Saturday, July 7, 2012

Everybody in the Pool

As the heat index goes up, most of us have the good fortune to live in homes with air-conditioning. While temperatures in the 90's are uncomfortable and inconvenient, at least we have the means to escape from the heat, barring power outages of course. Things were very different in the Fifties. Air-conditioning was something you had to buy a movie ticket to enjoy. Most public places including schools, churches, small office buildings and stores, even many restaurants, did not yet enjoy this luxury we now take for granted. To cool off, you had several options: electric fans to blow the hot air around; for apartment dwellers, sleeping on the fire escape; sitting on the stoop waiting for the ice cream truck; and finally, going to the beach. At our summer day camp at PS 73, we also had memorable day trips to New York City's public pools.


Most of the city's five boroughs had public swimming pools where people could cool off for the princely sum of 15 cents. This entitled you to a locker (usually just a wire basket to put your stuff in) and use of the pool and showers. The pool we visited was Betsy Head Pool at the intersection of Livonia and Dumont Avenues. There were other Brooklyn public pools located in Red Hook, Sunset Park and McCarren Park, all poor neighborhoods and racially mixed. They would have been characterized as "not great areas" using the coded language of the day. Translation: there were blacks living there. Most white folks would have avoided these neighborhoods, especially at night, but the overwhelming need to cool off took precedence over race prejudice. The pool was like a DMZ, where people of all colors checked their biases at the gate and just enjoyed the Olympic-sized pool.

From the Betsy Head Pool website, some history: "This park is named for Betsy Head (1851-1907), a British immigrant who became a wealthy widow. Mrs. Head left the City of New York a bequest of $190,000 to build recreational facilities for the purposes of health and recreation. The land for Betsy Head Playground was paid for by the property owners of Brownsville at a cost of $250,000. Architect Henry B. Herts designed the new playground. It was built in 1915 by the Public Recreation Commission and turned over to the Parks Department later that year. The park included a rest pavilion, wading pool, playground, school farm garden, bath building, swimming pool, field house, running track, and tennis courts. It was one of the most complete and popular facilities of its time, embodying all the ideas current in recreation. A model of the playground was displayed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and, according to the 1915 Parks Department Annual Report, “contributed greatly toward securing first prize for the New York City Parks exhibit.”

The pool itself was magnificent. It had a wading pool for kiddies, a huge swimming area that ranged in depth from 3 feet up to ten feet, and a special diving pool with boards at graduated heights for the more adventurous. They opened the pool early for adults who wanted to swim laps, and then around 10 am for the general public. For inner-city kids, pools like Betsy Head were a godsend. While our local playgrounds had wading pools that sprayed water, they were pretty tame for older kids. We also had the fire hydrants, and although they did cool us off, could hardly compare with the beautiful, chlorinated, aqua-hued water in the pool. We did handstands in the shallow end, dove underwater and pulled down each other's bathing trunks, and cannonballed off the diving boards trying to splash the ladies who sat poolside with their foot-high beehive hairdos. 

 I see that most of these pools are still in use around the city, and that's a good thing. While our beaches are nice, it's unlikely that many city kids have someone to take them, so the idea of grabbing a towel and heading for the neighborhood pool is a chance to make some nice childhood memories.

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3 comments:

The Whiner said...

Betsy Head was like the Dowager Countess of NYC.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Quite. She is rumored to have said: "The colored children in the neighborhood may swim on Wednesdays between 3 and 5 pm."

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I remember the pool at Callahan/Kelly park. I wonder if that is still there?