Ann L. Buttenwieser. The Floating Pool Lady: A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront. Cornell University Press, 2021. $27.95 Hardcover. ISBN 978-1501716010.
by Erin Becker-Boris
In The Floating Pool Lady: A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront, Ann Buttenwieser explores the culture of leisure and recreation around the New York City waterfront, the historic exclusion of New York City residents from the water by 19th and 20th century urban planning, and modern day projects aimed at reconnecting them to their waterways. She tells the story of her quest to “build a floating pool and donate it to the city for use by recreationally underserved New Yorkers” (2). Her work focuses on The Floating Pool Lady, a 250 ft. long and 76 ft. wide floating swimming pool which opened on Brooklyn’s East River Waterfront on July 3, 2007.
Buttenwieser situated her work at the intersection between urban planning, recreation and leisure studies, maritime culture, and New York City history. Her work is a valuable complement to Kurt Schlichting’s Waterfront Manhattan (2018). Schlichting traces out a narrative in which the history of the Manhattan waterfront was a battle between public and private control of the City’s most valuable assets, resulting in rapid development and then decay. According to Schlichting, the death of the Manhattan waterfront created a space for the waterfront to be reimagined as public space for those who could afford it. Buttenwieser takes a look at what that waterfront public space could become. To construct her narrative, she pulled from interviews and emails, the New York City official website, the Department of Environmental Protection’s website, Board of Evaluation minutes, scientific pollution studies, news articles, studies by Newton Creek Alliance and Riverkeeper, annual reports and memos, historic photographs, law, and the records of various meetings.
Buttenwieser provides the historical background to her floating pool concept—New York City’s 19th century floating baths. She argues “the baths were there to protect the middle and upper classes from disease and crime, and to serve the poor, who had no sanitary facilities, in a contained venue” (43). She names problems that plagued both the floating baths and her project such as cost, health concerns, and their placement, which “couldn’t interfere with shipping or other economically viable uses … that had priority on the waterfront” (32). Buttenwieser uses powerful imagery to describe the impact of industrial waste and sewage on New Yorkers’ ability to utilize and enjoy their water. She details the decay of the New York Waterfront and the later changing relationship of the public to the New York and New Jersey waterfronts in the 1970s-1990s. She argues, “The public needed to use and interact with their riverine environment. It wasn’t enough for the waterfront to be a pretty space to look at, and even though it was ecologically healthy, it also had to be a dynamic destination that offered publicly accessible activities” (68).
Not only is her historical research noteworthy, but Buttenwieser’s work provides a frank and valuable look at the process of nonprofit work. The rest of Buttenwieser’s narrative focuses on the intricacies of bringing The Floating Pool Lady from concept to reality. Her readers gain insight into the sometimes contradictory culture of public officials, residents, and planners in terms of waterfront development, parks and recreation, and leisure activities in this particular historical context. Her readers experience the ups and downs of public planning. She identifies several themes in tracing the story of The Floating Pool Lady from the Progressive Era floating baths to its current iteration- 1) the long time it can take for an individual citizen’s idea to go from conception to implementation, 2) the lack of receptiveness on the part of city and state agents to a perceived outsider, 3) the labyrinth of jurisdictions and parties whose approval must be secured, 4) prioritizing those approvals, 5) the importance of a loyal team and personal contacts, and 6) the number of built in unknowns.
Buttenwieser’s work is significant as it has proved her concept and opened the door to further innovation. She details The Floating Pool Lady’s social, recreational, and urban planning benefits: “The Floating Pool Lady had proven that she could equitably serve a diverse population … She had proven that she could draw crowds to a once-closed off waterfront and, most important for planning the city’s future, that a park could grow in Brooklyn” (215). The Floating Pool Lady has also paved the way for other projects—in March 2021, New York City’s floating park called “Little Island”, officially opened. In May 2021, a new floating pool was greenlit for the East River. In The Floating Pool Lady, Buttenwieser pays particular attention to +POOL, a “floating, plus sign-shaped pool” in development; +POOL is intended to immerse swimmers “in the river like the historical floating baths” while also cleaning the water (233). Buttenwieser’s work leaves the reader hopeful for a future where city residents can not only safely undertake recreation activities in their waters once again, but also a future where recreation itself can improve the safety of the water.
Ann Buttenwieser, The Floating Pool Lady: A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront (Cornell University Press, 2021).
Kurt C. Schlichting, Waterfront Manhattan: From Henry Hudson to the High Line (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Erin Becker-Boris’ previously wrote a review of Waterfront Manhattan for GMH.
Erin Becker-Boris is an independent historian from Long Island, NY. Her research interests focus on the convergence of women, labor, and the environment through a global extractive maritime economy. Her work in museums grapples with investing local peoples in their resources as stakeholders through outreach, education, and the development of new public programming. She has written for Gotham Center for New York City History, New York Almanack, Read More Science, H-Net Environment, and the Journal of Urban History. She can be found at @ErinE_Becker on Twitter. You can find more of her work on her profile at Women Also Know History.