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Thread: Astoria Pool

  1. #1

    Default Astoria Pool

    July 4, 2004

    An Acre of Blue


    Slide Show: At the Astoria Pool

    ON Friday afternoon, June 25, at Astoria Pool, Connor Quinn and Christopher Pappas, two 8-year-olds from the neighborhood attired in flashy orange and blue bathing trunks, were growing up. Or not.

    "Stop it!" Connor yelled at Christopher, who had initiated a splashing offensive against him unseen in pool history.

    "What am I doing to you, pineapple boy?" Christopher demanded, sticking out his tongue. Then, after a moment, the boys began splashing again. When a pool employee informed them such actions were absolutely against the rules, they stopped and started a smiling contest.

    Connor and Christopher had been seated at the water's edge awaiting the pool's official opening; the mayor, due to arrive shortly, was to give a speech and blow a whistle. Though Christopher had, by his estimate, been to the pool "about 55 times," this was the first time in his memory that swimming could not begin until a visiting dignitary gave permission.

    "When is the mayor going to get here?" asked Connor, itching to splash again. Then, just in time, Michael R. Bloomberg appeared, wearing tasseled loafers without socks and black nylon trunks that revealed jarringly untanned legs. When he gave the signal, Connor, Christopher and 50 other children flung themselves into the aqua depths. Another summer had begun.

    New York City has 53 outdoor municipal pools, but Astoria's, at 330 feet long, 165 feet wide and a rather disappointing 4 feet deep, is the largest. It covers more than an acre, and on oppressively hot days, a line snakes around its massive brick bathhouse and stretches for blocks.

    The pool is set just off the East River within the green hills of Astoria Park, and its fading blue concrete floor is surrounded by short cement bleachers and a thick ring of trees. On one side, a dormant, three-tiered diving platform hangs over a deeper, empty pool; on the other, red and blue sprinklers invite children to splash in the shadow of the Hell Gate Bridge.

    To find the pool, you must traverse street after street of quaint Astoria homes, two-story brick dwellings that resemble filing cabinets with their bottom drawers pulled out. The pool is close to a mile from the neighborhood's elevated subway platforms on 31st Street, where the N and W trains run, but for most travelers, it's worth the trip.

    "You come through that breezeway, and you see this endless plain of water," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who grew up on the Upper West Side and used to be taken to Queens by his mother and sister to visit Astoria Pool as a child. "My memories are the vastness of it, the blueness of the sky, the blueness of the pool."

    Every day of the week from June until September, thousands of people lounge in its waters and on its concrete deck, buying hot dogs and lunching in the shade of a pair of enormous fountains. With its vendors, restroom attendants, filter operators, lifeguards, police officers and countless swimmers, the small galaxy of Astoria Pool is summer in the city, distilled. One does not come of age in Astoria without bathing there.

    The pool has a history to match its size and grandeur. On July 4, 1936, the master builder and swimming enthusiast Robert Moses established 11 pools in the city. Astoria's was the system's crown jewel and the site of swimming trials for that year's Olympic Games in Berlin. It may be no coincidence that the pool's deck offers a perfectly framed view of another Moses creation, the Triborough Bridge.

    Almost immediately upon its founding, the pool became a focus of Astoria life. In the 1940's, Italians, Germans, Irish and Greeks from the neighborhood gathered on Wednesday nights to witness the antics of the Aquazanies, a troupe of intrepid swimmers who wore striped bathing outfits and presented water-related extravaganzas. "They would have music and props and backdrops, and even dogs sometimes," said Mitchell Grubler, executive director of the Queens Historical Society.

    The Enforcers

    Today, the keeper of the pool is James Gomez, a 27-year Parks Department employee who supervises the 54 workers necessary to keep things running smoothly. Mr. Gomez, a 46-year-old native of Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, is a solid 6-footer of intimidating size who seems to know exactly what is happening within each of the pool's 1.3 million gallons. Breaking his rules is not a good idea. "There are incidents when a bunch of kids come together, and they want to start tossing people up in the air," Mr. Gomez said. "That is unacceptable."

