New York's Floating Pool Lady Speaks
When Ann L. Buttenwieser was researching her dissertation, she stumbled on records of the nineteenth century public baths built into the East River. She couldn't let the idea go.
Today’s post is a follow-up interview to an excerpt from Ann L. Buttenwieser’s new book, The Floating Pool Lady: A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront (Cornell, 2021). You can read the excerpt in Public Seminar here. If you are as intrigued with this topic as I am, you can also:
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Photo credit: wavebreakmedia/via Shutterstock.com
Claire Potter: What got you interested in floating pools?
Ann L. Buttenwieser: I was a swimmer. I went to high school in New York City and swam on the team. Then I went to Swarthmore College and was on the swimming team there. Then, my dissertation at Columbia focused on people’s desire for recreational space on the waterfront.
My advisor, historian Kenneth Jackson, sent me to the Battery Maritime Building, where I worked in the dirt and noise of horns and cat excrement and dust. Then, all of a sudden, I saw these files, boxes, and boxes of files. I went into them, and there were these rows of files that said floating baths, floating baths, floating baths.
I opened one drawer and pulled out a crumbly file. And I said, "Oh my god, the city really had something like this." The first floating baths opened in 1880, the year the dock department was formed. They lasted until the 1930s, when Robert Moses got federal funds to build almost a dozen in-ground pools. But I remained obsessed with floating baths, and in 1981 I published in the New York Times, recommending that the city reserve space for this historical means to provide public access to the waterfront. Then, when I finished my last job, my husband said to me, "What are you going to do?"
I said, "I'm going to build a floating pool."
CP: How did you get started?
AB: I was working for the city and various agencies and began proselytizing for floating pools. These agencies all have waterfront portfolios, and whenever the topic came up, I said, "Let's bring people to the water. Let's build a floating pool." I also took it to Columbia University, thinking they could put a floating pool up near their ball fields and use it as another place for students to swim. They said, "Yeah, it's a great idea, but oh no, no, no, we can't help you fund that."
And I went down to the new Hudson River Park and said, "How about putting one down here?" But it turned out to be complicated. We needed electricity, waste treatment, and water supply: connections to that stuff on land would have to go through a wall which was a historic structure. So there was a lot of pushback.
CP: A common tension in New York is between historic preservation and what the public needs now. How should we balance those values?
AB: As for historic preservation, I think about it more in terms of landmarks and saving buildings and things like that. But the waterfront is different because it changes as the city evolves.
The city planning commission sent me around the country to do a study about what was happening on the waterfronts that were opening up to the public in other cities. But New York City was a challenge. We had decaying piers. A union still had access to these piers and contracts to get paid weekly even though there was no work. The union didn’t push back, but they weren't going to lead.
It was a derelict waterfront that was going nowhere. so, to return to your question about preservation, I said, "Okay, we've got to open up the waterfront, and we can't preserve it in its historic state.” And long before we had the parks that are there now, I thought the waterfront should be recreational.
CP: So, let's get back to the pushback on the floating pools. Did it start before you actually built one?
AB: Yes. We started at a community board meeting in Brooklyn: I had an idea for a but no place to make it happen. I had an architect, Jonathan Kirschenfeld, and he had some design ideas and some slides. We tried to convince them to let me build a floating pool and bring it to them for free.
I walked into the meeting absolutely terrified. It was the first time that I had tried to sell the idea. Jonathan got up to talk, and people were squirming in their seats. Then, finally, they called on me, and I said what I planned to do. The chair of the planning board said, "And what do you get out of this?"
I said, "As a child, I swam. I grew up on the water. All I want is for the public to be able to use this facility. It’s not for me." She got up, and she hugged me.
But I still didn't have the parks department on my side. So I asked Henry Stern, a friend, and the parks commissioner, when I first started, "Henry, would you take it if I build a floating pool?" And he said, "Yes, I will, but you have to run it."
So I turned to another friend, an attorney in Hoboken who worked for the Port Authority. They were trying to get rid of big piers and turn the area into housing and open space.
I spent a year working with Hoboken, New Jersey and got the mayor on my side. We had a meeting with a public announcement: "In two years, there's going to be a floating pool on end of such and such a street, and isn't that all wonderful!" But it was all political talk. Six months after the press conference, there was an election, the mayor was replaced, and the new mayor wasn’t the least bit interested.
I went back to New York. Adrian Benepe was now the parks commissioner, and I went to him, and I said, "If I build a floating pool, will you take it?" He said yes; I said, "Will you run it?" He said yes. It took six months to get a document written.
CP: There's a story about philanthropy here--you can have a good idea, you can finance it, but the barriers to carrying it out are significant. Yet, you can't have people just doing whatever they want, all over the city, just because they can.
The floating pool. Photo Credit: NYC Parks Department / Malcolm Pinckney and Charles Truax
AB: Well, I believe that the public should mostly be responsible for public projects. The floating pool was a trial project. If it worked, I hoped that the city would take the project on and build more. But it's not their fault that they haven't done that yet, because as it turned out, the state--specifically, theDepartment of Environmental Conservation (DEC)-- was the principal stumbling block. You don't put anything that floats in the water permanently, on the theory that it might kill fish.
CP: Is that true?
AB: No. We did a test on the East River, and the fish just swam under the pool barge. They were perfectly happy and safe.
CP: How did you use that knowledge to design these new pools?
AB: Well, when the pools were floating bathhouses, they used a rectangular structure with dressing rooms along one side and a walkway going all the way around. Then there was a big hole in the center; the sides and the bottom just had slats. So the river water went through them, but the slats also kept people from being dragged out into the river. The only trouble was that the water was completely polluted.
