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Water, Water Everywhere

Julie Sandorf

A deep dive on why pools matter to cities and where New York falls short

A deep dive on why pools matter to cities and where New York falls short

In the summer of 2021, fortified by a miraculous shot in the arm, I celebrated my emergence from the horrors that COVID inflicted on New York City by going to a matinee screening of “In the Heights.” A highlight of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s love letter to the vibrancy and resiliency of our city’s strivers and dreamers is the Busby Berkeleyesque spectacle at the Highbridge Pool, where seemingly everyone in the neighborhood gathers to cool off on one of the hottest days of the summer. Built to accommodate 4,800 people, Highbridge was one of 11 massive pools constructed in our city by the federal Works Progress Administration during the depths of the Great Depression.

The explosion of energy and enthusiasm in the scene perfectly expresses the sustaining value of that Depression-era investment and the reason why public pools remain essential centers of vibrant community life.

How do we build a city in which infrastructure like the Highbridge Pool gets treated not merely as a nostalgic memory or just as the backdrop for an exuberant dance scene, but as one of many essential building blocks of a well-functioning, democratic city? It starts by understanding that pools are about much more than fun and sun. They are assets that calm tensions when the weather is stifling, keep us fit, combat isolation, help hold neighborhoods together, provide employment for young people and, not least, help stave off the worst effects of a climate that’s growing hotter by the year.

The problem

New Yorkers deserve many more pools, much better maintenance of those we have and, crucially, a more robust lifeguard corps to teach basic swimming skills and protect those who swim. These can all be delivered with a bit of public policy intelligence, persistence and imagination — all of which we are lucky to have in ample supply thanks to Mayor Eric Adams’ appointment of Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue.

Unfortunately, rather than delivering such solutions and treating pools as the building blocks of civic life that they are, the city has decades of neglect and mismanagement to make up for.

It came to a head in the summer of 2022, one of the hottest on record. Families waited in lines for many hours just to have an opportunity to swim for an hour or so in a public pool. Free swim lessons, lap swims and water aerobics classes were canceled. Day camps at pools were canceled. Beaches were closed and pool hours curtailed. While cities and towns had similar problems rooted in pandemic-caused lifeguard shortages, New York had it especially bad.

The first problem New Yorkers face is one of supply and demand. Grand, Robert Moses­-built pools like Highbridge notwithstanding, New York lags behind almost every other major city in public pool availability.

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With a population of almost 8.5 million people, the Parks Department operates 53 outdoor pools (of which five are closed for renovations) and eight indoor pools (of which four are closed for renovations). There are 33 operating pools in NYC’s public schools. An additional 15 are closed for repairs.

Chicago is one-third the size of New York, yet the parks department there operates 49 outdoor pools and 28 indoor pools and runs programs in 15 of the 70 pools in the public school system. Philadelphia maintains over 70 outdoor pools, serving a population of just under 1.6 million. (Its indoor pools have suffered from years of disinvestment.)

There’s a second problem. As with parks, playgrounds and anything else, it isn’t enough to have the pools. They must be kept in good repair. New York’s pools are often closed for years due to deferred maintenance and years-long design, procurement and construction that leaves the Parks Department at the mercy of a byzantine multi-agency review process.

Roughly 40% of the city’s pools were built before 1950. A majority of them went decades without major renovations. And while in 1936, it took no longer than one year to build the Highbridge Pool, approval of construction plans and completion of construction is now an extremely long and highly circuitous process, with up to seven different agencies reviewing every project.

Unfortunately, rather than delivering such solutions and treating pools as the building blocks of civic life that they are, the city has decades of neglect and mismanagement to make up for.

In 2015, the design process began for the construction of a new in-ground pool at Edenwald Houses in the Bronx, followed by the procurement process, which started in 2020. Construction was supposed to commence in late 2022 and be completed in 2024. But work has been delayed, according to the Parks Department construction tracker, because “it is in the best interest to reject all bids received and re-solicit bids.” In the best-case scenario, it will have taken at least 10 years to design and construct a “mini­ pool.”

