On a Sunday afternoon in midsummer “when everyone sits around saying ‘I drank too much last night,’” Neddy Merrill, the doomed protagonist of John Cheever’s seminal 1964 short story, “The Swimmer,” sets out to make his way across his patch of well-heeled suburbia by water, traveling from pool to pool in what becomes an act of haunting self-realization.
The stream of sapphire waters that winds through the grounds of his wealthy neighbors eventually lands Merrill somewhere he would prefer never to have found himself, a recreation center at the edge of town where the pool “stank of chlorine and looked like a sink.” He hates the “police whistles” that “abused” the swimmers, the loud and shrill public-address system, the ugly “regimentation” to which the unprosperous were subjected. Was this his fate?
A surreal evocation of descent — mental, physical, marital, financial — “The Swimmer” punctuates the sentiment that there is no point in the year quite like July and August to magnify the status anxieties of the upper-middle class. As it was for Neddy Merrill, the municipal pool is, for a certain kind of New Yorker, an existential trigger, a reminder on a blazingly hot day, that your decision to work for a livable-streets nonprofit rather than Citigroup has left you without a second house in Iceland or Nantucket.
You might think about all this as you wait on a long line to get in, making note of all the things you cannot bring to a city pool, a list that runs from food to colored T-shirts to newspapers. Should you have a toddler, the Parks Department rules inform, you can bring a stroller “at your own risk.” Twenty minutes into it all you might wonder — no, obsess — about what you did to alienate Suzanne in legal, who last year made a big thing of telling you that you had “an open invitation” to her pool in Great Neck “anytime.”
Whatever its current flaws, the municipal pool system stands as a triumph of New Deal liberalism. The opening of Hamilton Fish pool on the Lower East Side in June 1936 kicked off a period in which nearly a dozen other pools, built and underwritten by the Works Progress Administration, were opened in underserved neighborhoods on a weekly basis throughout the summer. As those neighborhoods developed and gentrified in the decades ahead, pools became rare, important spaces for social integration in an increasingly stratified culture.
A proliferation of new private pools in the city now, though, threatens to undermine that project. New apartment buildings and hotels routinely install pools on rooftops or terraces, further assuring the privileged that they can cosset themselves from the masses. No one could replicate Ned Merrill’s experiment in New York today, in a single, languid Sunday afternoon or even 60. There is almost no way to tell how many swimming pools exist in New York City right now.
The Department of Buildings has documented 14,420 pools, having issued permits for 178 in the past few years. But not every pool requires a permit — aboveground pools, pools fewer than 400 square feet or those that meet certain requirements about depth in relation to building proximity are all exempt from the process. Regardless, you might have a heated lap pool in the backyard of your Brooklyn townhouse (as the singer Norah Jones did in Cobble Hill) or you might have a an infinity pool outside your $70 million duplex penthouse in a Norman Foster-designed building near the United Nations.
To be clear, these are not the kind of listings you are going to find on Swimply, the platform in which homeowners share amenities like pools and tennis courts for a fee. Access to water being the commodity that it is in New York, the app might connect you to an aboveground pool in Union, N.J., or the Bronx available for $60 an hour.
Slowed by the downturn in tourism brought on by the pandemic, many hotels have opened their pools to the public as a way of compensating for lost revenue. At the McCarren Hotel in Williamsburg, which, it should be noted, is not far from the public pool adjacent McCarren Park, renovated by the city a decade ago at the cost of $50 million, a grown-up (children are not allowed) can pay $120 for a day pass, $320 for a daybed that seats two people or $2,000 for a cabana that can hold up to 10.
Hotel-pool curious, I recently visited the Dream Downtown in Chelsea. Chair rental prices there increase as the weekend approaches and arrive at $150 on Saturdays and Sundays. On a not especially hot Tuesday, in the early afternoon there was already a scene. Someone had polished off a bottle of Rose. On the weekends it is packed.
But what if it’s an inhalation of jet fumes you’re looking for while you are backstroking? That is where the TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy Airport can be of use: for $50 you can hang out for one hour and 45 minutes at the pool bar facing the tarmac. If after, a few Control Tower Sours (Amaretto, citrus, bitters: $17) the whole experience fails to transport you, who will stop you when you impulse buy a one-way ticket to Santorini? Or maybe the experience will feel so contrived you’ll want to take the train away from the plane and stay holed up next to your window unit until city pools open for the season on June 28.