    Mr. Gomez, who has presided over Astoria Pool for seven years, has mastered the art of everything from the particulars of the open-bed gravity filter system to determining who may enter the pool gates (only swimmers with locks for lockers and lined bathing suits, please). He has assigned workers to monitor the chemicals in the pool every hour, 24 hours a day, and guards stand by at night to make sure revelers and crafty teenagers do not sneak in for unauthorized midnight swims.

    Mr. Gomez is not all gruffness. He is quick to crack a smile and eagerly reports statistics about the pool: 709 people at one time allowed on the decks around the pool, 2,178 in the water , and not a single person more.

    "Sometimes we come off as the party poopers, but it's a safety issue," Mr. Gomez said. He is happy to report that no major incidents have occurred under his watch. "I guess that's why they keep calling me back," he added with a grin.

    However ubiquitous he may seem, Mr. Gomez cannot be everywhere at once. This is why there are 21 lifeguards. Seated at lofty heights with big orange Parks Department-issue umbrellas floating above their heads, this army of orange-suited authority figures, most in their late teens or early 20's, is a culture unto itself.

    Hearing the shriek of a lifeguard's whistle is always a blood-curdling moment for a child. The whistle is typically attached to an unsmiling older person in shades who is ordering them to exit the water, to walk and not run, to stop choking each other. Yet these men and women, who work six days a week for $10 an hour and hang out at the pool on the seventh, can't think of a place they'd rather be.

    "In the summertime, we're with each other from 10 in the morning till 7 at night, and then we hang out afterward," said Jessica Santorelli, already sporting an even tan and taking a short break in the lifeguard house. Along with her friend, Marisa Malandrakis, who lives in the neighborhood, Ms. Santorelli, who lives in Bayside, Queens, has mastered the art of retrieving a waterlogged child while wearing a standard-issue one-piece.

    Ms. Malandrakis attends SUNY-New Paltz, and Ms. Santorelli is a student at St. John's University. But during the school year, their studies are often punctuated by thoughts of summer and tall chairs. "It's a bond," Ms. Santorelli said. "We have inside jokes, and my friends are like, 'Oh, my God, it's a lifeguard thing.' "

    One joke involves speculation about the motives of a certain lifeguard, a young woman who enforces the rules with special toughness. "No breathing, no swimming, no diving, no walking, no anything, no fun," the women joke to each other. "We used to call her the 'Militant Lifeguard,' " Ms. Santorelli said as Ms. Malandrakis giggled.

    Ms. Santorelli and Ms. Malandrakis have been wearing lifeguard orange for the past four years. They made the cut because they passed the Parks Department's rigorous 16-week training course, which includes a 22-lap swim test and other examinations of their mettle. They are recertified each year, and on slow mornings they practice hauling each other around the pool on backboards.

    On most days, Ms. Santorelli picks up Ms. Malandrakis on her way to work; they arrive before the pool opens at 11. Ms. Malandrakis, who nearly drowned in Astoria Pool as an 8-year-old (only to be saved by a lifeguard), has no problem skimming the water after a baby's diaper goes unattached or asking children to behave. It's huffy adults she doesn't love.

    "It's easy to tell a 10-year-old kid a couple times to behave, because they look up to you," Ms. Malandrakis said as she twirled her whistle around her fingers. "But what do you tell a 30-year-old guy that thinks he's cool?"

    The Vendors

    On the second day of Astoria Pool's 2004 season, it rained early, an event that dampened interest in swimming. The lifeguards could take it easy. Just outside the pool's gate, however, a small family business was experiencing a slump. That would be the stand that sells bathing suits. The stand is operated by Josh Ahl, his sister, Jennifer, and Raymond Almodovar, who this day were sitting on a bench next to a colorful display of goggles ($2), padlocks for lockers ($3 to $7) and a wide selection of bathing suits (men's $10, women's $20). Few customers were in sight.

    The stand's products sound like typical pool items. (They are.) But the placement of this stand reflects a finely-tuned business acumen, for entry into Astoria Pool requires the very things Mr. Ahl and his colleagues sell.

    "We have everything for them to get in," said Mr. Ahl, who drives in from Long Island with his sister during the pool season to hawk his wares. When lockless or lining-less pool goers are turned away, and many are, the Ahls are there to take care of them.

    They have chosen the perfect pool for it. Long lines form before the pool opens in the morning, often including a bevy of shoppers and browsers. And because the rules state that the pool must be cleared out for an hour each afternoon, a new line appears around 3 p.m., at which point the business cycle starts all over again.

