I think I first saw McCarren Pool in David Macaulay’s Great Moments in Architecture. McCauley is a Caldicott–winning illustrator whose books have built castles, cathedrals and mosques, and meticulously stripped the Empire State Building down to a vacant lot, a feat accomplished in his classic Unbuilding. Fittingly, Macaulay’s Great Moments occurred only in his mind. They involve vinyl siding on moon boulders, an upside down Arc de Triumph, and a host of weirdly dignified modern ruins—gas stations, drive–ins and roadside restaurants, gawked at by scalesetting extras who look dressed for a Victorian pleasure garden. Maybe one page showed a rotting brick wall punctuated with a quadruple arch, improbably overlooking an emptied swimming pool the size of a football field. If McCarren wasn’t in Macaulay’s book it should have been: something too odd for someone actually to build, but not odd enough to dispel some lurking, even exuberant sense of the possible—that rare structure straddling functionality and architectural hysteria.
It’s outmoded to associate exuberance and possibility with an urban public sector whose choice aesthetic is the grim modularity of the apartment tower. But the Pool was a New Deal project, and every faded brick speaks to an anachronistic belief that civic and national pride depend on every child in North Brooklyn swimming amidst nearimperial grandeur. In hindsight, when the 70s budget crisis and tension between Greenpoint’s central European immigrant community and an increasingly black and Latino pool–going public resulted in its 1984 closure, deepening public cynicism squelched this New Deal communalism. So it’s tempting to imagine the Pool as the embodiment of a languishing public gospel whose deterioration mirrors that of the Pool itself.
But there’s a problem with this interpretation, since the Pool’s is now a story of endurance rather than decline. This fall, it will begin a $50 million renovation as part of PlaNYC, proving that Bloombergian corporate benevolence has incorporated this unifying civic pride.
Equally important is that for the past three summers, the Pool was an infinitely versatile space in a neighborhood that could appreciate one. It was a blank expanse that just begged to be filled with something: with art, with music, with schemes quixotic enough to match the inexplicable reality of the place. And it was consequently filled with some of the most epic afternoons of music the city has ever seen: the Jelly NYC Pool Parties.
Jelly NYC was organized under the principle that concerts should be outdoors and free. It’s a quietly revolutionary idea, since live music is exclusive to those who can afford it, and to those knowledgeable enough to appreciate it. The latter is especially true in a Williamsburg scene that crams itself into isolated lofts and basements to listen to obscure bands that few would enjoy. In Brooklyn, this is the era of noise: of guitar fuzz atop repetitive drum lines atop looped, guttural echoes. It’s stuff that screams “keep out,” at least to those who haven’t been to Market Hotel or Death By Audio, or who have no idea what or where these places are.
But Jelly’s founders imagined thousands of people streaming under the McCarren archways and finding a scene that could transcend its trademark insularity. Jelly saw the Pool as a vast commons for an atomized cultural landscape, and a place that could introduce the self–starting, do–ityourself ethic of the loft or the basement to an uninitiated outside world. That it succeeded in doing both explains one Jelly founder’s otherwise–arrogant belief that he was rescuing his neighborhood’s creative life. “These concerts are the last bastion of what this neighborhood has come to represent over the past 10 or 15 years,” he told the New York Daily News after the last Pool Party on August 24th. “If they leave, Williamsburg will become just another SoHo.”
The group’s real accomplishment was the use of something that was already there. Empty corners became Dodgeball courts and Slip n’ Slide runs, and a dilapidating pool bottom turned into the city’s largest meet–up, party space, drug den and concert venue. People were giddy to be there, and the Pool’s apocalyptic slabs of concrete turned the wildest antics into natural behavior. Bands would jump into the crowd mid–set. One show ended in a toilet paper fight; another began with a pool regular flinging a small child down the Slip n’ Slide, javelin–style.
This weekly madness unfolded with a familiar rhythm: I’d be eating street tacos by two o’clock with the pool’s awesome entranceway looming over McCarren Park, and diving into discounted pints of Sixpoint by quarter to three (it was an atrocity to be sober at one of these). For the aspiring journalist in the subway car–sized sliver of pool deck set aside for VIPs, Sundays were for gorging on free whisky and chatting up the Williamsburg b–list: aspiring writers, aspiring musicians, aspiring promoters, other music–connected types with the word “aspiring” preceding their description. A mockery of hardcore Bohemianism I’ll admit; these were middle–class hangerson rather than those famed junkies and squatters whose disappearance from these streets is an oft–lamented sign of progress. But sociological considerations were distant as the afternoons wore on, as the alcohol took over and the music improved. There was no better place to be.
When the Pool Parties began in 2006, the venue’s successes—channeling the energies of an aimless and self–centered subculture and hosting massive midsummer bacchanals—made it an immediate symbol of ephemerality. There was the annual, jitter–inducing question of whether the Parties would even take place the following summer—whether Jelly would lose its permits, whether it would scrounge enough sponsorship money, whether the city would start reconstructing the Pool earlier than expected, whether the scene was too good to be true. Every party came with the knowledge that the partying would end: that the rockers and models and dresscoordinated dodgeball teams would one day disappear into the Bushwick backstreets, and that Williamsburg’s do–it–yourselfers would shortly relapse into a sheltered, masturbatory status–quo.
That Jelly is taking its summer concert series to other cities next year—instead of hosting shows in its titular hometown—is one sign that the Pool might only have been the most interesting distraction in an endless season of obsolescence. New York is ever in a Macaulay–like building and unbuilding, as ballparks (Ebbets Field along with Yankee Stadium), theme parks (Steeplechase, along with Astroland), and entire neighborhoods (Manhattanville?) are subsumed and occasionally forgotten. Music venues are particularly expendable.
But when I left my last Jelly show a few months ago I was reminded of a sign that overlooks one of the escalators at Penn Station. It’s a line–drawing of Stanford White’s original building, a Doric masterpiece that would be one of the most spectacular in the city if Robert Moses hadn’t ordered it demolished in 1964. Below it are the words “YOU ARE HERE,” which is bullshit because you aren’t really here, and no one has been here for over forty years, and because here is always someplace else in the ever–accumulating city–mound of New York. Maybe at the future McCarren there’ll be a wide–angle shot of the skuzzy, abandoned pool that was briefly the nexus of so much creative energy and spirit, and beneath it words that will serve to remind as well as to taunt: YOU ARE HERE.
Above: McCarren Park Pool, 1937. The pool opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1936.
ARMIN ROSE (List ’10), covered several of this season’s McCarren Pool parties for Impose Magazine’s website. He is a senior editor of The Current.