The renovation of the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center in Greenwich Village, including its outdoor pool, moved far more expeditiously, with only a two-year design/procurement process. Due in part to COVID, delays have pushed back completion dates until spring 2024. Likewise, the indoor Brownsville pool, located in one of the city’s lowest-income communities, will be renovated as part of the reconstruction of the Brownsville recreation center. Redesign started in 2015, and a scheduled construction start in the fall of 2023 is likely delayed, with no set completion date.

When fewer pools are usable in an era of climate change, it’s not just heat stress and other attendant ills that rise. The city closes off an important supply of jobs, which are what ultimately sustains everyone who lives here.

This brings us to the beating heart of our city’s pools and beaches: lifeguards.

Nationally, Black children aged 5-19 drown in swimming pools at a rate 5.5 times higher than that of white children in the same age range. Here in New York, as of 2017, 8.7% of white New Yorkers did not know how to swim, compared to 35.6% of Black non­-Latinos, 34.3% of Asian Non-Latinos and 25.8% of Latinos. Nearly 32% of Brooklynites and almost 30% of Bronx residents did not know how to swim. For children aged 1-4, formal swim lessons may reduce the risk of drowning by as much as 88%.

Teaching many more young people basic swimming skills — which is something we can and must do — goes hand-in-hand with training many more lifeguards. You can’t do one without the other.

But just as pools aren’t just places for people to plunge in water, lifeguards aren’t just young people who get summer jobs to ensure other people don’t drown — though that’s obviously the essential function. For a teenager or twentysomething New Yorker, a lifeguard job is a foothold into the world of work. It’s a pathway to union membership. It’s an entree into a productive, lifelong career.

When fewer pools are usable in an era of climate change, it’s not just heat stress and other attendant ills that rise. The city closes off an important supply of jobs, which are what ultimately sustains everyone who lives here.

While COVID induced a crippling shortage of lifeguards in towns and cities across the country, causing pool closures everywhere, decades-long issues of mismanagement and questionable practices of the Parks Department lifeguard division greatly exacerbated an already dire situation in New York City. As of Memorial Day weekend, when beaches throughout the five boroughs opened, the city had hired just 480 of the desired 1,400 lifeguards needed to fully cover the city’s beaches and pools.

The problems may have manifested suddenly, but they took root years ago. In July 2020, New York magazine published a scathing exposé of the Parks Department’s lifeguard division, focusing on the decades-long fiefdom of its director, who also happens to head the city’s Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508 of DC 37, a powerful municipal union.

Those dual roles have afforded him seemingly ironclad control of recruitment, hiring and certification decisions, as well as the placement of lifeguards across all city pools and beaches. In December 2021, the city’s Department of Investigation issued a report with 13 recommendations to correct deficiencies in the management and operations of the lifeguard division, due primarily to the “autonomy” and lack of oversight of the division. The division director refused to answer questions from the DOI.

In order to fix the system, The DC 37 lifeguard local must willingly be part of the solution. Progress cannot be made until the leadership of our city’s largest municipal union prioritizes the health and well-being of millions of New Yorkers over a few of its well-placed members.

The solutions

For the sake of over one million New Yorkers who braved the long lines and put up with pool and beach closures last year, we should consider several immediate and short­-term fixes that could significantly improve access to relief from the heat, strengthen community cohesion and prevent life-threatening situations such as drowning.

One, we need more pools for the public — which needn’t mean waiting years to build new ones. City leadership should maximize the utility of the current pool infrastructure by opening public school pools on weekends, summers and non-school hours to increase swim classes and lifeguard preparation and certification among students and community members, and to expand opportunities for recreational swimming in communities that do not have recreation center pools.

Current renovation timelines may be clogged in old and twisting bureaucratic pipes, but the city can streamline things by declaring a climate emergency, which would enable it to fast-track the repairs and renovations of all closed outdoor pools and recreation centers with indoor pools.

