London Terrace: Swim Free or Die

by

07/11/2002

175 9th Ave, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Chelsea

The Great London Terrace Rent Strike began in the Fall of 1992 over the swimming pool. Once billed as “the largest apartment complex in the world,” London Terrace occupies an entire square city block on the north side of 23rd street between Ninth and 10th avenues. The “Great Briton in Manhattan” opened in 1929 with elegant dining rooms, stores, London bobbies manning the doors and nearly 1,800 apartments. The all-inclusive complex is the size of a small Midwestern town larger in population than Door County, Wisconsin. London Terrace has always been a prestigious Chelsea address, built on what was the estate of Clement Clarke Moore, author of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It is now an expensive locale for the likes of Deborah Harry, Sam Watterston, and Isaac Mizrahi.

The London Terrace Towers condominium owners had long sought to renegotiate use of the Olympic-size swimming pool by the London Terrace Garden renters. Kreisel Corporation manages the four Tower buildings and had just completed an expensive renovation of the largest swimming pool in the city. Built in 1931, the pool features six lanes, locker rooms, a balcony, and art deco fixtures. Clarendon Management oversees the rental properties in London Terrace Gardens, the ten interior buildings on 23rd and 24th street. Clarendon had paid a meager $5,500 a year to the Towers for use of the pool for thirty years. Swimmers by the hundreds including myself came from the Gardens. Our site manager, Andrew Hoffman offered $50,000 to keep us in backstrokes but the Towers were looking for more like $150,000. We were barred entry from the pool, a place of sanctuary from the rigors of Manhattan life.

The London Terrace Tenant’s Association called an emergency meeting. Writers, painters, musicians, set designers, fashion photographers gathered in a cramped apartment that belonged to a record album collector. Tom Duane, a City Councilman at the time, gave us a primer on the landlord tenant relationship. “I’ve met many landlords and not one of them was Mother Theresa. A reduction in services means a reduction in rent.” Swimming cuts across a large demographic. One publisher had just taught his child to swim. A teacher took his sister with Alzheimer’s. The pool helped people with heart conditions, high cholesterol. I swam laps in the evenings after work. It was great to walk twenty-five yards in my robe to the entrance of the pool in the wintertime, sometimes through snow for a relaxing hour. The Tenant organizers asked for volunteers. I chose publicity.

After the meeting, I met Marie Giardine, an elderly Italian woman with a bowery toughness about her. I soon discovered the pool had a history. She ran the pool for forty-five years. “I’m mad as hell,” she told me. She coached Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle at London Terrace, the first woman to swim the English Channel. Buffeted by waves and plagued by seasickness, Ederle swam the Channel from France to England, breaking the men’s record by seven hours. The pool was the first place that a woman’s swim team trained in the United States. Florence Chadwick practiced at the pool, the first to swim the English Channel both ways. An original bathing beauty and Olympic gold medalist, Caren Cone trained under Marie’s direction for the 1939 World’s Fair. Johnny Weismuller trained in the pool. Marie was very upset. “I’m going down to the river and jump in,” She told me. “I have to swim. When the police pull me out, I’ll tell them I had to swim.”

I created a flyer that featured a school of dolphins under the headline, ARE LONDON TERRACE SWIMMERS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES? I pasted them on 200 floors and in every elevator. Pool access had been cut-off during the time of Hurricane Andrew. Andrew Hoffman wasn’t being responsive so I made a placard especially for him: HURRICANE ANDREW DEVASTATES POOL, HUNDREDS SWIMLESS. I left it under the rental office door. Hoffman had been less than cordial to me on a number of occasions including the first time I inquired about an apartment. “Good, another sucker to rip-off,” he mumbled underneath his breath to the guy who introduced me to him. He was not returning our calls. Inquiring renters were being shown the pool, real estate ads continue to feature it, but it was off-limits. The swimmers met again at the record collector’s and plotted the next move. I suggested a march to the pool.

A man deprived of his pool will resort to anything.

We gathered in the courtyard dressed in our swim suits. Andy Jackness, a famous Broadway set designer made posters at his studio. Tom Duane met us there. He carried a sign that stated, SWIM FREE OR DIE. Archie MacGregor, Dean of Brooklyn College during the riots of the sixties, wore a mask with a snorkle, flippers, and a Speedo. Archie had once given an order to have students arrested during a sit-in. Many more swimmers wore goggles and bathing caps. “NO POOL, NO SUNDECK, NO RENT CHECK,” we shouted on 23rd street. People stopped in their tracks at the scantily clad mob in flip-flops.

We walked into the lobby and a woman who lived in the Towers screamed, “Call the police! Call the police!” We blew past her into the pool, all of us jumping in. The Towers people always sported attitude when it came to the renting hordes. The guard came over and politely told us to leave. He was very sympathetic to our cause. The whole scene dissolved into a photo opportunity. We had raised some eyebrows. Tom Duane promised to send over some of his Green Berets, people who could train us in the arts of aggressive action. We got good coverage from the neighborhood papers.

I sent a parcel of literature and quotes from Mao about swimming to Susan Sontag in the Towers but she never responded. Andrew Hoffman never recovered from the poster with the hurricane reference. “How can they blame this on me? Please, no more posters,” he pleaded, genuinely hurt. He met with our leaders, demanding an armistice. Someone leaked that I left the poster.

Some high-ranking members of the Tenant’s Association had begun to view my actions with concern. I was the radical arm, the propaganda machine and my colleagues realized that I could easily burn out of control. “The publicity worked,” they told me. “We should lay low for awhile.” When it became apparent that negotiations had stalled between the Towers and the Gardens, we elected to go on rent strike. I settled down and wrote pieces for the newly created newsletter about apartment floods, holes in stairwell walls, brown water and general decrepitude. I instilled fear with titles like “Poseiden Adventure in 415” and “Stairwell Atrocities on the Rise.” Eighty tenants gave their rent checks to a treasurer and let the lawyers battle it out. They served us with papers to try and spook some older tenants. Himmelstein, McConnel & Gribben represented us well. In the end, we settled out of court. After two years, $200,000 in escrow, and lots of hard work we each received $1,000.00 for the loss of service and returned to the lanes. Clarendon settled with Kreisel on a long-term contract for the use of the pool.

As rents continue to skyrocket in Manhattan and London Terrace endures a modern facelift that includes an electronic surveillance system, I remember that moment when it all came together in 1992, walking the streets of Chelsea in my swim trunks chanting “Swim Free or Die.”

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