WPA-era public pool that has seen some eras of racial strife
The Thomas Jefferson Pool, one of eleven giant pools opened in city neighborhoods in the 1930s that changed New York’s summer landscape forever, is a popular summer destination for swimmers, dippers, and waders. Opened in 1936, and with few renovations since, the pool maintains its historic place in the community as a summer escape from New York City’s humid, grimy summers without the racial strife that plagued the pool and the community not so many years ago.
A product of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the eleven pools, implemented by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, were a government-sponsored effort to alleviate bad health conditions and allow for safe recreation in working class neighborhoods. Combined, the new pools could accommodate more than 43,000 bathers at once. Except for McCarren Pool in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, the other ten pools remain open today. Moses, a devoted swimmer himself...
The quotes from Robert Caro’s Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), are from pages 457 and 514.
City Lore interview with Carlos Diaz, 1999
City Lore interview with Aurea Almeida, 1999
City Lore interview with Felipe Colon, 1999
City Lore interview with Bobby Rodriguez, 1999
City Lore interview with Frankie Yulfo
Other WPA Pools
19th Street and 23rd Drive, Queens
330’ x 165’, capacity 6,670 people
Opened July 2, 1936
As the largest of the eleven pools and framed by the Triborough and Hell Gate Bridges, WPA administrator Harry Hopkins described it as “the finest in the world.” The Olympic Trials for the United States Swim and Diving Teams in 1936 and 1964 were held at the pool.
Betsy Head (listed in the Place Matters census)
Boyland, Livonia and Dumont Avenues, Brooklyn
330’ x 165’, capacity 1,200 people
Opened August 6, 1936
One of only two pools in the Parks system, A pool on this site dated to 1915, but was completely redesigned in 1936. This Olympic-size pool in Brownsville burned down a year after opening and was substantially rebuilt.
173rd Street and Fulton Avenue, The Bronx
330’ x 120’. capacity 4,265 people
Opened July 24, 1936
This pool features stylized sculptures and tiles by Frederick G.R. Roth showing marine life and birds.
Pitt and Houston Streets, Manhattan
165’ x 100’, capacity 1,700 people
Opened June 24, 1936
This pool in the Lower East Side lessened the attractiveness of swimming in the disease-infested and dangerous East River and helped keep children off the streets.
Highbridge (listed in the Place Matters census)
Amsterdam Avenue and West 173rd Street, Manhattan
228’ and 166’, capacity 4,880 people
Opened July 14, 1936
In the shadow of the historic Highbridge Water tower and on site of the old Highbridge receiving reservoir, this Washington Height’s pool is surrounded by the city’s water history.
Bradhurst Avenue and West 146th Street, Manhattan
235’ x 82’, capacity 4,090 people
Opened August 8, 1936
Originally known as the “Colonial Park Pool,” this pool in Harlem has an arcaded façade that resembles a medieval castle. At its famous opening tap dance Bill “Bojangles” Robinson danced to a crowd of 25,000.
Joseph H. Lyons
Pier 6 and Victory Boulevard, Staten Island
165’ x 100’, capacity 2,800 people
Opened July 7, 1936
Right off the ferry terminal, at its opening Mayor LaGuardia called the facility “a monument to the progressive government which would not and could not see unemployed men on the breadline.”
McCarren (listed in the Place Matters census)
Lorimer Street between Bayard Street and Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn
330’ x 165’, capacity 6,800 people
Opened July 31, 1936
The only pool of the eleven to no longer be in use, the pool closed in 1984. It was famous for the biggest bathhouses in the system. Currently, summer dance and music performances are held in the dry pool.
Bay and Henry Streets, Brooklyn
330’ x 130’, capacity 4,460 people
Opened August 17, 1936
With over 40,000 people attending its opening, the New York Times called it Red Hook’s event of the year.
Seventh Avenue between 41st and 44th Streets, Brooklyn
256’ x 165’, capacity 4,850 people
Opened July 20, 1936
Located on a high bluff overlooking the New York harbor, the entryway has a curved façade.
NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation
Site nominated through the East Harlem Community Focus project.
I played a lot of softball in Jefferson Park, and after that we used to go swimming because it was so hot in the summer... After you finished swimming, right across the street on 112th Street, there was a little luncheonette, where you bought your French fries for a quarter and they put it in a basket and you'd eat fries all the way till you got back to your house. If you had enough money, you would buy a soda.
We're talking about the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Even until they revamped the pool, which is about eight years ago, there were still people jumping over the railings to go swimming.
The lights were on in the pool, and by the time you shut the lights off, it took a couple of hours to shut off by itself, because it was probably on a timer. So the lights remained on, and it was still dark; you still would go swimming in the dark.
When the cops would come, we used to go around what looked like a little house. His flashlight beam wouldn't reach that far out, so it stayed dark and then we'd swim around the other side, and he'd say, 'You guys gotta get out.' But we used to keep switching places, and there are long distances in the pool, and by the time the cop got to one point, we'd be gone and he was following some other kids.
Swimming was very important for us. If you were a good swimmer, you were able to get pretty girls, if you knew how to swim... You'd go over to the girls, 'Let me teach you how to swim.'
Of course, you had a lot of guys there, and you didn't want your sister sitting around three, four, five hundred guys. So your sister didn't go swimming.
I had the best times with my brothers, every summer in the 1960s. (November 2014)