peddle-boat in a Central Park pond—forlorn. A photograph depicts him in his office surrounded by architectural models, tiny cardboard houses, tiny cars—exuberant. Where is the Oxford Crew Team? Have the reporters arrived? I have commissioned. Mr. LaGuardia. Pull people from their own homes? That's preposterous. Boys should be swimming. It is not too much to ask. Open your pockets, friends. There is New York and then there is New York from the back seat of a town car. Roll up your sleeves. This is America. Boys should be swimming. The working poor? They should be swimming too.
Presenting: The Aquazanies
Astoria Park, August, 1948. As the first planes take off from Idlewilde Field, the aquatic Charlie Chaplins of Flushing Meadows are shivering and tumbling into the immigrant dream. The Aquazanies crowd onto the high dive and wave. They are boys really, dressed in identical costumes carefully sewn by their mothers. The night is windless, lit candles in paper bags line the parameter of the pool, and the aqua-show theme music hangs on one humid note. This is entertainment. This is weightlessness. This is America before television. It is 1948 or 5 minutes ago. The Aquazanies remember their fathers rolling with laughter, remember the stadium lights visible from Shore Boulevard, remember swimming as subway cars carry them under the East River into the office, as airplanes carry them to foreign wars, as history carries them into oblivion, they are executing back-flips, they are an underwater string band, they are holding their breath, invincible, buoyed by applause, now suspended, now falling slowly back to earth.
The Other Municipal Pool
1935. The WPA workers secretly bet on some of Moses' proposals, whether or not they will be funded and built. Some of them are making money betting against their own contracts; all of them are getting drunk after the day shift talking about what it feels like to be strapped to the side of a building, straddling a beam like a goddamned horse. The ‘pot' is referred to fondly as the municipal pool. It is drained and refilled on Friday afternoons.
Rush hour, 1935. At first you are part of a crowd waiting for a stoplight to change and then you are thrown back into your own body, struggling to breath. There is no surface, just walls of people strung east to west, knocking into one another. Conversations in foreign languages collide with car horns, everything is muffled, a drum beats in your temple. Decades are ground right into the pavement, blood and bleach and the smell of food. You will become disoriented. You will look to the sky, imploringly, then down at your own hands. You will catch the eye of a man beside you, "excuse me," you will say, "is this...?" before you realize it is your own reflection in the glass of a dark storefront.
Robert Moses at dawn, 1935. Have you ever walked through the woods alone whistling? As if the earth matters. As if loneliness could be outrun. People think that swimmers move in a straight line but really their bodies are rutters cutting through water at even intervals. Imagine, this is a race and you are winning. Time stops and the swimmer continues. High above him he can feel the clouds watching his back, waiting for him to fall toward them.2 Everything but the swimmer's own body is rendered immobile, a film reduced to a series of stills. I am not making this up it is a matter of physics. Go swimming for a hundred years and see for yourself. When you finally climb from the water, you will have forgotten how to walk but everything else will be exactly as you left it.
Remarks on Civil Service
"The most important thing to remember is that urban infrastructure has a direct correlation to the quality of our lives. Several months ago at a public forum, I was introduced to an extraordinarily tall man, a citizen of Brooklyn. This man is so tall that he cannot stand upright in a subway car and must crouch when he enters the halls of our municipal buildings. Even as we conversed, he seemed to hunch a little, perhaps in deference, but most likely out of some unfortunate habit. Granted, we cannot build a city for the convenience of a single citizen, but think big gentlemen, think of the giants among us."
