by Hayley Munguia
Image courtesy +POOL
The height of the Gilded Age in New York famously characterized itself with diamond-, ruby- and sapphire-encrusted brooches. Satin ballgowns embroidered with golden thread accompanied by silk fans topped off with ostrich feathers were the norm at high society events such as the Vanderbilt Ball.
But an oft-ignored piece of this history is the that which makes the age ‘gilded’ rather than pure gold: the plight of the many who were not fortunate enough to own anything silk or diamond-encrusted, or even wash on a regular basis.
And so, in 1870, the city’s first floating baths opened in the Hudson and the East Rivers. By 1890, there were 15. The reason these baths were necessary had a lot to do with social reform movements at the time. As most of the city’s poor, many of whom were immigrants, didn’t have the ability to bathe on a regular basis. But this problem didn’t only affect the poor—it was a concern that influenced the public health of the entire city.
In 1895, Dr. Simon Baruch proposed, as a method of social reform, requiring free public baths for “the great unwashed” in in New York. This form of “hydrotherapy” became a way to not only increase the living standards of the city’s poor and to alleviate the adverse effects on the city as a whole, but also a way to relax in the oppressive summers of the pre-air-conditioned days of yore.
The floating baths were a significant aspect of city life, but they became less and less safe over time due to environmental degradation caused by increasing industrialization. After a certain point, the baths became counterproductive to the original goal of augmenting public health. By 1941, all the floating baths were closed by the city government.
Residents of New York City today are familiar with the fact that not much has changed in the Hudson and the East Rivers since then. The paths along both rivers are littered with signs that read, “Warning! Fish and crabs from these waters contain chemicals and may be harmful to eat, especially for women and children.” The state of affairs is such that any type of community involvement with the rivers would have the potential to cause a public health problem.
And so, within the course of a little over 100 years, the Hudson and East Rivers gone from being the solution to potential health problems to being the cause of them. And that’s where +POOL comes in.
+POOL is a concept that’s been underway since 2010. Southern California native Dong-Ping Wong, along with Virginia Beach native Archie Coates both hailed from water-loving environments. And as the summer of 2010 was the hottest in New York’s history (averaging 77.8 degrees as compared to the previous record of 77.3 degrees, which was set in the summer of 1966), both were missing the cool relief that comes with easy, free access to safe swimming water.
“It was something that we maybe took for granted,” Coates said. “Moving here, the river is this strange border between Brooklyn and Manhattan. New Yorkers generally don’t look at it as something that you can use as a recreational resource.”
The main obstacle to transforming the river is of course dealing with the decades of pollution that have prevented the river from being anything but an avenue for transportation. Both in terms of safety and in terms of public perception, the status quo associated with the toxicity of the Hudson and East Rivers is the only real hurdle to using them recreationally—but it is a major one.
“We did a lot of research to try to figure out if it was possible,” Coates said. “We didn’t really have any idea of how to even take the first reasonable step for cleaning up the river, but then we found out about the history of floating baths, and we just thought, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something there.’”
It was a lofty idea, and as graphic designers by trade, neither Coates nor Wong knew the first thing about whether or not a modern floating bath would be implementable. But they used the skills they did have to design a website and some promotional materials to see if there would even be any interest in the idea.
“The response was incredible,” Coates said. “On the third day after publishing the website, it crashed because it couldn’t handle all the traffic we were getting. It just had a viral effect, and before we knew it, we had people from Arup calling us to set up meetings about how to make this happen.”
Arup is an international design and engineering firm that’s been responsible for projects such as the London Eye and the Sydney Opera House.
“We had no idea we were anywhere near their league,” Coates said. “But we got them, which was amazing by itself, but it also reassured us that we really do have something good going here.”
With Arup’s help, Coates and Wong further honed the idea, both in concept and the actual technology that would be used. The pool, which will be a plus-sign made up of two intersecting Olympic-sized rectangles, will have porous filtration walls, a specially-designed technology by Arup that will allow the pool to be filled with river water while simultaneously cleaning that water as it flows through the walls. It’s from this design that the project derived its name, +POOL.
By this point, the project had attracted enough interest that Coates and Wong developed a team within Wong’s design firm, Family New York. The only thing they needed was funding, so Coates decided to turn to Kickstarter. After giving a month-long time limit to reach their goal of $5,000, +POOL got its funding in 11 days.
“It all happened so quickly,” Coates said. “It’s been really amazing.”
But as a project that affects the entirety of New York City, the planning has necessitated the involvement of myriad people in myriad industries. Coates and Wong have worked with Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, City Council, the Dept. of Parks and Recreation, and even museums across the city for help in all the different aspects of planning such a project.
One such person is Karen Wong, the deputy director of the New Museum.
“At the New Museum, I helped found the IDEAS CITY initiative, and so I’ve known about Family [New York] for years just through overlapping circles,” Wong said. “But last year, +POOL won the IDEAS CITY Architizer + Municipal Art Society Pitch Event contest, and so I’ve been involved ever since. It’s really important to me to always be involved in any way I can with citizens wanting to contribute to our cities.”
The support of so many organizations has translated well to the general public.
“I found out about +POOL on Kickstarter,” Brooklyn resident Will Holmes said. “I just thought it was a really cool idea. I think New York could always use more community-building things, and +POOL would definitely be a way to accomplish that.”
Holmes contributed $25 to the project and will have his name engraved on a tile in the pool along with thousands of others who helped make the project financially possible.
“The thing is that this project started as just a way to create an avenue for entertainment in the rivers, but it’s gotten so much bigger,” Coates said. “Not only has it become this big thing that the whole New York community has rallied around and a way to get in touch with New York’s history, but it’s also provided a way to think of actually cleaning the rivers in their entirety.”
While actually cleaning all of the Hudson and East Rivers is a much more long-term project than +POOL, Coates is confident that this is the first step.
“It’s a long ways off, but it’s definitely something that’s on our radar,” Coates said.
+POOL is in its testing stages now and is set to open in the East River by the Brooklyn Bridge in the summer of 2016.