The story of Greenpoint’s McCarren Park Pool has the makings of a great saga. Born in 1936, a child of a WPA project, the pool lived approximately 48 years before suffering a massive coronary and dying out. At its height, 6,800 people could swim at the same time. Originally, it was both a destination and neighborhood trophy. But as the city fell into chaos in the 1970s, the pool followed suit. Its neighbors led the effort to shut it down.
Over the next 25 years it slowly became an eyesore to some, a hulking mass you had to walk around to get places. Legends sprung from the empty structure—talk of ghosts, drugs, people living in it. For those of us who missed out on earlier attempts to reopen the pool (which closed in 1984), we have the stories from the long-standing Brooklynites and local historians to keep us grounded. Brooklyn Borough Parks Commissioner Julius Spiegel explains that there were protests by locals. “I hesitate to guess what their nationality was, but they were long time residents objecting to us reconstructing the pool. And a handful of them, I think, literally, cause I was there when it happened, I think they literally chained themselves to the construction fence…they didn’t want a pool. I think it was plain racist.”
Over the years, various community groups feuded over the pool’s future. Task forces were put together, committees were formed, splinter groups sprouted up, endless meetings ensued, but the only thing that became clear was that the neighborhood was divided and there was little resolve. Finally, in April 2001, the community board approved a conceptual plan, one that received broad, though not universal support. In any case, the money wasn’t yet there to make it happen.
Around 2004 there was a surge of talk and renewed interest. There was re-zoning of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint areas, preparation for the 2012 Olympics bid, and always, endless media attention about the explosion of Williamsburg. In 2005, Noemie Lafrance approached the Parks Department to use the pool as a performance space, and with her company, Sens Production, created a site-specific dance piece. This seemed to put the pool on the map, and in the spring of ’06, both JellyNYC and Live Nation brought summer concerts.
The effort of those local activists who wanted the pool reopened seems to be paying off. This fall, the pool will close for a massive renovation. Mayor Bloomberg has allotted $50 million to make it a mixed-use, year-round public space, and neighborhood activists vow to hold the city to its pledge.
Now in his late 30s, Dom Villella, a life-long resident and first-generation Brooklynite of Italian descent, started going to the pool when he was seven. It shut down when he was 14. He belonged to one of the factions in the community that wanted the pool to stay open.
After the city closed the pool, it became a new kind of playground. The pool was fenced off, but there was no security. It was like a secret in the middle of the neighborhood. For Dom and his friends, the pool became the coolest place to sneak into, hang out, and drink beer. At the same time, there were plenty of needles found, overdoses reported, and bodies carted out. “When it closed down it was a place for us to hang out in,” says Villella. “The tower was blocked off, but we always found a way up, being teenagers you know, that’s where we used to party—up in the tower.”
Villella’s connection to the pool has one more dimension: he is a paranormal investigator. One rumor that Villella heard was that back in the 50s, a young girl drowned in the pool. As the story goes, this little girl then circled the pool at night crying for help. Villella was on the case. On two separate occasions, he surveyed the pool in an attempt to detect paranormal activities. During his stakeouts he used electromagnetic field detectors looking for abnormal temperature changes, as well as radiation detectors, video, and photos. Although he hasn’t found anything significant to date, he hasn’t given up. The case is still open.
Alex Kane started JellyNYC, a creative agency, about three years ago. He describes it as a “home for like-minded creative people that share the same ethos and provide creative alternatives for audiences that are either free or cheap.” Jelly had been planning to do a summer concert series at Rockefeller Center, but a few months in switched the location to McCarren Pool, a better setting for the company’s goal of creating interactive events. And they were free.
But Clear Channel was right there, thinly veiled as Live Nation, with huge names and big dollars. The summer saw a David & Goliath showdown between Jelly and Live Nation over what was to become one of the city’s hottest venues—yes, it was now a venue—in town. Live Nation absorbed some of the initial clean-up costs, enabling the space to be usable, in exchange for the right to charge for tickets, which it did for up to 50 bucks a pop, to see bands including Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. The biggest complaint against Live Nation was that the pricey tickets excluded many locals from the events.
Jelly took a different route, garnering corporate sponsorships in order to produce their events, which allowed them to put on free Sunday shows with DJs and rising and established indie bands. According to Kane, “the crowds at the pool are really very different for the ticketed shows verses the free shows… We see the Puerto Rican families, the Polish families, the young hipsters—it’s a rainbow of people, and I just hope that’s what’s reflected in the new design.” And while there is no doubt the free shows attract a wider audience base than the high-end concerts, MTV News, which is reporting from the pool parties each week, is no doubt more interested in the hipsters’ perspectives.
Evan Thies, a protégé of Councilman David Yassky, is running for Yassky’s 33rd District seat which includes Greenpoint and parts of Williamsburg. Thies lives steps from the park. He can sit in a chair on his balcony and listen to the sounds of the Beastie Boys or Feist. While he enjoys a good concert, Thies is in full support of the pool reconstruction, explaining that this north Brooklyn area has half the amount of open space-to-people ratio than the city’s guidelines recommend. He understands that many locals are hesitant to get too excited until the renovation actually begins.
One concern is that the earmarked money will disappear when Bloomberg leaves office. If our next mayor is not as enthusiastic about the project, there could be a halt. As Thies says, “the legislative action of the council to approve the budget for those items can be easily turned over by the next mayor—just by proposing the money be spent differently.” Commissioner Spiegel, however, insists this will not be the case. He says that the main reason the Parks Department is driving forward with its plans so intensely at the moment is because “the more work you do, the more secure it is.”
A large part of the problem with re-opening the pool has been the multitude of voices, opinions, and special interest groups. That is why the Open Space Alliance, or OSA, was formed five years ago, and this past spring they have become a legal operating partner with the Parks Department. Most neighborhood activists seem to agree that the formation of OSA has helped unify the community’s voice and strengthen its relationship with the city.
To say that OSA’s executive director, Stephanie Thayer, is enthusiastic about the future of the pool is an understatement. She is insuring that the reconstruction activity has already begun. From her office-trailer set up stage left inside the pool, she keeps an eye on everything. Thayer says that engineers and architects are already preparing for the renovation—drilling, taking samples, etc. The Parks Department says it is holding weekly meetings that include everyone possible to push it forward.
This summer OSA is running the pool production schedule, with all promoters conducting business through the non-profit organization. This has centralized the booking process and has opened it up to the community. Most nights are booked for July and August but there are still days available for which people can get permits to hold events in the pool. Any local group may contact OSA if it wants to hold an event. In these last days before reconstruction, McCarren Pool, Thayer says, “is more than a concert venue, it’s an event place for everybody.”
So what is actually happening? In September, restoration of the Arch, the pool’s grand entrance, begins. There is a separate $1.5 million in place for this part of the structure. Then, in the spring, the major construction starts. The goal is to open the pool and facility to the public in the summer of 2011. The new pool will also have community meeting spaces and recreation centers. There’s also talk of a restaurant up in the tower and an ice-skating rink covering the pool in the winter. Since the project is part of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, Commissioner Spiegel says it comes with an operating budget and that admission to the pool itself will be free.
The fact that McCarren Pool will again be a place for swimming, not simply Greenpoint’s decrepit version of Bryant Park, will be a welcome boost to the neighborhood. It is all happening, but as Commissioner Spiegel jokes, $50 million ain’t what it used to be. The project’s success will rely on the community’s continued support and attention.
Next on the list? Finding a place for the concerts. There are some strong rumblings of moving them to Bushwick Inlet Park, a new 28-acre site on the Williamsburg waterfront. Hopefully it won’t take another 25 years to see this happen.