CP: Yet it was better than nothing: a lot of working-class New Yorkers didn't have a way to bathe in their homes until the 1920s. But why did the city take the project on?
AB: There were two groups, the progressives, and the sanitarians; both were very concerned about public health among working-class immigrants. And some wealthier people were terrified that diseases would begin in those neighborhoods and spread uptown.
CP: And it was also a safety hazard: poor people were swimming in the river anyway.
AB: They were. And where there were ferries docking, scantily clothed boys would be jumping into the river and offending the sensibilities of people on the ferries. The baths were a solution to that: eventually, there were 15 of them.
Obviously, today you can’t use river water. I needed a closed pool and clean water. When Jonathan and I talked about it, we decided to buy a barge and retrofit it. You buy barges in the South, and you then go to a shipyard, and they retrofit it. I had a budget of $450,000 to buy a barge, but nothing was available under a million dollars.
We put the project on hold, hoping the design of a brand-new steel barge would work. But when we put the design out to bid, steel was being used for building skyscrapers in China and New York, and the price for a new barge was off the wall.
Back to the original plan: we found two barges at our price, and we bought one: it was Panamanian-owned. We had to re-flag it as American because I did not want the floating pool lady arriving in New York under a Panamanian flag.
We accepted a bid in Louisiana to do the retrofit, which required removing a part of the top of the barge to create a half Olympic-sized, seven-lane pool. The owner of the company was Boysie Bollinger, and he said: "Well, I've never done anything like this. But sure, let's do it."
When the retrofit was finished, my team and I went down to see it, and then we went out to a lunch place on the highway. It was the opening of the crayfish season, and we ordered a big platter of crayfish, with all of this sauce on top of it. And in walks Boysie Bollinger with some friends, and he came over and said, "Come on guys, I want you to meet her. This is the floating pool lady."
Of course, there were more delays. Jonathan and I had originally said, "Oh, we'll have this in the water and ready to go in 2002," but we didn’t count on two major hurricanes. So the pool wasn’t ready until 2007.
CP: So you can set a timeline for big, innovative projects, but you also have to roll with the punches. Were there any moments in which you got frustrated and lost faith that it could happen?
AB: I cried a lot. No question about that: my husband Larry was very helpful and supportive. But even when we had the barge, we didn’t have a place to put it. I spoke to the original community board building a new pier at Transmitter Park, but it was too skinny and couldn’t support a barge. I went out there many times to sell the project as part of the new pier and waterfront project promoted by Mayor Bloomberg. But the community wanted a ferry landing, Bloomberg needed votes, and I am a full believer that you have to listen to the community. So we were out of there.
The parks department got on board at that point, and we finally settled on what eventually became Brooklyn Bridge Park. The state was in charge, and there was a wonderful woman named Jennifer Rimmer, who had never done anything like this before. But she was put in charge and said: “We're gonna make this happen.”
But the elephant in the room was still the DEC. We brought the pool from Louisiana to New York City, where we planned to finish the work for a July 4 opening. It arrived, and I get a notice, "You may not land."
CP: You filled out forms, you paid fines—but in the end, you persisted, and it worked.
AB: Yes. One reason that we got the site was a woman named Mariana Koval. She was the head of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, whose goal was to build a waterfront park, and she said, "Bring in the pool. That will bring people down to the water, and they will see that their communities are not going to get ruined by park projects.”
CP: So tell me about the day the pool arrived, and then the day it opened.
AB: The pool first came under the Brooklyn Bridge in late November 2006, I was standing at the waterfront on the East Side with my daughter, and I said, "There she is. There she is." My daughter said, "How do you know?” And I said, "I can see the water in it." There was water in it because it had gotten into a storm in Cape Hatteras. And then, when the pool finally came to Brooklyn after sitting in Staten Island for several weeks, I took the subway to Brooklyn and ran down to the pier. When I saw the pool coming from behind the Statue of Liberty, and I cried.
Then there was a wonderful story by James Barron in the New York Times the next morning.
CP: Do you ever visit the pool now that it has moved to the Bronx?
AB: I go every year when it opens. Last year, it didn't open because of the pandemic, but the year before, we had over 50,000 swimmers, more than any other intermediate pool in the Bronx. So it's the perfect place for it. It’s a poor community with the highest asthma rate and obesity rates in the city. They have swim classes, and they provide breakfast and lunch for the kids there every day.
CP: So the city used to have 15 floating pools, and now we have one. Given everything that you went through, do you think we'll ever get even one more?
AB: It depends on who is mayor. Brooklyn Bridge Park would love to have one of these pools. Jonathan has designed a second one with a clear bottom and doesn’t cast shadows, which is supposedly not good for the fish. And Plus Pool has invented a filtering membrane where the river water can go through, fill the pool with clean water, and the water from the pool goes out at the end of the day. So little by little, you're cleaning the river.
And where did they get the idea? They got the idea from me.
CP: I think you're illustrating a bigger point here too. For our city to evolve and get better, you have to not just capture and hold public interest, you also have to make an argument about why a project is good for everybody—and then be creative about how it will happen.
It's a challenging thing to do, but you did it. Congratulations.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
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There are few moments that have given me as much pleasure as listening to two historians, women, and creative doers like you two talking about this unique project and the huge, systemic obstacles that exist in the path of creative projects for the public good. New York City needs more disruptors like Ann Buttenwieser. It also needs a broader vision and a systemic overhaul if the City hopes to serve the public better and face the major environmental and social challenges. GREAT conversation!