How to Get the Best Out of (and Survive the Worst of) City Pools

If you want to stay cool, be prepared to stay cool


It’s hot. Really, really hot. If you’re like me and don’t have air-conditioning, at times like these the nearest places you can go in New York City to escape the sweltering heat are our beautiful outdoor public pools, which thankfully opened for the summer season at the end of last month, and will remain open 11 a.m. through 7 p.m. (with a one-hour break for pool cleaning at 3) through Sunday, September 9.

I’m an avid swimmer. As a resident of Bay Ridge, the two pools I dip into most frequently are in Sunset Park and Red Hook –  spacious, beautiful pools nestled in the middle of public parks. These are among the eleven facilities opened in 1936 under the purview of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration — as the city Parks Department explains on its website, the WPA pools “were among the most remarkable public recreational facilities in the country, representing the forefront of design and technology in advanced filtration and chlorination systems. The influence of the pools extended throughout entire communities, attracting aspiring athletes and neighborhood children, and changing the way millions of New Yorkers spent their leisure time.”

Ah, how things have changed. For readers who want to venture out to their neighborhood chlorinated oasis, it’s useful to remember this: Rec pools are the seasonal equivalent of the subway system. They are social equalizers, serving a broad cross-section of city residents. At their best — when the weather is hot and the water is cold and not too packed — the pools exemplify the power of public works to bring joy and well-being to the lives of New Yorkers.  At their worst — when it all gets shut down because someone pooped in the pool, or you have to slosh through an inch of water in the changing room to get to your locker — the pools are a mournful reminder of the city’s crumbling and underfunded infrastructure.

Still want to go for a dip? Find your nearest public pool here, and then consult this brief guide to navigating the pools:

1) There are rules. Lots and lots of rules.

  • You’re required to bring a lock, and will likely be asked to show it — along with your swimwear — in order to access the changing room.
  • Swimmers are prohibited from bringing a range of items onto the pool deck, including newspapers, phones and cameras, sneakers, glass bottles, and “workout gear.” (Water bottles, books, towels, and sunglasses are supposed to be okay, though once I was prevented from taking my Klean Kanteen out to lap swim.) Employees are posted at the threshold between the changing rooms and the pool, tasked with ensuring you’re not carrying a prohibited item onto the deck.

2) Swimmers, like subway riders, are sometimes subject to surveillance and invasive scrutiny.

  • Your bag may be searched upon entry, so keep that in mind.
  • There will sometimes be police officers present at the pool, both on the deck and driving around outside.
  • You’re required to have swimwear in order to access the pool, a rule that staff seem to interpret in very conservative terms: People perceived as men are expected to wear swim trunks, while people perceived as women are expected to wear a one-piece bathing suit or a bikini. Trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people who fashion their own swimwear might encounter resistance from staff. (Especially if the staff consider the clothing to be “workout gear.”) I imagine people who opt for modest swimwear may encounter similar issues.
  • You are permitted to wear a white T-shirt or tank-top into the pool, as well as a white hat.

3) Don’t expect the changing rooms to be clean or luxurious.

  • Lots and lots of children and families come to the pools daily. And the facilities are a bit decrepit. So if you’re especially squeamish about cleanliness, the public pools probably aren’t for you.
  • Flip-flops are advisable if you want to avoid going barefoot across wet locker room floors.
  • Yes, they really do sometimes shut down the pools when children have accidents.
  • There are few private changing areas.

4) If you want to participate in lap swimming, do brush up on the appropriate etiquette.

  • The larger public pools offer specific lap swimming times twice a day: from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., and from 7 p.m. to dusk. You’ll need to register online or in person to participate. There’s a citywide competition for the top three male and female distance swimmers, so keep track of your laps if you want to participate. You can find out which pools host lap swimming here. (These pools generally offer lap swimming at other times of day as well, but your laps during these time periods don’t count.)
  • If you aren’t familiar with the lap swimming rules at your particular pool, try checking in with the nearest lifeguard before you get in, including by asking whether people are sharing lanes or just swimming up and down in their own zone.
  • If you end up sharing a lane with other swimmers, take notice of whether they are faster or slower than you. If they are faster, do your best not to hinder their workout: If they’re coming up behind you as you approach the wall, hang back and let them push off first. Keep in mind these swimmers may also pass you mid-lap.
  • If you’re the faster swimmer, don’t be a jerk. Pass safely and be nice. It’s summer, after all!

5) Embrace the beautiful vibrancy of New York City.

  • Roll with the punches. Like on the subway, at the pool there are sometimes announcements you can’t quite understand.
  • Appreciate the crowds. You’ll be surrounded by kids, families, couples, and groups of friends — and almost everyone is having a great time.
  • Remember that this is an amazing and 100 percent free amenity. The city pools aren’t perfect, but they’re still great, and there is no better way to escape the heat.