Photo Credit: NYC Parks Department / Malcolm Pinckney and Charles Truax
My research in the musty documents detailing the administrative history of New York Harbor ended roughly with the demise of the floating public baths. These documents, which no one had seen or cared about for nearly a century, were about to be thrown out. I left the Battery Maritime Building, looking to the future, with a usable history and thoughts of the river baths floating through my mind.
Usable history has to be applied to the municipal reality. And since World War II swimming in the river, in any manner, became a risky and forbidden behavior. The story of the waterfront after 1942 is well known and part of my own historical memory. Beginning in the mid-1940s, little by little the edges of the island city began to decay both morally and physically. The 1954 movie On the Waterfront, filmed in Hoboken, New Jersey, exposed the corruption in the maritime industry. Prostitution along the docks on both sides of the river flourished, but even that most marginal and dangerous of work left as the longshoremen lost their jobs. In the 1960s a preponderance of New York City shipping moved to container ports in New Jersey, and the ascendance of airline travel dissipated the need for transatlantic passenger terminals. Left behind were empty piers, many of them merely skeletons of their former selves. Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton, speaking at a 1966 conference on the future of Manhattan’s waterfront, described the situation: “It [the waterfront] has too long been regarded as marginal land, a dumping ground for industries, highways, rotting piers, and raw sewage. The public has been and continues to be denied access to the waterfront.”
Economic decline, which gripped the shoreline and had spread inland by the 1960s, did not cancel the desire on the part of citizens for aqueous recreation. The Parks Department under John Lindsay, who became mayor in 1966, began two programs to bring swimming facilities to underserved neighborhoods. Like the original floating baths, the pools were portable, but they were inland and land-based. Unlike the floating baths, the purpose of the pools was solely to keep residents cool during the hot summer. (In view of the riots that occurred in cities across the country that year, the pools were probably also a means to control tempers during a time of civil unrest.) The first of these facilities were small, prefabricated above-ground pools with a narrow, attached deck. They were installed in the street but could be moved as needed. In addition, several Swimmobiles, “which resembled a semi-trailer filled with water,” were hauled to various neighborhoods where Parks Department employees parked them, filled them from fire hydrants, and, at the end of each day, emptied and towed them away to a storage lot on Randalls Island.
Opening the river edges for public use was not ever on the agenda of the next mayor, Abraham Beame. The city had far more pressing problems. Homeless men slept on street corners, and crime and heroin addiction were rampant. Middle-class whites fled these real and perceived dangers, moving to the suburbs to follow the exodus of capital and jobs that was already underway and slashing the city’s tax revenue. Severe budget cuts left streets dark, with lamp bulbs missing or shot out. Garbage abounded, either in its raw state or on fire. Access to the river, although it could have provided some relief to the population, was a nonpriority.
Photo Credit: Phillipe Baumann
When I discovered my interest in floating pools in the late 1970s, public awareness of the New York City waterfront had begun to return. Issues dear to the earlier Progressives (recreation and hygiene) were being addressed in various ways. People were bicycling, jogging, and even drawing with chalk on the now-collapsed and abandoned West Side Highway, a stone’s throw from the Hudson. The 1972 Clean Water Act inspired hope that New York’s rivers could one day be clean enough for swimming. Shelley Seccombe’s photographs from the decade show a young man performing a backflip from a bulkhead into the Hudson. This risky jump was worth taking.
The nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebrations brought thousands of New Yorkers—entrepreneurs and preservationists, tugboat captains and office workers, parents and children—to the waterfront. Lining the shore, they watched tall ships sail by, partied, and became conscious again that they lived in a city of islands. Three years later, the ideological momentum had been gathered, along with a more mundane need to improve the environment to keep business and high-income residents in the city. On January 18, 1979, Mayor Edward I. Koch announced that “if there is one thing I want my administration to be identified with, it is that… we opened the waters to the people of the city.”
Awareness, however, did not yield easy or safe access to the city’s waterways. As in the Progressive Era, the municipal and private entities needed population control. The government erected chain link fences to block access, not necessarily to avoid deaths from drowning or disease but to absolve its legal liability. In a 1992 photograph by Tom Fox, an elderly, white-haired man is trying to reach the Hudson River from West Street. Dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt that matches his hair and propped up by a brown cane in his left hand, he has just climbed over a waist-high concrete barrier. He is resting before attempting to break through a broken chain-link fence. To the west, he faces a disarray of decaying boards, the remnants of a once-active pier. One wonders if he ever reached his destination—the riverfront.
In 1981 I wanted to test the viability of my growing passion to reintroduce floating pools and submitted an op-ed piece to the New York Times. If it was published, how might the public and the municipality react? On Memorial Day weekend, accompanied by a Jacob Riis photograph, the article was published. In it, I asked: “Today, as our rivers are becoming cleaner, and water shortages prevalent, the idea of floating swimming pools is enticing… Could we once again reserve space for a historically successful means of public access to the waterfront?”
Ann L. Buttenwieser is an urban planner and urban historian. She has taught at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University and at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of two previous books, Governors Island (2009) and Manhattan Water-Bound (1987).
This essay is excerpted from The Floating Pool Lady: A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront by Ann L. Buttenwieser, available for pre-order now. It was reprinted by permission of Cornell University Press. Copyright (c) 2021 by Cornell University. Author headshot is by Etienne Frossard.