The Ultimate(ish) Guide to NYC’s Public Pools

NYC Public Pools Man Repeller Summer 2018


n summertime, Manhattan’s sidewalk trash mimics overheated bodies: Noisome vapors intensify, baked in by the sun, and plastic bag exteriors sweat real, tangible droplets. TV will tell you that “everyone” escapes the brunt of New York’s turn-up for sweeter pastures outside the city limits, but the rest of us need to make the best of it. We need to find friends with Soho House memberships. We need to buy hand-held fans on Amazon. We need to steal extra moist towelettes from fast food restaurants. Most importantly, we need to make a beeline for our nearest public pool.

Here is a thing you may not be aware of: For approximately ten glorious weeks each year, NYC Parks refills 53 of the great concrete chasms that otherwise lay dormant throughout various boroughs and turns them into FREE POOLS. These are open daily from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. (earlier if you register for lap swimming) with an hour break for cleaning at 3 p.m. They are of varying sizes. They do not sell or permit food. They require you to be an organized person and BYO lock to stash valuables (you’re not allowed in without brandishing a bolt, and you’re required to leave pretty much everything in a metal locker, including your mobile phone). But did I mention these are OUTDOOR POOLS? And did I say they’re free?

I spent the last week dipping in man-made water holes all over the city — tanning, sweating, free-styling, flushing out all torpor as my skin was embraced by cool, restorative H20 — and compiled my findings here. As an aside, I did not spy a single floating Band-Aid (which to be honest was dispiriting; I’d intended on doing a tally).

Hamilton Fish Pool, LES
128 Pitt Street, New York
BEST FOR: Lower Manhattan convenience, bodega proximity.
AVOID: When hungover.

Hamilton Fish — an Olympic-sized pool that first opened in 1936 — was the first I visited. It was also the site I was most disorganized for, arriving sans towel and lock. Upon realizing this, I returned with a Master Lock purchased from a nearby CVS, fumbled for a painfully long time, then proceeded to watch multiple YouTube tutorials — all inexplicably hosted by security-loving teens — before I actually understood how to work mine. (I recommend watching these videos at home; it is embarrassing in front of pool staff.)

If you live in Lower Manhattan, this place is hard to beat for accessibility and size, though it’s clearly a mirror of its environs (read: congested, adrenalized, Manhattan-y). The pool and adjoining concrete deck are big, but they’re constantly packed and mildly stressful: a cacophony of blood-curdling screams, frantic parents and overzealous lifeguards blowing on shrill little whistles. That said, I reside in the neighborhood and thus register all these things as background fuzz, so will probably be paddling in Hamilton Fish’s twinkling cerulean water all summer.

Tony Dapolito Recreation Center, West Village
1 Clarkson St, New York
BEST FOR: Lapping up NY heritage.
AVOID: If claustrophobic.

All NYC Pools dictate you shower before swimming or sunbaking, but there was a sobering, penitentiary quality to the way a guard at the entrance insisted, grimacing, that I return to the changing rooms and “come back dripping.” Once outside, the mayhem was on par with Hamilton Fish — think 20 simultaneous swimming lessons, plus hoards of teenagers yell-flirting — in a pool about a third of the size, with just enough room to scissor-kick.

But this place, steeped in history, is not without charm: It’s galvanizing to stare upward from the bracing cold of an urban pool and see skyscrapers, to emerge for breath, hear the thumping chorus of horns and plunge defiantly back into the blue. On scorching afternoons it’s extra packed, and you might line up out front for more than half an hour. It’s worth it, if only to see Keith Haring’s ’87 mural lining one wall and some of New York’s last remaining diving boards.

McCarren Park Pool, Brooklyn
776 Lorimer St, Brooklyn
BEST FOR: People watching.
AVOID: Getting there after 1 p.m.

Get here right on opening, before it’s too busy, and you’ll find the vibe to be “chill.” There’s an enormous concrete expanse to lounge on (though not much shade), a section of pool cordoned off for casual laps, and an adjoining court dotted with lithe bodies contorting as they dive for a beat-up volleyball. Other seemingly mundane features you’ll be glad of include a large clock fixed to the New Deal-era brick archway (remember, phones aren’t permitted outdoors) and a drinking fountain in the back left corner. At rec center pools, you are transformed into a simpler, sweeter person: one nourished by boring information, like the time of day, and boring drinks, like water.

One of the most appealing facets of McCarren park was that I could read my book (rampant methamphetamine use in the Third Reich: Ask me anything!) in almost-peace, without being splashed. When I left, it was getting busier, but still felt like a slice of sublime — I was so happy at this pool that I remained unoffended by three different swimsuits emblazoned with “BAE.”

Lyons Pool, Staten Island
20 Victory Boulevard
BEST FOR: Parking spaces — there’s plenty.
AVOID: If you like your pools shiny.

Close to Tompkinsville station and the ferry, Staten Island’s largest public pool is a little run down, but for those in want of a less-populated, sanguine environment — equipped with a rare diving pool, wading pool and picnic tables out back — this Olympic-sized venue is a real gem.

