As Sir Josiah Stamp put it, "When we get down to swimming, we get down to democracy." We explore the fall and rise of outdoor swimming in Britain and the US, what our obsession means, and how history and prejudice affect how we view lidos.
I cross a tree-lined green park and reach a red brick fortress. I see a line of a hundred people outside. Through the turnstiles, I glimpse a sparkling open-air pool, radiant under a blue sky. I could be describing my local lido in London Fields, but I'm actually describing the gargantuan McCarren Play Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s one of a few public pools in New York, where much like in Britain, lidos are having a revival like never before.
A lido is a public inland seaside, which first had its heyday in the thirties. Leedos and lidos were playful, fashionable spaces where people would hurl themselves into the water with the kind of gay abandon that pre-dated the phrase "health and safety" and that iconic "No Heavy Petting" poster. By the late 30s, they were popping up in every borough, from Parliament Hill to Tooting – led by the Godfather of Lidos, Herbert Morrison. On a London County Council mission to get people fit and healthy, Morrison vowed in 1937 that, “One day, London will become a City of Lidos, and no one will have to walk for more than a mile to reach one.” That same year, McCarren Park Pool opened.
Even prior to Morrison’s intervention, both New York and London had a great tradition of natural lidos in the form of floating baths along their rivers. In the late 19th century it was 'Boss' Tweed who made such bathing compulsory in New York, with 14 floating bathhouses up and down the river. Over the Atlantic, The Times wrote of the opening of the Children’s Beach on Tower Bridge in 1934, that King George VI "has given permission for children to have this tidal playground for ever.”
Southampton Daily Echo
Sadly, in the second half of the 20th century, fears over health and safety swept in, and the plug was pulled on river-swimming in the city. Herbert’s great lido dream was put on ice too, thanks to two factors: war, and chlorinated indoor leisure centres. By the 80s and 90s, the rise of the package holiday had people fleeing our ‘inland rivieras’ in search of the real thing. As a result, many lidos closed or were filled in. London’s total of 68 sunk to just eight. Many live on as quirky relics, like the diving board in the middle of the Garden Centre in Purley Way, Croydon.
Some 80 years on, many of Britain’s sleeping lidos have begun to stir in both London and New York. On a mid-summer’s day, whether you’re in Red Hook in Brooklyn, or Brockwell Park in South London, you’ll see punters happily queuing for two hours without even complaining, such is the depth of lido love.
Back outside New York’s McCarren Park Play Center, armed police and squad cars line the entrance, monitoring the queue. Here, R&R means rules and regulations: no cell phones on deck, or in the changing rooms. No entry without showing evidence of a swimsuit – presumably there’s a history of folks attempting to skinny-dip, or swim in their underwear. No bags on deck. You’ll carry your book, towel, goggles and other sunbathing paraphernalia cupped in your hands. At 2.45pm a whistle will blow and you’ll be marshalled out of the building in a manner reminiscent of Sixth Form PE. And don’t even think about arriving without a padlock for the lockers. By the time I’m poolside, I’ve heard the words "ma’am" about five times in a way that sounds alarmingly like "inmate". Sure, the pools in New York are free to get in, but somehow they don’t feel as free as the lidos we have in the UK.
A few days later, my lido-spotting has turned up a notch. I’m in the middle of a deserted industrial estate in The Bronx, waiting for another bus on the corner of Hunts Point and Viele Avenue. My dress, a dotty H & M affair, is now a sponge, soaked through with New York humidity. Next to me, an African-American mum waits with her daughter, whose pink goggles and flask cling to her face in readiness. I hazard a guess we’re going to the same place. It’s their first visit too, and it’s hard to tell who’s more excited about going to New York’s most far-flung and majestically-named lido: The Floating Pool Lady.
