Originally published in The New York Times, April 9, 2006.
Seeking to Recapture the Glory of the Past. Or Maybe Not.
In Greenpoint, the pool at McCarren Park is surrounded by weeds and signs that read 'Danger.' In some eyes, that's the way it should stay.
Wearing Speedos and tank suits, hundreds of swimmers crammed the enormous pool at McCarren Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. On this steamy day in 1937, they splashed, swam and hurled themselves into the water — their antics immortalized by a photographer from the Parks Department who recorded the moment.
Flash forward to 1984: Some of McCarren Park’s neighbors barricaded the entrance to the pool, which had been shut down the previous summer. Employees of the city’s Parks Department preparing to restore the pool were turned away by a small group of local residents, who told city contractors to leave the pool in its crumbling state, recalled Julius Spiegel, the Brooklyn parks commissioner since 1981. Their complaint was that young people from other neighborhoods had been hanging out at the pool and destroying the place.
Fast-forward 22 years, to now. The McCarren Park pool is draped with signs that read “Danger.” Grass and weeds shoot through the concrete around the empty open-air pool, and the huge auburn building that partly surrounds it is encircled with a chain-link fence and blanketed with graffiti.
For years, the McCarren pool has been a battleground. In the 1980’s, many wanted it demolished, while others wanted it restored. Reinvigorated by recent arrivals from neighboring Williamsburg, those in favor of restoration have renewed their push to save it, to recapture the glory depicted in the 1937 photo.
But others want it left as it is, seeing it as a valuable and unusual space perfect for dance performances, film festivals and other community activities. Ron Delsner Presents, a former subsidiary of Clear Channel, the Texas-based radio giant, is planning a series of concerts this summer at the pool.
“Now that they’re not going to destroy the pool,” said Phyllis Yampolsky, an artist and a longtime community resident who wants to see the pool restored, “it’s magnetic.”
Ms. Yampolsky, who has lived in Greenpoint since the mid-1980’s, was sitting at the kitchen table in her spare row house. Wearing hiking boots and cargo pants, she resembled a wizened New Age guru. She deflected questions about her age — “I want to put ‘Chronology is bad for your health’ on a T-shirt,” she said — but she is as passionate as ever about her pet cause.
She began battling to fix up the pool in 1989. Over the years, she has become one of the staunchest advocates for restoring the pool, which was built in 1936 by Robert Moses as one of 10 pools that stretched across the five boroughs. McCarren was the largest. Today, it is the only one that is closed.
“There was a lot of opposition from the old guard in the community,” she said as she described the atmosphere in Greenpoint two decades ago. That “old guard,” she said, mainly people of Polish, Italian and Irish background, was dead set on keeping out young people who flocked to McCarren from other neighborhoods.
Junior Nieves, a 51-year-old Time Warner Cable repairman who grew up in Greenpoint, vividly remembers the rough times. “There were riots,” he said. “The Puerto Ricans were on one side, the Polish were on the other, and all hell was breaking loose. The cops were chasing everybody.”
Five years after McCarren pool closed, Ms. Yampolsky joined the Friends of McCarren Park, a community group that wanted the pool demolished. But after seeing the pool for the first time, she changed her mind. Soon after, she and a few other seceded and created a rival group, the Independent Friends of McCarren Park.
Ms. Yampolsky wants McCarren pool to look the way it did back in 1936, but with some modern improvements. She envisions something like a Roman bath complex, with baths, exercise rooms and a cafe. She has created a booklet illustrated with watercolor sketches and historical photos, and even commissioned an architectural model of a restored pool by Robert A. M. Stern, paid for by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. She plans to use the booklet to spread her ideas about the pool and to help with fund-raising.
The Parks Department estimates the cost of restoring the McCarren pool at upward of $40 million, and at the moment no one is willing to foot the bill.
That is where Ron Delsner Presents stepped in. Last summer, the company paid for a modest cleanup so the pool could accommodate an experimental dance performance by Agora, a troupe founded by the French-Canadian choreographer Noémie LaFrance. It was the first public event to grace the graffiti-covered space since it had closed. Because of the donation, Ron Delsner Presents received a contract to present 10 more events this summer.
Agora’s performance was a success; according to Ms. LaFrance, 10,000 people packed the rundown space to attend the company’s three-week run. “They were excited,” she said, sitting at a large table in her Williamsburg loft, “to see something that seemed so dead and so without hope get a little bit of hope.”
Ms. LaFrance, 32, has short, messy hair, a slight accent and a penchant for speaking abstractly. Since the performance by Agora, she has become one of the most visible players in the fight over the pool’s future. But her vision of McCarren looks substantially different from Ms. Yampolsky’s. If it were up to Ms. LaFrance, restoration crews wouldn’t touch the place.
Last summer, her wish was granted. Except for minor touchups, the pool remained in shambles, the graffiti left intact. Mr. Spiegel, the Brooklyn parks commissioner, laughed when he recalled the cleanup process. “I wanted to clean the graffiti up, and she wanted to keep it rough-looking,” he said of an encounter with Ms. LaFrance. “She’s an avant-garde artist, I’m a bureaucrat. But we’re both from Montreal.”
Ms. LaFrance sees fund-raising as secondary to preserving McCarren as a public space, and she says the pool should be used regardless of its looks.
Ms. Yampolsky bristles at this notion. “Before,” she said, “it was poison. Now, everybody wants a piece of it. But nobody is raising the money to restore it.”