In the summer of 1870, New York City got its first municipal bath: swimming pools sunk into the rivers, through which river water flowed. An 1871 New York Times article describes them: “baths are of the usual house-like model, and have a swimming area of eighty-five feet in length by sixty-five feet in width. They are… provided with sixty-eight dressing-rooms, have offices and rooms in an additional story, and are well lighted with gas for night bathing.” In the year after they were built, the Department of Public Works reported that they were regularly used to their capacity, particularly on hot summer days. At their height, there were twenty-two such baths around the waters of New York City.
The pollution got worse as the years went on: the rivers carried sewage, industrial wasted, and blood from slaughterhouses. Yet the riverbaths remained popular, as did open river swimming. When the indoor bathhouses that had been promised for so long finally opened in 1901, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor — a philanthropic organization that was instrumental in building the bathhouses — called for the Health Department to shut down the riverbaths. There was cause for concern. In their own words,
an epidemic of pinkeye in Brooklyn last year was traced to one of the baths there near a trunk sewer. Besides that, the river bath can only be open during the summer. It is the duty of the city to assume the municipal activity of providing for the cleanliness of its tenement dwellers. This is not merely to cultivate habits of cleanliness, although a bath is the beginning of self-respect, but as a preventive of disease.
When the Department of Public Works and the Health Department moved to close the river baths for good, on sanitary grounds, the decision was met with suspicion by poor people that the City wanted to close the river baths in order to force patronage at the indoor baths, which Health Commissioner Lederle denied. When the decision was finally made, Lederle made clear that the river baths had been kept open as long as they had because it would be unfair “to deprive the poor of their only means of open-air bathing without providing some sort of a substitute.” In public hearings, discussion also included the question of whether more people would get sick from the river water or from summer heat in the city.
The story of the river baths nudges us to question who the public is in public space, and who gets to make the decisions about how public spaces are formed and funded. Provision of public space is a perennial challenge to the democratic ideals of the city, as clashing values and disputes over resources get played out in the management and use of everyday places. These geographies of swimming and splashing and laughter and beating the heat, small though they may seem, have intervened in the life and the lives of the city for almost 150 years.
Naomi Adiv is Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. She holds a PhD from The Graduate Center, CUNY.