A Tale of Two Pools: A Day at the Pool in Wake of McCarren Park Incidents

On a recent afternoon, as temperatures threatened to push past the three-digit mark, the scene at McCarren Park Pool was similar to that of most city pools: sunbathers sprawling out poolside and swimmers finding relief from the unrelenting city swelter.

Pool-goers seemed nonplussed by the incident a day earlier in which police made three arrests and used pepper spray to subdue patrons. It was the fourth incident since the pool reopened in late June.

But the police officers stationed on a rotation at the entrance and on both sides of the pool — one of the city’s largest — was a reminder of the violent incidents that have marred the reopening of the historic WPA-era pool, and highlighted the various tensions between police, bathers and the neighborhood.

Rey Soto, 28, came to take a dip at lunchtime on Wednesday. He said he was there when police used pepper spray and arrested three men who refused to leave at closing time.

"People just get hyped and start breaking the rules when it's half an hour prior to closing the pool," Soto said. "Cause they're leaving anyways so they don't mind being kicked out."

He said he thought the lifeguards should try approaching patrons in a friendlier fashion.

"I wouldn't like them talking to my kid the way they talk to kids,” Soto said of the lifeguards. “And not just kids. Their demeanor, like, they're not having too much fun themselves.”

(Photo: McCarren Park pool is packed on July 18. Brigid Bergin/WNYC)

But some people were encouraged by all the security, including Parks Department staff and the New York City Police Department, present at the pool.

“The cops are supposed to be here, it's avoiding problems," said Marcalina Torres, 70, who was at the pool with her daughter and great grand-daughter. "That's protection for the public and the kids." 

Torres, who came to the pool a generation ago, hopes security can keep away problems that plagued the pool in the past.

But sometimes incidents start as misunderstandings, like on Wednesday when two Parks employees were stopped and confronted by NYPD officers when they entered the pool by a side entrance.

"You asked for ID. I showed you ID,” one of the employees said to the officer.

"Maybe I don't believe you," the officer said, gesturing to the other man, "Where's his ID?” the officer asked.

The parks employees, who officers detained in a corner near where they entered, explained not everyone has ID badges yet since it's still early in the season.

A Park Supervisor came over and confirmed the identities of both men.

Meanwhile, at the city’s largest pool in Astoria, Queens, swimmers waited patiently in long lines against the backdrop of the RFK Bridge for thunder to pass Wednesday afternoon.

(Photo: The line for the Astoria pool on July 18. Kathleen Horan/WNYC)

The pool is 330 feet long with a capacity of 2,178 people. It opened in 1936, the same year as McCarren. WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins said the pool was “the finest in the world,” and the Olympic Trials for the U.S. Swim and Dive teams took place there that year (and again in 1964).

Eleven-year-old Christian Guzman said the pool is his home away from home because it’s free and he enjoys the food stand. He said it’s also been peaceful.

"So far I haven't seen a fight here,” he said. “Last year, there were a few but this summer I haven't seen any, even though I've been here almost every day."

A pool staffer said security is always on hand at the city’s largest pool – including four NYPD officers, and seven Parks Enforcement Patrol officers who watch the pool to ensure compliance with the rules and regulations.

Gwen Alexander, who’s been working at the Astoria pool for two years, confirms there haven’t been any issues with fighting this year but she said rule enforcement is still an issue — especially the one regarding alcohol. She admits it’s not uncommon for people to try to smuggle booze in their water bottles. “So, when we see someone bobbing and weaving, we say, ‘ok, we got a juicy right there’ — that means juice-head,” Alexander explained. “We have to get them off the pool for their safety as well as everyone else's."

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe speaking on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show earlier this month described McCarren Park Pool as a “calm oasis” and blamed the rash of violence to “isolated incidents.” It was an example, he said, of “young people doing dumb things on a hot day.”

“People have short memories,” he said. “They forget it wasn’t too long ago that there was all kinds of mayhem happening at the pools.”

The NYPD does not keep reports of incidents at parks. The Parks Department said they’ll be getting new numbers on incidents at the pools this week.

(Photo: The city pool in Queens is emptied as a thunderstorm rolls through. Kathleen Horan/WNYC)