Swimming in New York: community pools and conversation

There is no equivalent of me in New York, which is a dreadful shame. I could have really done with a blog mapping all the public pools. Someone started but gave up after three, which shows a total lack of commitment. The 50+ London pools I've written about on my blog is proof of my commitment (as is a funny chlorine-induced rash), so if any publishers are reading, I am definitely the person for writing a "where to swim in New York" book.

"For God's sake take a break!" I hear you yell. "Don't stop! You're so inspiring!" I hear others counter. I didn't go to New York specifically to swim – that would have been crazy. But I try to swim wherever I go. I like swimming: it connects me to my day (and helps with jetlag), and using public provision in cities puts you right at the heart of them; you can think about how you might live a life there. My life, I worked out, would be like so so cool, so keeping it real, it would be like an episode of Girls – the one featuring their mums.

I can now tell you several things about swimming in New York. That they really encourage swimming – in summer. After 27 June, the outdoor pools open, and they are free and multitudinous. There are 34 outdoor pools in Manhattan, and 12 mini-pools. Five Olympic-size ones in Brooklyn alone! WHO KNEW? Walking along one street, my eye was caught by a Keith Haring mural through a chain-link fence – and beneath it was a small outdoor pool, right in the heart of everything. We'd stumbled on the Tony Dapolito Recreation Centre (pronounce it like you're in The Sopranos). I checked, but it wasn't on any tourist map.

I learned that you can't just drop in for a one-off cheap swim anywhere. You have to either buy a (relatively expensive) day pass in the private pools or a minimum six-month pass for $75 (£45) to access all and any of the 12 NY Parks and Rec pools. I learned that you need to travel with a padlock and a swim cap, but not a towel. That there are very few 50m indoor pools in Manhattan. I found just one.

This we all know: it's great if you have money. If you don't, go in summer when it's too hot and use the open-air pools. This is not earth-shattering, I concede, and includes an obvious dichotomy.

Neither of the pools I swam in belonged to Parks and Rec; that $75 would have made for an expensive couple of swims. Instead I clipped a free day pass off of the internet for the Vanderbilt YMCA on E 47th St. There are plenty of Ys in the city so they're a good place to start. This one had two underground pools – one small for teaching and classes, the other 25m with generous lanes and water at a good cool temperature for training. They are incrementally pedantic on lanes here. Slow. Slow to medium. Medium, and so on. And here's a thing: if there's someone in the lane already and they ask you "Shall we split?" they're not suggesting you run off together and get a milkshake. It means that instead of going round in a loop, you each take a side of the lane and go up and down it. If a third person joins, you make eye contact to establish that now, everyone will loop. Maybe even exchange a few words. Yes, you are required to communicate with your fellow swimmer. The system practically legislates for it. I've seen marriages founded on less.

Then we tried Asphalt Green, a not-for-profit community pool on the Upper East Side. Day passes here are $35 "or free if you have a guest pass", said the receptionist. "You could give us a guest pass?" I suggested tentatively, knowing this would require a management dictat and three months' hard negotiation if we were in the UK. "OK," she said, and did. This was the only 50m we found, but it was split into two on our visit, dang it. Still, it was light and airy and well laned, with cool water. The towels were free (as at the Y) and both places had those spinny machines for your costume, so you're not dragging wet swims round with you all day. And good saunas. Being treated nicely, communicated with warmly – I've seen marriages founded on WAY less.

So far, no dollar expended, apart from six for a padlock. And time ran out before I could try the other recommended pool – the pricy, six-lane, 25m Chelsea Piers pool, with its three-sided view out on the Hudson river. If you look at the grey churning busy Hudson and think "I fancy that", you have my utmost respect and might be interested in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a huge 28.5 miles long. Details are here.

The openness in the pool spilled over into the ready intimacy of women in the changing rooms. But my experience of that is universal. Our nudity (or near enough) allows us to be immediate and frank, to engage and share in a way that we often don't, fully clothed. I like your costume, said one woman. I like your haircut, said another, before we launched into a long and enthusiastic conversation about levels of grey. My hair is in an Anti-Patriarchy Crop, the reactions to which are also universal. If there are any publishers still reading, I've got views enough for a book on hair too.

To be continued.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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