Eventually, our bus pulls up to Tiffany Street, where Baretto Point Park meets the water. By the time we reach the 200 metre-long queue, I couldn’t be more in need of a plunge. We queue for half an hour. I watch as the girl with the pink goggles on her head skips up the ramp towards the gated pontoon. But we’re not going in. As the gatekeeper informs us, it’s at capacity, and we’ll have to wait until the next session in 90 minutes time.
Nobody complains. We stand in the sun and chat. Summers in the city are so hot here, the Mexican family behind me tell me – and there’s nowhere else like this near them. Despite New York being one of the most cosmopolitan (and oppressively humid) cities in the world, there are only 11 public outdoor pools. In New York as in London, municipal pool provision has always been dependent on government funding. A city’s relationship with its waters is inextricably intertwined with its politics. As Sir Josiah Stamp put it, "When we get down to swimming, we get down to democracy."
Back in the queue for the floating pool, uniformed staff patrol the line, checking for cozzies and padlocks. My new Mexican friend is berated for not having brought one. I offer him my padlock to share, so he doesn’t have to tell his kids that after all this time they’re not going in. Another hour goes by and Juan kindly buys me a bottle of water from a nearby hawker. It’s pushing 40 degrees, so it’s all about survival now.
“What about a dip in there?” I say, gesturing to the beach just next to us. He turns to examine the small bay where a sewage-laden East River laps an otherwise idyllic shore. “Are you nuts?” Clearly, water paranoia prevails here as much as it does in other cities. I’m reminded of an ominous phrase I once saw in Melbourne, at Fitzroy Swimming Pool, where iconic Latin letters loom above the bright blue water: "Aqua Profonda," evoking that universal distrust people have of large bodies of deep water.
Eventually, we’re in. Through the changing room, down the ramp, and the view that was blocked before by walls is finally upon us. I have to stop in my tracks and stare. We are aboard the Floating Pool Lady, and she is magnificent. A large 25-metre, seven-lane pool, heaving with squealing, splashing Bronx folk. This old 260-foot barge was first converted in Louisiana, then tugged to New York in 2007. Originally it was meant to be a nomadic project, so that all four corners of the city could benefit. But it’s been stationed here for nine years in South Bronx, and by all accounts shows no sign of moving. The Lady was first dreamed up by Ann Buttonweiser, who in 1980 came up with the idea of a floating summertime oasis, specifically for under-privileged kids. In 2014 she was honoured as a Living Landmark for her outstanding contribution to the city, and rightly so. This area is as far as you can get from Carrie’s Manhattan, Cheever’s Montauk, or even Lena’s Brooklyn. South Bronx is one of the poorest regions in America, where 38.5 percent of people live below the poverty line.
At the end of the pool, a huge US flag flies. Behind that, a heart-stopping New York skyline, where the Triborough Bridge juts out over the East River, itself a much deeper blue than the safe turquoise of the lido. I take up a patch on the sun-baked grey stone tiles, and look out at the view that only the lucky people tucked inside the pontoon can see. The urge to Instagram is palpable. But then I realise: this no-cell phone rule is what makes the experience so special. It feels like you’re in on a secret. An oasis, on a far-flung platform, two buses and three subway rides away.
Family photos taken at Plymouth Lido. Photo: Lesley and Wyndham Westaway.
Lying back on my thin travel towel, I feel a rumbling as the excited footsteps of children scurry by. In the water, I hold my head under and feel the reverberation go through me, as footsteps land on the platform and jump off the edge, reminding me that we’re all in the water, on the water. Later, I’m sunbathing and feeling a Zen-like calm when my eye catches a poster on the wall. “Persons with inflamed eyes, nasal, or ear discharges, boils, or other evident skin conditions or bodily infections shall be excluded from the pool.” I’m just admiring the tone when I clock its friendly next-door neighbour, “Discharge of urinary or fecal matter, expectorating or blowing the nose is prohibited.”
If you thought the UK’s old “Will patrons kindly refrain from… Heavy Petting” poster was a bit on the caps-lock scary side, well, next to that, the New York Parks and Recreation posters are pure poetry. But, as I discovered, there’s a serious reason for all the safety precautions, rules and strict guards.