These steps and others will broaden access to cool water — but that cannot be done responsibly unless we simultaneously do a second thing: expand access to swim instruction and find ways to train many more lifeguards so that when people and especially young people swim, they’re safe.

Teaching many more young people basic swimming skills — which is something we can and must do — goes hand-in-hand with training many more lifeguards. You can’t do one without the other.

But even if everyone in the water at a public pool or beach knows how to swim, those pools or beaches need lifeguards to stay open.

Upping lifeguard supply starts with a simple step. Instead of the current “independent certification” process, which lacks accountability and transparency, the Parks Department lifeguard division should adopt the American Red Cross standards, which are the norm for lifeguard certification across the country, including in Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Los Angeles, and are the accepted norms for YMCA training in New York. That will broaden the applicant pool to Olympic-sized proportions.

There’s more to learn from other cities. After School Matters, a youth development program in Chicago, teamed up with that city’s Park District and public schools to train, certify and recruit high school students to work as lifeguards in municipal pools. Pre-COVID, upward of 600 students per year were employed as Chicago Park District lifeguards.

In Houston, the Department of Parks and Recreation has partnered with schools to recruit and train students as lifeguards. The number of young people trained doubled over the past year. In Philadelphia, Parks and Recreation offers lifeguard training seven days a week, utilizing the facilities of both public and private high schools. Until this year, New York City’s lifeguard qualifying tests only happened in one park pool, their West 59th Street facility. In a signal of progress, this is the first year that the Parks Department began holding qualifiers in additional Parks facilities.

New York City leadership should open school pools, dedicate Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) stipends year-round for lifeguard training and certification, and provide high school physical education credits for completion of training. The DOE and the Parks Department should work together to use more school pools to prepare young people for lifeguard training, and for lifeguard training and certification. In Philadelphia, the city is partnering with Temple University to offer college credit to students who sign up as lifeguards.

Lifeguard training, which is already a pathway into good jobs for many, can become a more formal entry point into careers in private health clubs and as EMTs and firefighters. Over the past eight months, the YMCA of New York piloted a lifeguard readiness and training program that will certify over 200 new lifeguards, most of whom are high school students. Parks should explore collaborations with CUNY campuses that have pools to promote lifeguard training and certification as a career ladder for health and fitness-related professions.

Mayor Adams campaigned on “Getting Stuff Done” and has appointed a top-flight parks commissioner who is making progress in solving these problems with partners outside government.

RELATED VIEWING: "Oh, What a Beautiful City” by Lucy Walker A hot summer’s day in the life of Hamilton Fish Pool on the Lower East Side, produced in 2017

With the summer of 2023 predicted to be one of the hottest on record, the Adams administration has already made positive changes in the recruitment, training and retention of lifeguards. As an act of increased transparency, for the first time, aspiring lifeguards who took the qualifying test were told their swim times. As of the end of March, 319 swimmers had passed the qualifying tests, up from 240 last year

For the first time, a 14-member public/private Aquatics Task Force has been established, co-chaired by the CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York and the president of the Association for a Better New York, with the goal of tackling the myriad problems that plague the system. And there is some forward movement: The task force facilitated the use of five Department of Education pools to conduct lifeguard qualification tests outside of Manhattan. And for 2024, the task force has arranged for two YMCAs in the Bronx to serve as testing sites, a much-needed resource since the Parks Department currently has no operating indoor pools in the Bronx.

Additionally, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams is pushing a bill to build new pools, keep public school pools open year-round and fund more swim programs.

But major reforms will be more challenging, because a key stakeholder, the DC 37 lifeguard local, has refused to participate. In fact, herculean efforts made by Parks Department leadership to boost recruitment efforts have been met with bullying and anti-Parks tirades by DC 37 instructors during training classes.

If ever there were a time to say we need all hands on deck — the pool deck, not the ship’s deck — the time is now.