While the country begins to recover from COVID-19, New York has, of late, been subjected to a crime wave, a topic that is getting much traction in Gotham’s upcoming Democratic primary for mayor.

The current debates may revolve around police reform and gun control, but the related issues of public safety and public health have long pervaded political campaigns in New York.

Like the mayoral candidates of today, Progressives and social reformers of the late 1800s and early 1900s sought solutions for combating crime and improving the quality of life of New Yorkers.

More than a century ago, activists like Jacob Riis, author of How the Other Half Lives, documented the need for better living conditions for immigrants and the poor, who were cramped inside tenements.  Progressives, then, as now, advocated for more open space and recreational opportunities, in particular for New York City’s immigrants and working class.

One of the mostly forgotten policy gems of the time was the idea of a floating, swimming pool in the East and Hudson rivers, where men and women could bathe, swim and cool down after hours spent toiling in the New York heat.

It is well known that we all originally come from the primordial soup.  But few appreciate its potential as an urban oasis as much as Ann L. Buttenwieser, who has dedicated her life and career to reclaiming the waterfront for New Yorkers.

Like her father, Isador Lubin, an economic adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Buttenwieser is a fine researcher, who first developed her passion for the water when she fell into the South River by Chesapeake Bay as a little girl, an anecdote that opens her new book, The Floating Pool Lady.

“Swim, Annie, Swim!”

That was what her father urged her to do.  

And Buttenwieser has indeed swum, sometimes upstream and against cross-currents, as she describes in her book how she battled bureaucrats, politicians, lawyers, community boards, and even a few environmentalists to bring her historical brainchild, a floating, swimming pool, back to the New York City waterfront.

In The Floating Pool Lady, published by Cornell University Press, Buttenwieser discusses at length many of the impediments that she had to overcome in her quest to realize her dream of giving inner-city kids and other recreationally under-served city residents a free romp in a pool located within yet protected from the swells and tides of the East River.

She details the false starts with insurers and attorneys quibbling over whether the pool is a vessel, a building, or something else; the different political appetites for innovative maritime recreation from one administration to another in New York City, Albany and Hoboken; the rudeness of some bureaucrats and community members, who thought or wanted to think that the floating pool would damage marine life.

Late in the book, when she has brought her baby to fruition after 27 years!, not nine months, as she quips, Buttenwieser quips again that she might title a future book, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”  

It is true that she never stops having to deal with some recalcitrant officials at agencies bearing confusingly similar and non-felicitous acronyms or abbreviations, such as DEC and ESDC.

But it is also true that Buttenwieser never gives up on her desire to improve the waterfront for New Yorkers, who seek a respite from the heat and a chance to be close to and indeed immersed in the water.

She often cites the laudable work of Jane Jacobs, who authored several classic books on cities and who led the residents of Greenwich Village in the 1950s in successfully protesting Robert Moses’ attempt to build a highway through that storied neighborhood in Manhattan.

Moses, the longtime New York City Parks Commissioner going back to the 1930s, was a master builder, who built more parks, beaches, highways, bridges and public swimming pools than just about anyone since Julius Caesar, as Robert Caro wrote in his much-heralded tome, The Power Broker.

But Moses also damaged many neighborhoods such as East Tremont in the Bronx when he built the Cross-Bronx Expressway.  He intended to do the same in Greenwich Village, until Jacobs led a movement of community activists to defeat his plan.

In addition, Moses, who was in charge of creating recreational opportunities for New Yorkers for decades, did not seem to recognize the benefits or the critical importance of one of New York’s greatest assets: The city, as Buttenwieser reminds us, is a series of islands, surrounded by water.

Though she tells us more than once that she stands a mere 5’ 3”, Buttenwieser shows throughout her book what an indomitable spirit she is, not unlike Jane Jacobs.

Buttenwieser, who holds a PhD in urban planning and who has taught at the City University of New York as well as Columbia University, has spent decades advocating on behalf of safe parks, public access to the waterfront, and quixotic, maritime recreation.

I know this from my time working with her in the late 1980s when she was the director of waterfront planning at the New York City Parks Department under then-Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern.

Buttenwieser was instrumental in helping Jon Rubin, a film professor and media artist, bring the “Floating Cinema” to New York City in the summers of 1988 and 1989.

A pontoon barge with a screen on deck, the Floating Cinema showed films by waterfront parks throughout the five boroughs during those summers.  If memory serves, the films were free to the public, and all of them had a New York City, waterfront or park theme, including On the Town, On the Waterfront and Desperately Seeking Susan.

Sometimes known back then as Tugboat Annie, Buttenwieser was also extremely supportive of my idea for the “Baseball Ferry,” a catamaran that took fans from Pier 11, East 34th Street and Glen Cove, L.I., to the World’s Fair Marina for New York Mets games in 1989 and in later years.

Throughout that time, and before and after, Buttenwieser was trying to drum up support for her own baby, a throwback to the days of Boss Tweed and Jacob Riis, when floating pools or baths were moored in the East and Hudson rivers.

With her passion for New York history and her dedication to public service, Buttenwieser dreamed of bringing back a floating bath or pool, except that it would no longer be a pool that would allow polluted water from the East River to circulate inside it, as was the case from 1880 until the 1940s, when the last floating pool was decommissioned.

Rather, Buttenwieser dreamed of a hygienic, safe, floating pool that would capture the shimmering joys of swimming in chlorinated water in a protected space, while being berthed in a slip or cove or by a street-end park in New York City.

The Floating Pool Lady, the name of the vessel, as well as Buttenwieser’s new nickname, made its debut after much labor and gestation in July 2007.

After docking initially in Brooklyn by piers near the Brooklyn Bridge, Buttenwieser’s floating pool moved to Barretto Park in the Bronx, where it has hosted tens of thousands of swimmers and sunbathers in the years since, except for 2020, when COVID-19 interrupted operations.

The book is a delightful read, and not only because Buttenwieser succeeds after 27 years in seeing her good deed float across the finish line, like scullers passing the final buoys in a crew race.

The Floating Pool Lady is also a very informative text, filled with maps, and it will engage any reader who is interested in the politics of New York and the history of the city’s waterfront.

There is no doubt that there are and always have been honorable public servants, who have been grateful for the advocacy of people like Buttenwieser.

Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg, like Mayor Koch and Mayor Dinkins before him, as well as former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, like Henry J. Stern before him, all deserve credit for welcoming the hard work and dedication of dreamers, like Ann L. Buttenwieser.

That there have been other less than admirable political figures along the way is no surprise.  

As Buttenwieser writes at the end of her prologue: “The bottom line is simple: you gotta fight like hell!”