New York’s pools have a murky past. Historically, they were places where racism thrived, and divisions led to many of the lidos being closed due to gang violence. McCarren Park was once dubbed a "mini-war zone" by the New York Post. As the historian Jeff Wiltse writes, these sites used to be places where “intimate contact between swimmers of different races stirred conflict.” Back then, pools were “one of the touchiest problems in race relations.”
Between the wars, pools began to mix the genders, but African-Americans were excluded. By the fifties and sixties, many cities closed their municipal pools out of fear. As a result, for the few pools that are open today, the authorities have had to go out of their way to cultivate poolside order. But these days, New York’s pools are very gradually being seen as safer, more inclusive places. As Thomas, my Lyft driver told me on my second visit, Bronx’s Floating Pool Lady has “helped clean up Hunts Point, as it gives the kids somewhere to cool down from the violence."
Making swimming safe and accessible to all is one of the passions driving Archie Lee-Coates and Oana Stanescu, two pioneers behind the Plus Pool project – a plan to build “a water-filtering, floating pool in New York, for everybody.” In recent decades, it has become fashionable to diss a city’s urban waterways as unclean. But small pockets of people across the world are slowly trying to challenge this perception, suggesting our rivers might not actually be as unclean as we think. If they get their way, we could be splashing around in the East River by as early as 2021. Further afield, Melbourne’s Courtney Carthy and Matt Stewart are two people behind the Yarra Swim Co’s movement to get people re-engaging with its waterways. Founder Matt Stewart is often told, “I’m not going in the river, I’ll get ebola!” This fear of aqua profonda in our cities seems to be deeply rooted in our generation, despite the fact that, as Archie Lee-Coates puts it, “people have been jumping into bodies of water since all of humanity’s time.”
His sentiments are echoed across the pond. Chris Romer-Lee and his firm Studio Octopi are on a mission to resurrect King George VI’s original promise of tidal playgrounds forever to "the little Londoners." Romer-Lee hopes that by 2020, London’s Bankside could be home to the first Thames Baths floating lido. They have a bigger dream that, eventually, people will be able to swim safely in multiple places along the Thames in central London. For Lee-Coates too, the goal is bigger than the pool – he’d like to see an end to sewage being tipped into the river. Plus Pool has also launched a programme called Summer Bluefish, to nurture river swimming in tomorrow’s generation: “It's a partnership with New York City Housing Authority, and this year we're giving 60 kids from public housing the ability to learn to swim.” Likewise, for Romer-Lee, his modus operandi is getting people who don’t normally use the water to engage with it. “It’s about getting kids to swim where their great grandfathers used to swim.”
For both pools this is a vision of swimming for everyone. The Plus Pool promises to change New York’s relationship with its waters, just as our own Thames Baths will revolutionise London’s. Inclusiveness informs their design; it’s why they’ve shaped the pool like a plus. And when the Yarra pool opens down under, it will have Melbournians double-taking at their much-maligned brown river.
By the end of my swim through New York’s lidos, I’ve learnt one thing. Once you’ve made it through the assault course of the entrance, locker rooms and rules – once you’re in the water, floating on your back with the sun on your face, the feeling is exactly the same. You are released from what writer Roger Deakin called your "petty purposes in life." You are free to "float like a leaf on a stream." Whatever side of the pond you’re on, a lido washes away your cultural differences, presses pause on your anxiety, and removes you from time itself. We may only have ten or so here, but to the Londoners that love them, lidos are an aquatic utopia. A place where swimmers from all walks of life can play, rest, and take a breath. Likewise, in the city that never sleeps, a ‘plunge’ is the ultimate refuge. As Lee-Coates puts it, "To people working hard in an urban environment, water says a break." Some might say that in the current climate, we need these places to feel free more than ever. As more of Britain’s lidos re-open, and cities campaign to reclaim their rivers as swimmable places, the future of lido love, and urban swimming has never looked brighter.
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