The Keepers Reminisce
I'm not a strong swimmer actually, when I was a kid I used to sink like a rock. Mostly I worry about the pH, chemicals, you know? And gangs. Horseplay is one thing but when things get dangerous we tell em' ‘not here'. It's hard to watch everything at once. Sometimes I wish there were three of me. All the kids yelling. You tune it out after awhile. There was a stabbing a couple of years back, now we have them shake out their towels at the entrance and people laugh but it's for their own safety. You wouldn't believe some of the things people call swimsuits. I've seen everything. I'm from Brooklyn myself. I know a few things about management. It's life or death, I tell my staff. No fins, no food, no running. Some of the small ones don't realize how deep it is and then they panic. The parents are god-knows where. I remember they used to put on these aqua-shows, backflips and live animals and what-have-you. We don't even let em' use the high dive any more. Robert Moses? Never met the man. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up all of a sudden like I forgot something important. I have this one nightmare where I'm done closing up and halfway to the train already and I realize I forgot my keys so I head back to the pool deck and when I turn on the lights I see a kid is in the pool, drowned, blue already. This job's a liability really. My wife left me in 82, these people are my family now. You wont believe the things people leave behind, wedding rings and shoes and snorkels. One time a lady left her kid in the locker room. Some of the lap swimmers, oh boy, they get into it. We don't always set the lanes up and there's always one or two zigzagging all over the place. I've been here 30 years, never thought I'd stay so long. Started as a lifeguard when I was 16 and just never left, always thought I would go back to college, get desk job. No, I don't regret it. I think of it this way: I'm not going anywhere and neither is this god-damn pool.
1941. Robert Moses drives out to Long Island and spends several days taking solitary walks along the dirt roads and footpaths he plans to turn into a parkway. He removes a glove, pulls a map from his pocket and draws a thick pencil line along the coast. In Brooklyn, the pools lay dormant behind their perimeter fences, blanketed in unspoiled snow. Robert Moses faces the Long Island sound and permits himself to imagine, just for a moment, that he freezing to death. Then he imagines taking off all of his clothes and entering the water, which is so calm and barren that it appears solid. In Brooklyn, a group of boys dare each other to scale the fence that surrounds the McCarren Park pool. They have a snowball fight on the pool deck and one boy climbs onto the lifeguard chair to officiate the battle. Another boy jumps down into the pool, "look, I'm swimming," he says. Robert Moses laughs and shakes his head and begins to walk back to the road. The boy in the pool is unable to climb out. He imagines, just for a moment, that he is freezing to death. He laughs and shakes his head, "help," he says to his friends, "I'm drowning."
1943. Robert Moses embarks on a boat bound for Europe. The trip takes 14 days and by the 6th day Moses is so sick that his body turns to water and the tides run straight through his spine. One evening he goes out onto the top deck for the first time in several days. Some of the crewmen are playing rummy at a card table and a woman in a fur coat stands at the rail looking at the stars. Moses squints, is that my wife? The boat lurches, the card game is disturbed, and Moses' hat blows off and floats over the rail. The woman is gone. The crewmen are cursing. Two days later, Moses arrives in England. He is driven to Oxford where he is to give a lecture on urban expansion. As he stands before an auditorium full of people, he thinks of his lost hat. "In cities," he begins, "there are a myriad of factors outside the scope of architecture that must be considered." The notes he holds in his hand go on to describe the nuances of demolition and displacement, but he falls silent for a moment and the crowd shifts, uncomfortably. How is it possible, he thinks, that a man's hat can go on being without him? "Architecture depends upon complex symmetries," he continues, "not just in terms of engineering and building structures, but also in terms of time, political circumstances, and public sentiment." It is not impossible that his hat is now floating somewhere near to the dock where he disembarked earlier this morning. Perhaps he and his hat are locked in some kind of parallel circuit and are separated only because they are both perpetually in motion. "It is no longer possible to still the hand of progress, which is a specter that we must acknowledge." The lights in the auditorium obscure the crowd to the extent that Moses can't make out a single face. "It is not so different from being underwater," he says, without realizing that he is speaking aloud. Suddenly, it's not altogether clear which direction is up and whether it's wise to continue.
1 "WPA Pools." Parks' Swimming Pools. New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. n.d. Web. 26 Oct, 2011.
2 Carson, Anne. "Water Margins: An Essay on Swimming by My Brother." Plainwater. New York, NY: Random House, 1995.
3 [various headlines 1935-2006]. New York Times. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Link to Historical Drowning Data in New York State since 1987, rendered in schematics: http://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/outdoors/swimming/drowning_statistics.htm
The NYC municipal pools are a kind of urban public space concentrated, rendered intimate, and set afloat. In a pool, a crowd is experienced in parts—as mouths and elbows and legs. This essay is an attempt to capture the particular disorienting experience of urban swimming. With nods to the NYC Dept. of Parks & Rec., Robert A. Caro's "The Power Broker," and Donald Barthelme's fictional biographical sketch, "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning."