Thursday, October 18, 2012

Midnight for My Oasis

Living in New York City can be amazing or amazingly frustrating. Sometimes one episode encapsulates both simultaneously. That happened today, when I was part of a group of regulars who showed up for a last lap at our local swimming hole on the day before it was to close for renovations.

We never made it in the water.

First, the amazing part: The fact that the place exists at all. I'd lived in Harlem almost two years before discovering there was a beautiful community pool hidden less than a mile from my apartment.

After moving uptown, I discovered I could walk to the weekday summer lap swimming at Central Park's Lasker Pool. But what about the other 10 months, when Lasker returned to its Clark Kent alter-ego as a skating rink? (I hate running, barely tolerate elliptical machines. I bike and swim. I prefer lakes, but the city won't let people swim in the Central Park reservoir. Yet.)

The pool I thought was the closest, in Riverbank State Park [right], built as trade-off for the Hudson River sewage plant beneath it, took me almost as long to commute to as it did to swim my mile. It had difficult hours and closed randomly for things like thunderstorms and private classes.

Then a fellow Lasker diehard touted the Harlem YMCA, so I checked it out, but the pool was in a cramped room and on a different floor than the locker rooms, and the lapswimming hours required a spreadsheet.

I found the 1925 gem Hansborough Recreation Center  by stumbling on another blog -- 40 Pools, in which a "New York-based pool tourist" named Hannah Bergeson celebrates her 40th birthday by swimming in 40 different pools, along the way creating a kind of consumer guide for people like me. Membership to the city's municipal pools is just $150 a year, a fraction of what health clubs, gyms, or the JCC would charge. I headed north to check it out.

The exterior (above) wasn't promising, the entryway was a little dilapidated, and the locker room had seen better days.

But on the other side of the locker room door....

...the pool was a marvel, illuminated by a huge overhead skylight: beautiful mosiacs, ringed around the top by a balcony embedded with tiles of the zodiac.

The water was great, and most of all, it had character. Characters.  A true community.

It was as lively as the street corner in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. The locker room was filled with discussions of everything, including the NBA ("Kids today don't even remember when there was no 3 point shot!" "Pistol Pete played like a motherfucker, when he came to town he whooped Walt Frazier's ass.")

There was Russell, a large guy with the gift of gab -- he could hold forth for fifteen minutes about an encounter with a rude woman on the bus. There was a guy I nicknamed The Tortoise who doggedly swam a half mile with beautiful flipturns, but had to be passed almost every lap. There was one woman I called the Jumper, whose entire regimen seemed to be to jump in the pool and get out, over and over. There were a few Diehards like me who got in the pool and swam for an hour straight.

But there were also many Socializers, who donned suits and goggles and then stood in the shallow end and talked for an hour, maybe swimming a lap or two, maybe not.

My favorite was was the Drill Sergeant, a grey-haired tough man with a high-pitched voice who goaded a daily group of novice senior swimmers. He brought a boombox and often he blared Motown, r&b, and disco songs to keep the place festive.

Off one end of the balcony hung a banner about a senior swimming group called "The Honeys and Bears" and I Googled and found this video about a synchronized swim group that practiced here (I never ran into them).

This place, two subway stops from home, plenty of room and hours for swimming, too good to be true, right? Right.

Now for the "amazingly frustrating" part. In September, no soon had I discovered this little Valhalla, a blue sign went up on the door:
IMPORTANT NOTICE TO ALL MEMBERS...Effective October 1, the pool and locker rooms will be closed to begin a much needed facelift. Construction is expected to take 9 months. 
"Nine months? Means a year," opined Russell (who also had some choice words about the female architect who was planning to reconfigure the men's locker room as if we needed more mirrors and sinks).

AUGH! I had finally found Brigadoon, and it was about to disappear into the mists.

At the end of September, some of the regulars held a goodbye party, with food and music -- I remember one of the songs was Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."

And then with just two days left in September, a miracle -- or, truth be told, a delay in contractors contracts -- suddenly pushed the deadline to November 1.

Then a few days later, December 1. We had gotten a two-month reprieve. Or so we thought.

Suddenly last week a new blue sheet went up, announcing the pool was closing at the end of Thursday October 18th -- a week away.

Odd, to think that a construction job was going to start on a Friday, but whatever.

Then when I went to swim Monday, a regular warned me, "Feels like they threw ice cubes in there." Turned out the boiler broke, and the decision was made not to bother fixing it since the pool was about to shut for nine months anyway.

 I swam yesterday (Wednesday the 17th), and went back again today -- only to suddenly find a new notice up on the door -- retroactively closing the pool yesterday.
How was this possible? I stood in the lobby with a dozen pissed-off regulars. The head and assistant head of the pool were conveniently not around. The poor fellow who was left to field our anger said there was nothing he could do, that even the lifeguard wasn't here. 

Then the lifeguard showed up. He said he was fine letting everyone in. But his boss didn't let us. 

Russell immediately flipped open his cell phone and called 311 and filed a complaint. "H-a-n-s-b...We are paying members and this is disrespectful and unfair..."

I ran in a back door to take some farewell photos in case the renovators ruin the 85 year old tilework. 

Then I got kicked out. 
As I left, I took note of the kids' diorama of the center that sits in a plexiglas case in the lobby, which is also looking a little dilapidated. Maybe they'll renovate that too. (The pool is on the left.) 

I was told they were keeping this open till the renovations on the West 60th street rec center  were done in the fall. Now that's not due to open until "sometime in December." 

I'm not holding my breath. 


Hannah said...

Beautiful pictures and stories--what a gem. The shot that's supposed to be Riverbank is actually the Flushing Meadows pool though.

David Handelman said...

Thanks! I knew the photo looked too pristine. I thought maybe it was from when it opened. Fixed.

Cookie DeJesus said...

Hi David! thank you so much for posting this article, I love this pool known to us as the #Bathhouse. I am a Mermaid, my name is Harlem Mermaid, and i swim here along with the Honey Bears, appreciate these photos i had not seen, would love to learn more about early history when the lifeguard, which i believe is the same one you mentioned Russell, used to be a AAU Diver and Champion, who also was a Polar Bear, in his day, he has the gift of gab too, and so many amazing stories to tell. thanks again

Cookie DeJesus said...

Hi David, I posted my comment earlier didnt go through :) Im Harlem Mermaid and I too swim at this amazing pool, along with the Honey Bears, which are amazing. I so love the photos you posted which i had not seen before, would love to learn more about its earlier years here at the Bathhouse, I also spoke with the lifeguard who has been there for many years, when it still had a diving board and photos and torphy's displayed, he used to be a AAU Championship Diver as well as A Polar Bear, he too has the gift of gab i think its one and the same Russell. Great article .