The real story of an old pool

Calling it a “majestic recreational facility,” Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Robert Tierney recently announced the landmarking of Robert Moses’s McCarren Park pool arch and the adjoining bathhouses — something that a few preservationists had been seeking for decades.

Forgive me if I skip the victory party.

Many newcomers to Greenpoint and Williamsburg are vaguely aware that the renovation of the McCarren Park pool — into a pool, that is, not a concert hall! — has been on hold for years, allegedly because of racial, ethnic and political divisions in the community. But few know what really happened.

As a result, a revisionist history has built up that itself ought to be demolished, especially now that we seem to be on the verge of seeing the pool reconstructed as the modern, year-round recreation and youth center that all of North Brooklyn could have been enjoying since the mid-1980s.

Full disclosure: I am not merely a witness to this story, but also an interested party. I moved to Greenpoint in 1985. Later, as the father of two young children, I joined various community groups to help with the pool and the park. My hope was that someday, I would see my kids — and thousands of other people’s kids — playing, swimming or ice-skating in a new McCarren Park recreation center.

When you read about the McCarren Park pool online or in some neighborhood papers, you often find this narrative:

In 1984, the city undertook the reconstruction of all the Depression-era pools. Crowds of Archie Bunker-like bigots from Greenpoint, however, fearing the return of hordes of black and brown teens, stopped them. Cowardly city pols then decided to demolish the pool, but were stopped by a tiny band of preservationists who have heroically managed to save the pool for more than two decades so that we can all enjoy the sight of the McCarren pool arch and its grim bathhouse wings gracefully falling apart.

The real story, as you might imagine, is a bit different.

“There was a neighborhood group that was against the pool renovation in 1984,” said Larry Smith — a longtime Greenpointer who played a key role in the renovation of the popular Metropolitan Pool in Williamsburg. “And they said some things that, honestly, could be viewed as racist, which I’m not excusing. [But it came after a decade of] incidents and a couple of drownings. The Parks Department and the police had basically lost control of many municipal pools.”

But those opponents did not get their way. Instead of demolishing the pool, the community board appointed a task force drawn from the community that proposed a year-round recreation and community center with a gym and an outdoor Olympic-size pool.

“Not exactly what you would expect from a bunch of racist xenophobes,” Smith pointed out. The plan would have replaced the summer-only pool with an all-year youth center.

“This plan, which called for saving the arch but not the bathhouse wings, was discussed, debated, voted on, approved and funded, to the tune of something under $10 million.”

Construction was about to begin in 1985, Smith explained, when suddenly Phyllis Yampolsky, who was serving on the committee, visited the pool and decided that it was an architectural masterpiece.

“She started calling everyone she knew, saying that we had to stop the demolition of the bathhouses,” Smith said. “I remember telling my wife, Harriet, who was also on the oversight group, ‘Someone has got to stop this woman before this gets out of hand and she derails the whole thing.’ ”

Flip in next week for the conclusion of (dramatic music) the “Real Story of the McCarren Park Pool.”

Tom Gilbert is a writer and historian who lives in Greenpoint.

The Kitchen Sink

The community organization Town Square is sponsoring music classes for young Greenpoint/Williamsburgers at a discounted rate. They are now registering students for three Wednesday classes: a 0- to 14-month-old session at 9:30 am; a 15-month to 2-1/2-year-old session at 10:30 am; and a 2-1/2- to 5-year-old session at 11:30 am. The 10-session course will be held at the Polish & Slavic Center (177 Kent St., between McGuinness Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue). Contact www.townsquareinc.com for info. …

Meawhile, the Hamilton Dance Studio is signing up students for its fall sessions at 45 Newell St. (between Nassau and Driggs avenues). Registration will take place September 6–8. Call (718) 349-1617 or visit hamiltondance.com for info. …

Military Appreciation Day ceremonies on Aug. 18 at Yankee Stadium featured patriotic songs by our pal John Rivetti, born and raised in Greenpoint. Rivetti is the author of “For All Our Heroes,” a tribute to those who died on 9-11. He can be contacted through his label, Amblyn music, at www.amblynmusic.com or www.myspace.com/amblynmusic.