The Amphibious Public

The Amphibious Public: a Social-Historical Geography of Public Bathing Spaces in NYC

Noemi Adiv

The case of the Municipal Swimming Pool is a study of how the municipal state has intervened in social life through the medium of public space, how the biopolitical project of state infrastructure for bathing has changed over time.  In New York City, four periods from 1870 to the present mark changes in the recreational bathing project, and tracing the rise and subsequent maintenance, deterioration or promotion of these can help us understand these changes.  These are:


1.      1870 – 1935, in which the primary sites for recreational swimming were in the city’s rivers and bathing beaches, but in which the Department of Public Works maintained up to twenty-seven river baths, which were essentially wooden frames sunk into the rivers with attached bath houses.

2.      1891 – 1975 in which the Department of Health and Hygiene operated up to fifteen municipal bathhouses for use by mostly working class residents who did not have home plumbing, or hot water.

3.      1936 – present, in which Robert Moses built 11 municipal pools with tremendous capacity, and did not charge for admission.

4.      1970 – present, in which the pools program was expanded

Throughout the periods, there existed anxiety on the part of reformers and municipal authorities “as to the pool’s purpose: bathing, playing, or competitive swimming.” (Lupkin, 2010, p. 116)  My work will trace the rise and fall of these aspirations in the minds of policy makers, and the reciprocal uses of these by city residents.

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