As July temperatures climbed into the steamy range last week, Susana Garcia, 9, found her own solution to beat the heat — a cold bath and a turn in front of the fan that cools the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her parents and two brothers.
“It’s summer, it’s so hot,” said Susana, dripping with sweat after playing with her brothers near the abandoned McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn. “We should have a cool place to get relaxed, please.”
New York City ranks last out of 12 high-density cities for the number of public swimming pools per 100,000 residents, according to a report completed this summer by the Center for City Park Excellence, a division of the Trust for Public Land. New York also ranked last in the Center’s report six years ago.
Cities such as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., and Chicago all have about four times the number of public pools per 100,000 residents than New York, which has 63 public pools for 8.1 million people, according to the rankings.
Top-ranked Philadelphia has 87 pools for 1.4 million people. Los Angeles has 61 pools, two less than New York, but for less than half the population. The numbers were self-reported by the cities and include everything from Olympic-size pools to “mini pools.”
While thousands of New Yorkers from the Bronx to Queens, especially children, crowded into the city’s pools when they opened last month, others resorted to opening hydrants or, like Susana, staring at empty, abandoned swimming pools.
Pools like McCarren, which is now being used as a concert facility, and the W. 59th Street Recreation Center Pool in Manhattan, which houses a lifeguard training building in its center, are cracked, coated in graffiti and eyesores to their communities.
Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe shrugged off criticism of the state of New York City parks and recreation facilities last month, however, calling them “better than ever” in response to a critique by the New York City Park Advocates group.
Regarding the Trust report, Parks Department spokesman Philip Abramson wrote, “We plan on spending almost $1 billion on improving and growing our parks system over the next 12 months. … Our spending per person increases dramatically this year and puts us in the top tier.”
The city parks budget includes funds for one new pool. It’s under construction at Flushing Meadows Corona Park — the first new pool construction project the city has taken on in 40 years.
Beyond heat relief, recreation advocates also point out that swimming can help prevent diabetes and control asthma, common problems in New York. Of the city’s 63 pools, just over half have a depth of three and a half feet or more. Learning how to swim in the other, more shallow pools is nearly impossible. The lack of deep pools and a shortage of swimming lessons also make the water that surrounds New York City more dangerous, they say.
“People in a lower socioeconomic group just don’t have access to after-school programs. They don’t have access to private pools even though we have water on all sides,” said Geoffrey Croft, founder of New York City Park Advocates, which is conducting a citywide assessment of the city’s parks and recreation facilities. “And with the problems of obesity and asthma, [this] activity is so important.”
In colder weather, the city can only accommodate several hundred people in its indoor pools. There is one indoor public pool in the Bronx, one in Queens, three in Brooklyn and six in Manhattan. There are no public indoor swimming pools on Staten Island.
Croft says he does not understand why the Parks Department is not asking the city for a larger portion of the budget for its own operating budget, when many cities have spent as much as double what New York does per resident on its parks.
“The city has pretty much pulled back on its obligation to recreation,” Croft said. “It is treated as a cultural institution, not an essential city program.”
So, while the city looks for an extra $42 million to rebuild the McCarren Park Pool, abandoned in the 1980s, Mexican immigrants Pablo and Transito Garcia look forward to their annual trip to Coney Island with Susana, and her brothers Eddie and John, 12 and 7.
Pablo, 32, says the United States has provided exceptional opportunities for his family — steady income from his job as a short order cook and health care and education for his children. But he says it would be nice if his three kids knew how to swim.
“Honestly it is sad. Here in the city we are more free and have more opportunities, but there is no water,” Garcia said from a picnic blanket he shared with his wife on a recent visit to the park. “We go to the beach once in a while, but in New York City you have to work, you have to learn, you have to do many things, we are just starting here. It’s really hard to have time and money to go somewhere. Especially in the summertime we really need a pool.”