Kathleen Horan, Reporter, WNYC News
Kathleen Horan is a staff reporter for New York Public Radio, covering the neighborhood beat. She also reports 'Reset', an ongoing series documenting police-community relations in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
The city is officially opening its outdoor pools for the summer on Thursday. The seasonal rite is arriving with more anticipation than usual because one of the 55 pools on the list includes McCarren Park pool, which has been closed for nearly 30 years.
The city has spent $50 million for the renovation including the pool restoration, preservation of the bathhouse and the arched entryway. The project also includes an indoor recreation center.
In Willamsburg, Brooklyn, steps away from the Bedford subway station, lifelong resident Rina Mottes sat with some friends on her stoop recalling the nearby pool, which was a big part of her childhood.
“You know it was a day of getting away, you know a day away from the house, when we were younger, my sisters and brothers, we all used to go swimming down there,” said the 70-year-old Mottes.
McCarren was one of 11 pools that opened in the summer of 1936 by then Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.
Over the intervening decades, as the demographics of the neighborhood changed, it became a hotspot for fights and other unpredictable behavior. “You know, pushing and shoving, they would steal things from your locker room which wasn't nice," said longtime resident Kathy Schaefer. She blamed some of the kids from the “Southside” of the neighborhood at the time.
Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe remembers that pools all over the city at the time were far from peaceful.
“Young people and adolescents are rowdy and for some people that’s scary but we’ve found ways to make sure they’re not rowdy anymore or at least it’s nipped in the bud, but this was a different time,” said Benepe.
The Parks Department offered to renovate the pool in the 1980s, but the Community Board and other concerned citizens went in the opposite direction and opted to close it instead.
“There was lot more crime and people were anxious about trying to keep their neighborhood safe,” observed Benepe. “They would say we don't want this pool. [Not] for any reasons to do with race. but it became racial, the fact that they didn’t want people coming from other neighborhoods.”
McCarren experienced a brief period of creative re-use when organizers turned the empty pool basins into a stage for performances, including bands such as Wilco and Sonic Youth, and outdoor movies.
Earlier this week, the hum of power tools was music to many people's ears. Residents gathered at the fence outside trying to sneak peeks of the pool once again filled with water.
Matthew Konefal was a baby when McCarren closed it 1984. He said, so far, he liked what he saw. “I mean the brickwork everything is gorgeous....I have pictures of it from 30 years ago and it didn’t look like this.”
The question most people in the community have been asking these days is what does it cost for a swim?
The answer: free.