    Despite the Ahls' business savvy, their venture is necessarily subject to the pitiless whims of nature. "Last year, for the whole month of June, it was raining," Mr. Ahl said. "So it killed us." Would 2004 bring happier times? "Hopefully," he replied. "Weather permitting.''

    For a time, the Ahls, along with their father, had the contract to run the pool's snack bar, which made them the official purveyor of hot dogs, ice cream, Coke and bottled water. This year, that responsibility has fallen to John and Angela Petropoulos, a Greek brother-and-sister team who recently moved to Astoria from New Jersey to set up shop at the snack bar. Visitors to the stand are likely to be greeted by Ms. Petropoulos, a tall blonde with an easy smile whose English is a bit better than that of her brother. She takes the orders, relays them to him in Greek, and the preparation begins.

    Earlier this year, the Petropouloses made a successful bid for a six-year contract from the Parks Department to sell food at the pool. Yet when they arrived to set up shop a few weeks ago, they found peeling paint, dirty floors and unkempt counter tops.

    "Oh, if you would have seen it!" Ms. Petropoulos said, in between loading franks on the hot dog turner. She and her brother filled in the holes in the wall, repainted everything and established a menu, which includes a large array of snacks, including an ice cream representation of Spider-Man, the patron superhero of Queens, complete with gumball eyes.

    Ms. Petropoulos would also like to add what she calls "more natural" items to the menu, so it's "not just burgers," as she puts it. The menu already includes a previously unseen fruit salad for $3. (What's next, celery sticks?)

    Like nearly everyone whose livelihood is linked to the pool, the Petropouloses must move on, at least temporarily, when the place shuts down on Labor Day. Sometime after the summer's end, they plan to go to Greece. Yet the tenor of Ms. Petropoulos's voice betrays an uncertainty about what will come next. A short burst of activity followed by a long lull - this is the pattern seasonal pool workers must accept.

    The Days Ahead

    Seasonal pool workers, at least those at this particular pool, must also accept the fact that in a few years, their livelihood might be interrupted. Astoria Pool is the proposed site of the 2012 Olympics aquatic center. If New York, in fourth place among five cities in contention for the games, is the winner, plans call for replacing the existing pool with three new ones, adding a translucent roof and offering seating for 15,000.

    If this happens, a way of life that has continued uninterrupted in this pocket of Queens for nearly 70 years would come to a temporary halt. At four feet, the current pool is not deep enough for official events; plans submitted to the International Olympic Committee call for two new pools in its place: one for competition with a depth of two meters, or about 6.5 feet, and another for training. There would also be a diving pool.

    "It would have the general advantage of segregating usages, which today they have to do artificially," said Jay Kriegel, executive director of NYC2012, alluding to the string of plastic barriers that carve today's pool in half. "There are people who want to swim laps, and then there are kids who want to hack around."

    The decrepit, three-tiered diving platform, which has been unused since the 1980's, would also be replaced. Construction of the whole center would take three years, Mr. Kriegel said, and would cost $22 million.

    Given the pool's aging buildings, it's hard to disagree that a new swimming center would be a boon for the community. But for those three summers when construction would take place, Astorians and everyone else would need to pack up their sunscreen, their lined bathing suits and their locks, and find somewhere else to bathe. The borough offers few options: Fisher Pool in Jackson Heights and Liberty Pool in Jamaica, both only 75 feet long, feel like backyard swimming holes compared to Astoria's splendor.

    After the Olympics, the roof would come down, along with many of the new seats. Mr. Gomez, the lifeguards, the snack bar operators and everyone else would find themselves in a gleaming new center that would have erased the gritty charm of their current home. Yet even with the lifeguard house replaced and the pool floor shiny and new, the splashing will go on, discipline will be needed and lines will continue to extend down the block. The smell of chlorine will waft through Astoria once again, and summer will begin anew.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  2. #2


    From Greater Astoria Historical Society webpage:

    Olympic Trials 1936--Kitty Rawls

  3. #3


    Astoria Park Pool. 5 September 2005.

  4. #4


    Thanx for the great pix. Summers at Astoria Pool and Astoria Park will always have a special place in my heart.

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