Like others, its construction harks back to Depression-era NYC, and there’s still romance in the signature brick entrance arches and soaring smokestack, all perched upon 2.5 acres of waterfront. There’s little to dislike here — the decks are wide and seldom crowded; the locker rooms are spacious. (A quick aside: On leaving the latter, I was pleased to find an enterprising business card tactically abandoned on a wooden seat, printed with the heading: CASH FOR PHONES.)

Astoria Pool, Queens
19th Street and 23rd Drive
BEST FOR: Views.
AVOID: Nothing. This is the supreme pool.

My god. This is…a real one. At near-55,000 square feet, Astoria Pool is by far the biggest in the city. It’s belted by parkland, with postcard views of Triborough Bridge. As with Hamilton Fish, it opened in 1936 — as part of then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’ campaign to boost morale and jump-start employment — but the Queens location makes for a visit that’s calmer and more suburban than its LES sibling. It’s attractive. There are lashings of art deco detailing, from the bathing pavilion to the now-dated glass bricks adorning the entryway. The two fountains at the pool’s east end currently spurt water (25 feet high, according to some cursory Googling), but they were formerly Olympic torches, burning through the ‘36 and ‘64 events. There is a sprawling paved area for sunbaking, as well as shadier bits and permanent lanes for laps. And most importantly, there is a little take-away spot — Surf Cafe — where you can buy fries and chicken wings.

I arrived here at 3 p.m., when the pool was closed for cleaning, and stretched out solo in the adjoining park until its gates re-opened at 4. One thing I noticed, when observing the water from above, was how it glistened with wriggly white lines — just like it does in the backyards of the wealthy. When I squinted, the entire scene resembled a Hockney still life: bright orange lifeguard chairs beside a mass of glittering blue.

Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park Pool, Hamilton Heights
679 Riverside Drive
BEST FOR: Backyard vibes.
AVOID: If you actually want to swim outside.

Finding where to swim in this labyrinthine 28-acre rec facility can be tricky for first-timers. En route, you’ll pass families lazing around balloon-strewn picnic tables, Cardi B blasting from oversized speakers, a skating rink, a bar/restaurant and a giant running track. Technically, the whole place is run by the state, not the city, the main implications for water-lovers being different hours and $2 adult entry. (A plus is that if you’ve forgotten the requisite lock, they’ll sell you one out front for a dollar.)

Riverbank’s indoor pool is a full 50m, but in the sunshine, the offering is more modest. This is a spot made for splashing, not “serious” swimming — imagine a glorified backyard pool party with a bunch of people you don’t know. Visitors seemed to have smuggled in cell phones and alcohol covertly; music played on small speakers. Kids in boardshorts cannonballed towards the water, their bodies curled into fleshy spheroids, while older ladies in apricot shower caps edged away, kicking. On the soft grass — there was no concrete here — girls in thong bikinis the color of their skin took selfies. The pool and deck capacity is listed at 589, but there seemed to be around 80 when I visited, a more appealing number.

Jackie Robinson Park and Outdoor Pool, Harlem
BEST FOR: Grown-ups who are kids.
AVOID: If averse to poolside splashing.

“A pool is water,” Didion once wrote, “made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.” But in this big blue mosaic come man-made Harlem lagoon, water doesn’t remain controlled or pristine for long. Its serene surface is broken by brave young jumpers and cries of MARCO POLO, by self-appointed teachers guiding less confident swimmers by the hands, by dignified old-timers circling ad infinitum, watching life play out before them. The adjoining mini waterpark encourages a sense of lawlessness, too: Bendy red beams, faux palm trees and a giant metal frog spurt water defiantly from all sides.

This is a good pool for floating and swimming, less so for soaking up rays on land — you can lay on a couple of concrete steps or slim bands of path beside the pool, but otherwise there’s nowhere to go. If you’re uptown, it’s still worth stopping by for the medieval entrance, its Roman arched windows remindful of The Met Cloisters, and for the history of the place; it’s named after the first African American to play major league baseball, and the corridors are bedecked with tributes to Black sporting icons.

Sol Goldman Recreation Center Pool, Red Hook
155 Bay St, Brooklyn
BEST FOR: Spreading limbs.
AVOID: If you’re precious about private changing rooms (though few public pools have those).

I got here right on opening, mid-week at 11 a.m., to find swarms of Park Slope Day Campers, all approximately five years old, ricocheting like tennis balls, their faces smeared in sunblock. I felt, in comparison, about a century old, sort of creepy and socially awkward, and retreated to the nearby park for a good 20 minutes until they’d all gone in. On the grass, I observed a middle-aged man running laps while clutching a metal detector, and watched Love Island spoilers on my phone.

Back to the pool. Sol’s locker rooms are in desperate need of a facelift — think a repurposed indoor basketball court with peeling paint and nowhere, bar a couple of toilets nearby, to seek cover if shy when stripping. But outside it’s unbeatable. The bleachers are colorful. The water is icy and clean. The pool is leviathan. It’s so big, in fact, that I spent most of my stay floating aimlessly, eyes closed and limbs fully outstretched, without touching another living soul.

Laura Bannister is a writer living in New York. She is the editor of Museum magazine.

Illustrations by Joanne Ho

Laura Bannister

Laura Bannister is a writer living in New York. She is the editor of Museum magazine.

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