The Pool Boy



The public pools of New York City

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

It was the day after the August 15, 2003 blackout. Greenwich Village still didn’t have any electricity. It was roughly 107 degrees outside, so my wife, Kim, and I headed to the healing waters of our neighborhood pool.

Strike one. The closest sanctuary — Tony Dapolito pool on 7th & Clarkson — was closed, so we made the executive decision to pony up the cash for the comfort of the Midtown Holiday Inn rooftop pool.

Strike two. The power outage rendered it inoperable.

Too far from home to turn back, we pushed on to the Lasker Pool in Central Park. It’s around 107th St., so it was quite a trek through the hot August funk, but worth the exertion for the tranquility that lie ahead.

And then, like a desert oasis, was the site for sweaty eyes…kids splashing about and…exiting the pool with all of their stuff… NOOOOOOO!

(For future reference, city pools are closed between the hours of 3-4 p.m. for cleaning.)

We collapsed in pit-soaked misery under the shade of a large tree, staring at the pool with our tongues hanging out, finding only a mirage on the horizon.

Until forty-five minutes later, when Lasker reopened to the public.

Aaahhhhhh, sweet relief.

Blackout be damned.

That was the greatest swim I’ve ever swum.

And the promised land came courtesy of a man named Moses.

If 21st-century gentrification is an underlying theme of what the whole Moses reexamination is all about, it’s worth asking: is there a more modern relic than a New York City public swimming pool?

Ironically, Robert Moses didn’t think so. Hell, he built the Dapolito pool in the first place.

* * * *

Try and recall the last public swim you took in an urban setting.

(Drawing a blank? Nothing? Nada? Zip? Zero…what do you mean you’ve never even dipped your toes in the city waters?)

The last time I took a dip in a concrete swimming hole carved out the asphalt jungle was July 2007. We grabbed a quick dip in the Astoria Park pool, the massive 330-ft. main tub looking up at Robert Moses’ beloved Triborough Bridge. (Historical note, sports fans: the pool hosted the swimming and diving Olympic trials in 1936 and 1964.) We got in at 3:30 after a game of tennis, just enough time to cool-off before heading over to the other massive Astoria spot for drowning your gills, the Bohemian Beer Garden.

It was our first trip to the ole’ Astoria swimming hole and our visit was too brief to get a sense of the place, other than being awed by the sheer scale of the place.

Throughout the years, Kim and I have been frequent visitors to our neighborhood pool, named for Tony Dapolito, the owner of Vesuvio bakery who was instrumental in keeping Robert Moses infamous dream of a downtown freeway on the drawing board. Dapolito might not be as well known as Jane Jacobs, but he served on the Village community board for fifty years and kept downtown satiated with Italian loaves even longer.

Dapolito is a modest pool, tucked into a less-traversed (by foot anyway) Village corner. In general, local pools have energetic crowds that aren’t found at say, the SoHo House. They don’t keep the Hampton Jitney schedule posted to their cubicle wall. For kids, the main draw is the diving pool; for adults, the main draw is that they can bring the kids. For us, the main draw is that it’s close, free and low-maintenance. It’s not a free-for-all though, the days of horny adolescent boys “whirlpooling” nubile girls out of their bikinis are as anachronistic as women in full-length bathing suits at Coney Island. These days, lifeguards and park employees run a tight ship and rules must be followed. (Bring a lock, shower before jumping in and no newspapers. Books and magazines are fine.)

An afternoon wasted away at Dapolito is nothing special, even if drifting off under the sun to the sounds of kids splashing, lifeguards whistling and Mr. Softee ringing is damn near an Isaac Davis romance poem brought to life. Plus, it’s never that crowded and steadfastly remains one of the few downtown refuges where developers haven’t spread its moneyed tentacles. Dapolito is one of the lucky spots that offers a diving pool. Kids flock from all corners to wait in line for the requisite half-gainers, jackknives and the hold-my-nose-with-one-hand-and-run-off-the-end-of-the-plan-first-timers. And, without fail, some 250-lb.+ dude will bring the house down with a killer cannonball….New York City in all its fleshy glory.

* * * *

Human skin is a fair barometer of what you get at the pools. Namely, the skin is a lot of darker and not beholden to a strict diet of energy bars and smoothies. In fact, other than a few longtime locals, groups of European tourists, and Kim and I, white people seem to be as scarce at the pools as they were in the South Bronx in 1975, the year Robert Caro’s The Power Broker won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s ironic that a man dogged by charges of racism his entire career is responsible for one of the few remaining places where people of all strata can come together and relax in peace. And in skimpy outfits to boot.

