A History of McCarren Pool preservation efforts

From the New York Press

As McCarren Park Pool becomes a hipster playground, it prepares for a new beginning
By Brian J. Carreira

You can hear the bass from the subway station eight blocks away. Wander down Lorimer Street under the BQE, and the sound grows more distinct until it dominates the air. You fall in line with the hipsters in big sunglasses and tight jeans, ambling as if on a pilgrimage toward the noise. The slim and stylish thread around the block is waiting for drink wristbands being distributed under the great red brick arch of McCarren Pool in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Likely unbeknownst to many in attendance that day, the long closed pool has been the center of bitter neighborhood battles for well over 20 years.

Last year, Jelly NYC, an events promotion company, began throwing free concerts at the long-shuttered space, and it continues to attract a few thousand bored and beautiful to the big empty hole in the ground each weekend with indie bands, dodgeball and slip ’n’ slide in the sun. It’s incredible to see the basin of “master builder” Robert Moses’ former jewel filled with a throng of affluent folk swaying to a rock beat. But big changes are afoot for the pool. Last week the Landmark Preservation Committee unanimously designated it a landmark, and Mayor Bloomberg pledged $50 million to transform this pool into a year-round multi-use structure as part of PlaNYC 2030. This will perhaps finally bring an end to a storied fight over the pool’s future that has raged in the neighborhood since it closed in 1984 amidst concerns by many locals over crime and unhealthy conditions.

The city closed down all 10 of the big pools in 1984 to perform major renovations in anticipation of their 50th anniversary, but Greenpoint residents had other ideas for McCarren. Some in the then predominantly Polish and Italian neighborhood blamed the pool’s problems on the newer, often black and Latino people coming to use it. Crying, “outsiders out,” locals demanded that McCarren Pool remain closed, and it was even slated for demolition in 1988. The pool became a convenient vent of resistance in the community to new Latin American immigrants and the first stirrings of gentrification that were fueling discontent in insular North Brooklyn.

Phyllis Yampolsky was working with the Parks Department at the time and was given the task of getting the structure taken down. As a resident of the neighborhood, she decided to see the pool for herself and was awed and inspired by the prominent edifice anchoring the east side of McCarren Park. She wondered if its demise could be reconsidered. The Community Board, the Parks Department, and the local City Councilman’s office were all “lined up” against re-opening the space and wanted to take it down. She recalled that her wave-making made her an “enemy of the people” in the eyes of some neighborhood leaders.

Yampolsky and other advocates found allies in the art and architecture community who noted that McCarren Pool is one of the finest examples of quality and aesthetics of the WPA period. The architect I.D. Weston saw the similarity in design that the pool and its bathhouses bore to the Roman baths of Caracalla in Italy. It was the New York City Arts Commission that provided the basis for the first victory for pool advocates, noting that those in favor of removing the pool needed a specific plan as to what would replace it. It is illegal to demolish a public building otherwise.

Removing the specter of demolition did save the pool, but it also fed fuel to the animosity between opponents and advocates, leaving the structure to rot for years as groups battled over its future at Community Board and Parks Department meetings. Fights ensued over repairing parts of the roof and other issues, but there was still no agreement on what to do with the space. In 1994, Yampolsky and others formed the McCarren Park Conservancy. They began considering a renovation that involved a smaller pool and other structures, including a bandshell to make the facility income-producing.

Finally, seven years later, in April 2001, the Community Board unanimously approved a compromise plan with a multi-use facility that was to begin construction the following year. But the World Trade Center attacks and the subsequent shift in priorities to the city budget meant there were no funds for the proposal and the pool sat unused behind a padlocked fence for four more years.

In October 2005, the dance production company SENS opened the pool for a site-specific performance called Agora. Modest renovations were done to make the space safe for the dancers and spectators, but the fundraising efforts of Agora opened the door to Clear Channel Communications’ concert production company and the next controversial, if interim chapter in McCarren’s history. Beginning the following summer, the pool opened for free summer concerts as well as some pricey big-name concerts put on by Clear Channel spin-off, Live Nation.

The mayor’s money has pool advocates confident that these large, loud concerts will soon be a thing of the past. “It’s not going to be the concert venue that it is now,” notes Joseph Vance of the Open Space Alliance, an organization expected to partner with the Parks Department for the renovation and subsequent administration of McCarren Pool. “There will be a pool with water in it,” he adds.

The Parks Department has indicated their commitment to this as well. “We always had concerts as an interim activity until we could reconstruct the pool,” said Parks spokesman Philip Abramson. The Parks Department also declined Clear Channel’s interest in a multi-year lease at McCarren. At the moment, both the Clear Channel and Jelly NYC contracts are only through this summer.

In June, residents of Greenpoint and Williamsburg gathered at a forum to solicit community input that Parks and Recreation has pledged will be included in their plan for the renovated facility. Suggestions ranged from creating a sandy beach to heating the pool in winter using geothermal energy to a space for urban kayaking. Ideas more likely to be seen in a final design include an amphitheater for movies and concerts, an ice-skating rink, indoor event spaces and a skate park.

The meeting, which comes months before preliminary drawings will be released to the public this December, is the city’s attempt to curb the epic in fighting that has plagued progress with neighbors on the issue in the past. “We’re trying to build consensus,” claimed Brooklyn Commissioner Spiegel. Given past financial setbacks, they also want to move quickly on the promised funds, hoping to begin construction in Spring 2009.

Attendees at the forum seemed pleased with it and excited about the future. “I’ve lived here all my life,” said Community Board Chairman Vincent Abate. “It’s a dream come true.”

“I think it was truly a historic milestone event in the community,” agreed Vance.

At the end of July, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the pool as a historic landmark. The Parks Department supported this status, and it is in keeping with their stated purpose to create a new facility that elicits the pool’s old grandeur. Nonetheless, it puts another reviewing body between McCarren and its future.

Walking by the pool on a weekday, you get a better sense of what was lost by 20 years of prejudice and grudge matches. A rusting fence guards the crumbling building as weeds snake up the brick walls and shoot between cracks in concrete steps. The pool should be more than an occasional space for the amusement of hipsters. The city’s plan to redeem the old space as a true community facility is laudable and long overdue.

Posted Under: Brooklyn, Greenpoint, Parks, Public Building, Saved


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