New York City Doesn’t Have to Suffer This Summer – The New York Times

New Yorkers are entering the summer season with no access to the traditional cooling infrastructure — the cold water found in playground sprinklers, public pools, and beaches — which Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared off-limits because of concerns about the coronavirus and the budget. Millions of residents will find themselves on an unpleasant — and potentially deadly — trip back in time to the turn of the 20th century, when summers were always “too darn hot.”

New York bakes under the summer sun; the average high temperature in July and August is above 80 degrees. By the late 19th century, Lower Manhattan created a microclimate effect wherein its densest neighborhoods maintained its highest temperatures, what we call today the urban heat island. Before the widespread adoption of air conditioning in the mid-20th century, New Yorkers could do little to regulate heat and humidity, and most could not afford to leave.

Water, whether from the city’s hydrants, at beaches, the East River (for the hardy), public baths, or, by the 1930s, pools, was the only way to beat the heat. The city’s response to heat tended to be reactive, rather than systematic or proactive — hydrants opened during a period of extreme weather. New Yorkers faced the challenges of summer heat daily, at the private level, and suffered.

The painter George Bellows immortalized East River swimmers in his 1907 painting “Forty-Two Kids,” capturing boys cavorting on a dilapidated wharf. Young swimmers — mostly boys from sweltering slums — braving the fierce tidal currents of New York Harbor were symbols of summer in the city in the early 20th century.

But among those symbols were the environmental inequalities of summer heat and the challenge of safely cooling off — and swimmers died by the hundreds. By the early 1930s, official records chronicled more than 500 drowning deaths every year in city waters.

As one New York Times Times journalist observed during a June 1925 heat wave, “the only relief” in the city “was in water, wherever it could be found.” In 1933, two policemen tried to quell illegal hydrant use on the Upper East Side but were rebuffed — and drenched — by children determined to play in the water. In the infamous heat wave of 1896, the city commissioner of public works instructed employees to open hydrants to lower the temperature of the pavement. In tenement districts, where interior temperatures of stuffy, cramped apartments reached an unbearable 120 degrees, desperate mothers held overheated children in hydrant streams.

People bathing in water meant for street cleaning symbolized the discomfort, health dangers, and inequalities of summer in the city.

The city opened its first free seasonal bath on the East River in 1870, but industrial waste and sewage so polluted New York Harbor that by 1910 health officials suggested a ban on harbor swimming. By 1929, five years before Robert Moses began his pool-building spree as parks commissioner, there were but five public pools, and only one outside Manhattan, in the city. Lacking options, New Yorkers sought relief at regional beaches. In the 1920s, summer heat forced the government to act. Gov. Al Smith announced the creation of the Long Island State Park Commission beach plan during a heat wave in July 1925, after crowds from the city overwhelmed Nassau County beaches and roads. The disadvantages of New York’s muggy summer climate had brought into stark relief the importance of large, accessible beaches.

Robert Moses, who had earlier overseen the creation of the massive Jones Beach complex for Governor Smith, oversaw the creation of the city’s — and the nation’s — largest public cooling infrastructure during the Great Depression. Using Works Progress Administration funds — the equivalent of stimulus funding — he built a network of palatial public pools capable of holding thousands of bathers at a time. He also built 658 playgrounds, most with sprinklers and many with large wading pools; expanded and improved the city’s beach system; and added the first official municipal lifeguard corps. Within five years, drownings had been cut by more than 30 percent, and today there are generally fewer than 20 every year.

Credit…Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

Cooling infrastructure remains essential. In early 2019, NASA scientists announced that the last five years have been the five hottest recorded globally. Excessive heat is a leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States. Climate change is making heat waves more frequent and longer in duration. The urban heat island magnifies these environmental challenges.

With access to the safe, regulated and guarded cooling infrastructure completely shut off, it’s likely that New Yorkers, especially those living in poverty without access to summer homes or trips to faraway beaches, will turn again to the desperate measures of the 1920s — opening hydrants and swimming at unguarded beaches and in dangerous tidal rivers.

It’s also unfortunately likely that some will die from heat stroke or drowning, and that many open fire hydrants will reduce water pressure, threatening firefighters’ ability to put out fires.

So how to avoid the potential of a long, hot and deadly summer? It won’t be easy, but public health experts have advised that it is possible to open beaches and pools if precautions are taken. The city should set up a multi-agency task force to make plans for modified openings of pools and beaches, redeploying hundreds of parks employees from shuttered indoor recreation centers to manage crowds and social distancing. By definition, public pools are very large tanks of heavily chlorinated water (which the C.D.C. says kills the virus), with existing secured entrances, and the ability to easily monitor and reduce the number of users. Public changing rooms can be closed, and outdoor showers installed to minimize the risk of virus transmission outside of the pools.

The city can use the well-established practice of ticketed but free major concerts in Central Park, where fans apply online via a lottery system for free tickets, to allow people to reserve spots on carefully managed beaches. Crowds at Orchard Beach in the Bronx can be reduced by limiting capacity in the large parking lot.

The city can use newly created maps to prioritize neighborhoods that lack park access and need open streets created for recreation and bike commuting. Parks that lack trees should be equipped with canopies to provide shade. And if playgrounds and their sprinklers cannot be safely opened, the city can revive another artifact from 1920, very large showers mounted on light poles that can cool scores of overheated New Yorkers at a time, perhaps on the mayor’s newly instituted open streets.

Kara Murphy Schlichting is an assistant professor of history at Queens College and the author of “New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore.” Adrian Benepe, senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land, was the New York City Parks Commissioner from 2002 to 2012.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email:

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.