I don’t want to go overboard on the mixing of New Yorkers at the pools, it isn’t like the beach with the communal volleyball, body-surfing, paddle surfing and girl-watching. The poolside sunbathers keep to themselves while baking in the Apple, mainly because it’s too damned hot for small talk. Naturally, kids do what kids do at the pools, but it’s not like utopian games of Motorboat find Tribeca’s finest holding hands with Crown Heights interlopers.

That being said, the crowds at the pool are always lively and it does feel different — much more of a Gotham postcard, an old black-and-white cross-section of regular New Yorkers — than a trip on the 6-train. Go ahead, give it a whirl. Drop by a pool next summer. There will be nary a hipster (except for Europeans), scenester, trustfunder or hedge fund manager in sight, but there will be a lot of youngsters laughing, splashing and ignoring the condos going up above them.

* * * *

From what this amateur historian could gather, Moses had three core beliefs: bridges are awesome, traffic is king and city residents need public space to picnic, play ball and take a dip.

His true gem is the Astoria Pool, which opened to great fanfare on July 4, 1936 and became a neighborhood institution, as long as you were from the neighborhood. An Astoria native in her thirties assured me the pool was primarily the province of white folks, typical Moses. It must be mentioned, however, that Moses, an avid simmer himself, subscribed to a separate but equal swimming philosophy and built pools all over like Red Hook, McCarren (a concert haven for one more summer), Betsy Head, Crotona, Sunset Park and Jackie Robinson.

It’s quite the paradox that Moses had no problem bulldozing people’s homes when they got in the way of his version of progress, but yet he created more public space for working class citizens than anyone this side of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (look it up your damn self.) Moses is responsible for more than 415 miles of parkland, 658 playgrounds, 11 outdoor pools and 15,000 acres of shoreline…not to mention 13 bridges, 150,000 housing units and the enchanting dump, Shea Staduim, built so the Mets could replace the Dodgers critics say he drove out in the first place.

No getting around it, dude got shit done. And a lot of New Yorkers are happy for that.


* * * *

In 1993, I spent my first year living and working at a neighborhood center in the Bronx and nothing, I mean nothing, brought joy to the kids like the afternoons spent at the Riverside Park pool. Obviously, kids loving water is not surprising, but pool trips went deeper than simply beating the summer heat. The standard drama involved in typical city outings vanished once they hit the pool. Splashing around always seemed to transport the kids far from the Bronx, a break from the everyday hassles that’s not much different than a jetsetters getaway weekend in the North Fork or our lazy visits to Dapolito.

Robert Moses grasped the communal concept of the pool, or at least until it got in the way of what matters most.

Traffic patterns.

For reasons known only to him, Moses understood the need for community space, acted upon it, and then decided it wasn’t as important as the need for people to get the hell out of the city. As important as Moses’ contributions were, it’s equally important that grassroots folks like Tony Dapolito were able to thwart him. In the New York City Tomorrowland of Moses’ imagination, automobiles would rule and mass transit would go the way of the horse-and-buggy. Naturally, this brings us to Jones Beach.

* * * *

Moses would’ve had no problem mowing down the Tony Dapolito pool — not to mention Washington Square Park – because he saw them as quaint non-essential nooks that didn’t fit into his vision of the suburban future. That’s why he came up with Jones Beach, a series of oceanside spots with parking lots spacious enough for every last vehicle on the white flight expressway. A triumph of post-War proportions, let’s just say as of late…it ain’t exactly the Coopers Beach.

Check that urban pool question, have you been to Jones Beach lately?

Apart from the Atlantic itself, the hard-working cats who push those coolers with the brightly colored plastic wheels around the sand selling delicious novelties are the main Jones Beach draw. (You know those guys: “frrrrroooooozzzzeeee fruit, Chipwich, Snickers ice cream barrrrrrs…”) The beach is crowded, noisy and inaccessible from the city. You must be joking, a train and a bus…oh wait, right, Moses didn’t want the dirty city folk. Sorry Robert, all the beautiful people have moved on down the Long Island.

Nothing against Jones Beach, or its fans, it’s as good as place as any to soak up rays and drift in the surf. Today, Jones Beach is decidedly middle class, abandoned by the upwardly-mobile folks Moses aimed to please, a drop in the ocean of the continual evolution of New York City. And that’s how it goes.

Truth be told, I’d just as soon hang out at Dapolito.

The more things change…everything old is new….you can’t go home again…I would love to know what Moses would make of the gentrification wars brewing over the former tenement-dweller-paradise-turned-billion-dollar-waterfront-property known as Coney freaking Island. I still believe it’s impossible to envision what New York City would be like today without Robert Moses, but I imagine it would be equally impossible for Robert Moses to envision what his hometown has become today.

I’ll ponder it this summer at the pool.

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