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Meet a New Yorker for Parks: Phyllis Yampolsky

Wednesday, July 04, 2012
McCarren Pool opened to the public last weekend for the first time since 1984. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was there on the North Williamsburg/Greenpoint border for the ribbon-cutting, and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe jumped in with dozens of local children to re-christen the giant basin. The pool was packed all weekend with capacity crowds of 1,500 swimmers.
 
Behind the fanfare over the unlocking of the pool’s grand arched entranceway on Lorimer Street, intertwined with the well-worn account of the neighborhood’s transformed social landscape, is the story of Phyllis Yampolsky, who fought for nearly a quarter century – in the face of community opposition – for the pool’s rebirth.
 
Her memories of her earliest days as a Greenpoint resident, in 1982, are still vivid. “It was a remote little Polish town, a 1930s museum piece,” she said in an interview last week.
 
She wanted to get civically involved, and a friend urged her to join the Friends of MCarren Park, a small local group. In 1988, she became its Chair.
 
“I took the position because no one else wanted it,” she said.
 
McCarren Pool opened in 1936, one of 11 play spaces funded by the federal Works Progress Administration and planned by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to open that summer, the hottest on record in the United States. It held 6,800 swimmers under the watchful eyes of triumphant art deco-style ornamental eagles and was the summer hub of the area. But as Parks Department maintenance funds were slashed in the 1970s, the structure began to crumble. And as often happens, civic neglect begat misuse: trash was routinely thrown in the pool and fights often broke out. Neighborhood sentiment among the nearby Polish and Italian communities began to turn against the pool and its users – sentiment that was often racially tinged, Yampolsky said. The pool closed, the eagles placed in storage. While the city planned to refurbish the pool and open it for its 50th anniversary in 1986, many neighbors wanted it demo lished.
 
Pushing for and overseeing that Parks Department demolition project was the assignment handed down to Yampolsky’s group by her local community board, and she somewhat reluctantly accepted. But her stance soon shifted for good.
 
On a cool November afternoon in 1988, Yampolsky went to watch a local artist perform near the closed pool. Looking inside the gates, she was overcome with emotion.
 
“It was this lovely, mythical, magical place, a magnificent hole in the urban fabric,” she said. “I fell in love.”
 
That day marked the start of her 24-year push to save the pool. She quickly formed her own Friends of McCarren Park group, and the McCarren Park Conservancy, in 1994. Her goal was simple: bring back the pool.
 
“No one else in the community wanted it at the time,” she said. "But I knew it was the hearthstone of the neighborhood.”
 
She was, however, able to find architects and preservationists from across the city to join her cause. In 1989, those allies, along with a few local groups like El Puente, in South Williamsburg, effectively blocked the planned demolition.  
 
“We thought victory was nearly at hand, but really that victory was just the start of a 19 year battle,” she said.
 
Over the next several years, ideas for the pool were batted around, and the local support network grew. Celebrities with North Brooklyn ties, like Eddie Murphy, Spike Lee and Geraldo Rivera, donated their time and money to the pool's cause.
 
“Everyone, no matter who it was, always told me, ‘Hey, I grew up in that pool,'” Yampolsky said.
 
That became her group’s motto and in the early 90s, she hosted the "Hey I Grew Up in That Pool!" Grand Reunion Festival to raise awareness and funds.
 
After years of planning meetings, Yampolsky felt the tide had finally turned in 2001. She presented a plan to her community board in which the pool would generate revenue for its upkeep.
 
“The board parsed the plan and was impassioned by the idea,” she said. “The pool was going to be saved.”
 
A meeting to grant the plan final board approval, scheduled for September 17, 2001, never happened. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, City funding for the project, which had been in place, went elsewhere. Priorities shifted.
 
“The pro-demolition crowd was re-energized, and I began my fight anew,” Yampolsky said.
 
This time, finally, her timing was right. Her countless meetings with planners, architects and preservationists had made a mark, and people around the city began to realize the site’s potential. In 2005, it was reopened as a temporary outdoor concert venue, which became wildly popular among the rapidly expanding under-30 population in the area. In 2007, the pool’s fortunes shifted for good. In two final blows to the pro-demolition forces, it was designated a landmark by the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and awarded $50 million for a full rehabilitation as part of the Bloomberg Administration’s PlaNYC 2030 initiative.
 
Yampolsky relished a battle won last week on the eve of the pool’s reopening, and her memories came streaming back. Perhaps distracted by all the hype and hubbub, she still hadn’t decided on an outfit for the opening gala.
 
The next day, she saw what she had fought so hard for: the brick bathhouse was as sturdy as the day it opened in 1936; the eagles back in place. New touches, added by Rogers Marvel Architects, include locker room benches made from recycled Coney Island Boardwalk wood and hundreds of wire mesh baskets, used decades ago for locker room storage, dipped in silver paint and affixed to the new rec center’s ceiling. And of course the sparkling pool, newly painted in cerulean blue like a domed church in Santorini.
 
“For me to be able to see all this happen in my lifetime is a special dream that I never thought would come true,” said Yampolsky, her voice trembling with emotion. “For many years, people who wanted the pool gone hated me, and many still do. Maybe now they’ll finally change their minds.”

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