Letter from the Bronx

Two Saturdays ago, to little fanfare (save long awaited blue skies and an occasional waft of the WKTU Michael Jackson tribute) the opened for the season. Docked in Baretto Point Park in the Bronx, this swimming pool is just like any other of New York City’s fifty-four outdoor basins – offering two sessions daily (11am-3pm, 4pm-7pm), life guards clad in the Parks Department’s signature orange bathing suits and a cool respite from the summer heat. And yet it’s also different: the Floating Pool Lady, which has commanding views of the New York skyline across the East River, began life as an industrial barge in Morgan City, Louisiana. On her decks are three generations of New York City swimmers. “I grew up going to Astoria” Maria tells me, while my daughter and her granddaughter take running leaps into the cold water. Framed by the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, she watches the girls splash in twenty-five meters of sparkling blue. “We’d also go to Lasker,” Maria’s own daughter remembers. “But Astoria has those nice, shallow parts where the little kids play. Plus you can see the Triboro. I mean RFK.” Indeed the pool at Astoria Park, down the East River to the southwest from Barretto in Hunts Point, is the city’s oldest and largest, built by Robert Moses in 1936 to host the U.S. Olympic Team swimming and diving trials. This summer, both the Floating Pool Lady and the Astoria pool provide free swim lessons, lunch and practices for the Summer Swim Team Championship Meet on August 8th. Both parks also have plaques commemorating the wreck of the SS General Slocum, the steamship that embarked on June 15th 1904 from “Little Germany” up the East River towards Long Island for an annual summer picnic. As the ship passed through Hell’s Gate, it caught fire. By the time it beached at North Brother Island, between Astoria and Barretto Point, more than 1,000 of the 1300 passengers – mostly women and children – had drowned.

The Floating Pool Lady was born out of a fascination with New York’s waterfront, past and present. In 1980, while researching her doctoral thesis, city planner and historian Ann Buttenwieser learned that in the 19th Century the city had fifteen “floating baths” moored on pontoons along the Hudson and East Rivers. The idea was planted for a modern day counterpart. Buttenwieser’s dissertation became one of the definitive chronicles of New York water ways, ; this month she will publish (Syracuse University, 2009). In the intervening decades, Buttenwieser has also helped to shape the city’s recreational waterscape, working for a variety of city agencies on river parks, esplanades, kayak launches, ferries to the ballparks and a for the lower Manhattan shoreline.  It wasn’t until 2000, however, that she turned to the floating pool project in earnest, undertaking a feasibility study, enlisting architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld and founding the Neptune Foundation to raise the necessary funds. In 2004, after an extensive search, the Foundation discovered a decommissioned river barge in the bayous of Morgan City. Construction began in nearby Amelia, Louisiana and after some Hurricane Katrina delay the soon-to-be Floating Pool Lady (a moniker also now used to describe Buttenwieser) arrived in New York in 2006 for final outfitting. The floating pool opened on July 4th, 2007 off the Brooklyn Bridge Park, and that first summer hosted 50,000 families.  In its current home in Barretto Point Park Point in Community District 2, it is the only public pool.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is swimming.