I grew up in New York City, but Central Park was never part of my childhood. I felt like a tourist whenever I set foot in it, and in a sense I was, because I was only hitting up the spots everyone knew about: the Great Lawn, Wollman Rink, Burnett Fountain. It always seemed so manicured and cloying, crowded yet also sprawling. I kept my distance.
And until I lived here as an adult, I was very rarely around for the summers. I spent them upstate in various ramshackle rentals with my parents, then later at a summer camp in the Berkshires. I loved the water but was usually splashing around in lakes, not pools—unless the pool was indoors and the site of my grueling high school swim practices. When I did spend time in the city’s waters, I was at the beach, eating clams at Coney Island or getting drunk on Nutcrackers in the Rockaways. I barely knew public pools existed.
So it would make sense that until I moved to Harlem in early 2011, after a three-year stint in Chicago, I had no inkling of the free, gigantic, mercifully tourist-free pool at the northern edge of Central Park. The first time I glimpsed it was on Google Maps. I was searching for my new apartment on 118th and St. Nicholas when I noticed a blue oval next to the Harlem Meer, and it was labeled “Lasker Pool.” The day it opened for the season in late June, I decided to investigate. Like anybody using a city service, I was faced with bit of bureaucracy, in this case amusing rather than prohibitive: A cranky pool manager informed me I had to register for the “night owl” swim hours with my ID and purchase an acceptable lock for the dressing room.
I was toiling in my hot apartment at a remote job for 10 hours a day, so Lasker Pool became a welcome, refreshing part of my after-work routine.
At that point I was toiling in my hot apartment at a remote job for 10 hours a day, so Lasker Pool became a welcome, refreshing part of my after-work routine. I’d arrive before 7 o’clock and join a handful of other Harlemites, mostly teens and senior citizens. Sometimes I’d just spend a few minutes cooling down; other evenings I’d swim laps until the sun turned orange. Eventually I was able to get back to my high school speed. A few times I went on Saturdays with friends, who were always impressed. The weekend at Lasker was like a neighborhood party: diverse and energetic and crowded, but never oppressively so.
Around the same time, there were murmurings about the reopening of the equally gargantuan McCarren Pool in Williamsburg after a 30-month, $50 million renovation. When it opened during the particularly hot summer of 2012, Brooklynites rejoiced. The celebration was short lived: There were reports of long lines in scorching heat, grumbling NIMBY neighbors, and even errant turds less than two weeks after the grand unveiling. I remember feeling smug about my harmonious evenings at McCarren’s under-the-radar, poop-free, uptown counterpart. Even as Harlem was gentrifying at an alarming clip, Lasker Pool never became a frenetic, at-capacity destination like McCarren did.
I’ve since moved to Brooklyn, now visiting Bed-Stuy’s smaller, icier Kosciuszko Pool when I can. It’s served me well, but it’s not the same; its background of concrete and brick can’t compare to Lasker’s view of lush expanses of green. Last year, the city announced a $150 million revamp of Lasker Pool, which means it will close in 2020 for three years, presumably ushering in a more glamorous, high-profile era for this hidden gem. This summer is our last chance to enjoy the more modest version of Lasker, the version that’s always been there, not trying to impress anybody but locals. At some point this summer, I’ll be there to give it a send-off—with an acceptable lock.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a writer, editor, and native New Yorker. She tweets @nona.