The bad old days at McCarren Park Pool

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The pool in 1937, soon after opening. (Courtesy New York City Parks Department)
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Jed Lipinski

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It’s been an eventful two weeks since McCarren Park Pool opened on June 28.

To recap: The day after the opening ceremony, some “unruly” teens attacked a lifeguard, causing him to “bleed and almost drown”; three days later, Rodolfo Torres, 20, was charged with assault after punching a cop in the face and four lockers were broken into; last Friday night, a teen was chased through nearby McCarren Park and “punched and kicked and stabbed with a knife multiple times,” according to the police report; and for good measure, on Monday a “diaper incident” led to an evacuation of the pool’s 1,057,914 gallons of heavily chlorinated water.

The McCarren Park Pool, which former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses originally opened in 1936 along with ten other public pools across the city, used to hold a lot more people (6,000 versus today's 1,500). It gradually fell into disrepair and finally closed in 1984. Its ten sibling pools also endured some hard times, but were all eventually revamped. Yet members of the predominantly Polish and Italian area around McCarren Park prevented the Parks Department from restoring the pool there; among other things, they claimed it brought a violent teen element in from other neighborhoods. Some advocated for its outright demolition.

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For many of those residents, the recent spate of violence has rekindled memories of the bad old days of the McCarren Park Pool and its immediate surroundings, back when a stroll along the Williamsburg waterfront was more likely to turn up a dead body than a hibiscus-flavored donut.

Jenifer Badamo, who has lived in Williamsburg for 40 years, said her parents wouldn’t allow her to use the pool in the early '80s.

“It was a horror show,” she said.

When she was a girl, she recalls, pool-bound teenagers threw punches and stole bikes as they walked to and from the L and G trains.

“How do I know it was people from the pool?” she asked. “They always had towels draped around their necks.”

Maria George, 48, did not visit the pool in the '80s because, like many kids she knew, she never learned to swim. (She went to her cousin’s above ground pool instead, she said, because she could stand up in it.) Still, she remembers the stories.

“There was another fight in the pool!” George recalls hearing her parents say. Of the current mayhem, she said, it’s the “same thing happening all over again.”

Things were brighter for the pool in mid-century.

“My siblings and friends and I went to McCarren Park Pool in the late '50s and early '60s, and we always had a blast,” said Sara Weiner, 61, who moved out of the neighborhood and to the Lower East Side in 1985. The pool included several diving boards and a 16-foot deep end, she said. Visitors paid a dime to get in, and were given a basket to store their belongings at the front desk.

Thomas Panepinto, 65, a retired mechanic who left Williamsburg in 1976, started going to the pool at age 6.

“It was fantastic!” he said. But by the mid-'70s, he'd noticed a change.

“Hippies and drugs addicts started hanging out around the edge of the pool,” he said. “Before that nobody ever got robbed.”

In response, he and his friends patronized other pools, like Steeplechase Pool in Coney Island, or the indoor pool at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights.

“You paid more money, but at least [you] had a good time.”

While many older residents cite the influx of troublemakers from surrounding neighborhoods, Patrick Drexler said kids like him from Greenpoint and Williamsburg were equally responsible for the pool’s downfall.

As a teenager, Drexler, who grew up in Williamsburg and now lives in Middle Village, said he and his friends would jump the fence after the pool closed for the day.

“There’d be a hundred kids in there after hours, indulging in alcohol and marijuana,” he said.

Most nights, the police would drive by and see them in the water.

“But if we weren’t causing trouble, they’d just keep driving,” he said. “It was a different society in those days.”

Although Drexler’s 14-year-old daughter now frequents the pool, he is of the opinion that it should never have re-opened.

“I think it’s too big of a project for such a small community,” he said, adding that with 5,000 people showing up each day, disorder is a given.

“I think people from around here would’ve preferred a center for senior citizens.”

Nicholas Kapsouras, a 60-year-old horticulturist known as “Nicky the Greek,” said he lost interest in the McCarren Park Pool around age 12, and turned to local pool rooms instead. In the years before he left the neighborhood in 1970, he remembers hundreds of people gathering in the park across the street every night of the summer.

“That place rocked,” he said.

Kapsouras has similarly fond memories of other nearby hipster redoubts. In the '60s, for instance, he frequented The Wiz Bar at the corner of Bedford Avenue and North 15th Street, now known as The Turkey’s Nest.

“You could get a 20-ounce Stryofoam cup of beer and drink it in the park,” he said, a practice that continues today.

Kapsouras was raised across the street from The Charleston, now a popular retro rock bar on Bedford Avenue and North 7th Street. In the late '60s, he said, he sometimes drank there to come down off of LSD.

“I couldn’t just go home flying,” he said with a laugh.

In a recent posting about Friday night’s stabbing incident in McCarren Park, the attackers claimed that the victim was on “gang territory,” leading to some online discussion about local gangs then and now.

In the '50s and '60s, Kapsouras said, gang wars occasionally erupted between teenage residents of the North and South sides of Williamsburg.

“The South side had The Hellburners, The Lords, and The Mighty Midgets,” he said. “On the North side you had The Continentals, The Young Dukes, and The Turbans. When I was a kid, I’d see them running down Bedford Avenue at each other with bats and canes. And if somebody didn’t have a weapon, they’d rip the antenna off a car and use that.”

“The neighborhood has really changed since then,” he added. “I’m glad it’s changed for the better.”

Bottom photo courtesy Inhabitat.