Local passport: Astoria

Memorial Day

THE RECENT ONLINE CAMPAIGN conducted by Partners in Preservation raised some interesting issues about haves and have-nots. Backed by a $3 million corporate donation, the organization invited people to vote for one of 40 restoration projects throughout the five boroughs. The sites ranged from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Brooklyn Public Library to an obscure statue in Queens (the Rocket Thrower) and an A.M.E. church in Staten Island.

I faithfully voted for sites in Queens, my borough of residence nearly every day of the month-long campaign. In the end, four of the five sites in Queens finished in in the lower one quarter of the rankings. My favored site never hovered about rank No. 27 (1% of the vote).  The Louis Armstrong House Museum performed best, finishing at No. 13 (2.66%). Was it voter apathy in Queens? An unawareness of the campaign or the sites? Or, did the voting reflect the acumen of people with large online networks who could spread the word and the votes?

Because of where I live and what I report on, I hear plenty of complaints about Queens not getting its share of the attention: Our landmarks are ignored, our cultural institutions are under the radar … Here was a chance to make a difference and few stepped up to do that.

I was intrigued with the Astoria Dive Pool, which landed in the latter half of the overall popular vote. I grew up swimming in fresh-water lakes in northern Vermont, so pools have always been a luxurious novelty to me. My mother, a New York City kid, spent her summers in these large pools, where she remembers having to rent her bathing suit.

The dive pool sits near the larger pool where my mother may have learned to swim. It’s one of 11 New Deal swimming holes constructed under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, himself an avid swimmer. It’s said that Moses had a particular affinity towards this complex, and equipped it with state-of-the-art amenities and sanitation systems. It’s no small irony that the safe haven overlooks the treacherous Hell Gate strait. A long-abandoned relic, now the pool collects stagnant water and attracts mosquitoes and askance looks.

It’s also attracted the attention of city and community officials who want to restore the Art Modern diving tower—the only one of its kind in the city—and transform the pool into a performance space. It’s already set up for spectaculars: the 1936 and 1964 Olympic diving trials were held here, and in the 1940s, the Aquazines, a swim and stunt team performed here. The online fundraising campaign asked for $250,000 to restore the graceful tower, which cantilevers over the pool. You can read my story for the Wall Street Journal here if you’re a subscriber or here for the PDF.

Beyond the Olympics, the pool is a crumbling reminder of Queens’ diving history: Johnny Weismuller, Eleanor Holm, Esther Williams and Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, all performed at the Aquacade at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. They all made stops in Astoria.

With a westward view of the Manhattan skyline framed by the Hell Gate and Robert F. Kennedy bridges, the site is unlike any other along the waterfront. An amphitheater here could not only restore cachet to the historic spot, it could also give Astoria a distinction outside the narrow view that the neighborhood is all “Greek to me.” (Yes, that joke, along with “do I need my passport?” gets real old. Maybe the numerous comedians who live here can come up with a new line.)

Though lots of people know about Astoria’s siren charms, they keep them to themselves like a secret handshake among the initiated. And so Astoria sustains its reputation as destination for Souvlaki or its Slovak beer garden, lodged in a space that isn’t quite like Archie Bunker’s Queens and definitely not Truman Capote’s Brooklyn.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the old-worldliness of the neighborhood, but I experience occasional twinges of Brooklyn envy. That borough proved that Manhattan no longer has a presumptive status when it comes to culture, gastronomy or quality of life. Here’s a chance for Astoria to have its own come-uppance. We are a neighborhood of great potential, derelict landmarks (the World’s Fair pavilion, the rapidly disappearing antebellum mansions, the nearby Steinway Mansion), and a muffled desire to somehow combine the two.

The performance space will happen, but the tower will by only stabilized, not restored. In a couple of years, people will watch Shakespeare against a dramatic backdrop and maybe wonder why the tower is “not quite” or “definitely not.”

Vintage photos: Queens Historical Society, The Bowery Boys
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