Brooklyn, New York
Building city infrastructure is a daunting task. From roads to sewer systems, parks to public squares, it can cost billions and take years to put together even a modest project.
It’s even more difficult when city hall is asked to commit public money to an unproven idea or scheme that isn’t certain to work. Often it takes a small group of committed citizens to bang their heads against the wall repeatedly, beg for money, lose sleep, and pester anyone who will listen until they make their vision a reality.
That’s the short version of how the High Line came to be in New York City. The idea of turning a disused elevated railway into a walking path and garden was initially seen as impractical, unaffordable, and just plain dumb. The city government wanted it torn down.
Today, the line is fully developed, funds its operation through donations, and on most days is packed with people. Cities all over the world look to it as a model for how they might redevelop derelict areas.
It may be that + Pool is now following a similar pattern.
In 2010, a group of four designers — Dong-Ping Wong, Oana Stanescu, Archie Lee Coates IV, and Jeffrey Franklin — sat down together in a coffee shop. Dong-Ping Wong pitched an idea to build a pool right inside the river that would act like a Brita filter, constantly removing pollutants from the water. The result would be safe, swimmable water within the walls of the pool.
The difficulty, of course, is that few New Yorkers want to swim in the East River. Officials say it is technically clean enough to swim in, yet the city still pumps billions of gallons of raw sewage into it every year. A few brave souls take the plunge now and then, but for most people, it’s not an enticing prospect.
They envision the pool being built in the shape of a plus sign, with each section used for a distinct swimming environment: laps, sports, kids, and lounging. They spent about a month on the design. “And at the end, we were like, Ugh, man, that was a lot of work,” said Coates. Then it got harder.
They hadn’t realized that the technology of constantly filtering polluted water to make a legally swimmable pool didn’t exist yet. Then they got a call from Arup, a global engineering firm, offering help.
More help arrived. Columbia University offered assistance developing the filter design. Joshua David, co-founder of the High Line, joined their board. Jay Z tweeted about it.
“In the beginning, there’s not much to lose. Then you get a little deeper in and a little deeper in and the more deep you go you’re like, Wow, this is it, we’re going for it,” said Coates.
In 2013, the team spent three months creating their second Kickstarter project to build a floating lab in the river to test different water filtration methods for the final pool. They asked for $250,000. They brought in $273,114.
They used the money to perfect the water filtration system. They now say they are confident it works.
“We always knew that that’s what it would take, that it wouldn’t necessarily be easy. You start to get really invested in precedents and stories of other people’s adventures in trying to make these things happen, big and small,” said Coates.
But five years later, + Pool still doesn’t exist. The designers have applied for city approvals, but those haven’t been granted yet. They’re also still looking for the right place to build the pool.
And they want to create it as a piece of public infrastructure, not a private business. Right from the beginning, they didn’t see + Pool as a money-making venture. They want the pool to be free to use.
Kara Meyer joined the organization recently to help build the formal non-profit and fundraising part. She says the project has always been about the people they’re making it for. “It really propelled because people came around it, the community came around it, and that’s why we’re here today. We’re building our city together.”
The good news is that New Yorkers are impatient for them to get the thing done. “We got two or three emails today, one last night from a parent and a kid saying, ‘Hey, where is it? Like, get your shit together guys.”
+ Pool is just one of several projects that make up the Field Notes section of the Beginnings issue of Frontier Magazine. Buy a copy at our online shop today to read the rest, along with other content found only in print.