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
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 New York 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 Brownsville ,
and, according to the 1915 Parks Department Annual Report, “contributed greatly
toward securing first prize for the New York City Parks exhibit.” San Francisco
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.
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