The high today is 82 degrees, but there is a cool breeze rustling through the block party-esque atmosphere. Wafting through the air is some reggae and upbeat oldies music.
Park Avenue is blocked off from traffic with orange cones: people jog while listening to their iPods, families rollerblade and ride bikes, couples with strollers or happily panting dogs walk leisurely, smiling and enjoying the nice weather.
Welcome to Summer Streets, New York City’s approach to encourage people to take advantage of public space and options for healthy recreation. It is also part of a greening initiative that looks for people to experience firsthand the merits of more sustainable transportation.
Here at the Grand Central Terminal and Park Avenue viaduct, reserved three consecutive August Saturdays for walkers, runners, bikers and people-watchers, the environment is a joyful one.
People of all ages crowd the attraction that has been dubbed the “dumpster pool,” literally a dumpster diverted by local design firm Macro-Sea from a life of holding trash to providing a refreshing dip to all comers.
About 40 people circulate through the lounge area at a time, with more on the outskirts on the viaduct. Loungers walk around uninhibitedly in casual summer dress, with some in bathing suits and shorts or towels, or barelegged.
Macro-Sea Executive Director David Belt nonchalantly observes the goings-on in dark sunglasses and an indigo button-down shirt. Casually, he shares the background of the event.
A country club junkyard
Last summer, interested in repurposing materials and space, Macro-Sea turned a Brooklyn junkyard into what Belt calls a “country club,” complete with dumpster pools, lounge chairs and a bocce court.
Coincidentally, one of the women from the neighborhood that would come swimming, Belt says with a laugh, turned out to work for the Department of Transportation. She suggested they work with the Department of Health and try to make it a part of Summer Streets.
“Last year the challenge was to do it really cheaply and quickly,” he says. “This year it was to try to make fully mobile pools, to create environments that could pop up anywhere.”
Belt asserts that the dumpster pools could translate into a compact, affordable way for cities that “can’t afford a whole park [to] just give kids a swim party in an unexpected place.”
Admission to the pool is contingent upon a blue, green or red bracelet, signifying a swimming time slot and given free at the entrance.
The pool has a 30 person capacity, and those waiting to swim can relax on the comfortable orange lounge chairs or get into gear in the blue and white vertically-striped changing rooms.
Swimming in trash?
Interestingly, the “dumpster” aspect of “dumpster pool” isn’t causing any controversy today. Unlike last year’s refurbished dumpsters, the one in use during Summer Streets never stored garbage.
Jessica, 29, read about the dumpster pool in Time Out New York. While at first she deemed it gross, when she heard the dumpster is new, she thought the idea was cool and unique. “I want to be able to tell people I swam in a dumpster,” she says. “And they’ll say, ‘What do you mean?’”
Jessica’s husband Edgar, 35, knew about last year’s event because the couple lives in Brooklyn. When asked what the pool was like, he responds, “Kinda cold.”
Edgar, while supporting the environmental aspect of the dumpster pool, disagrees with Jessica.
“I like the idea of reuse, and I think that a brand-new dumpster defeats the purpose,” he says.
“I think the original event was more interesting [because the dumpster was recycled]. It’s an ideological thing. This could be any pool. Though maybe I’m idealizing it since I didn’t actually go.”
Belt says, however, that it was reused in its own way and didn’t require new materials for construction. “[It] wasn’t built for this purpose,” he explains. “It was sitting around as a surplus dumpster in the dumpster lot […] and we grabbed it before it went out into the field.
“Yeah, people are a little bit disappointed that it wasn’t a used dumpster, but I don’t think the city would have let me do it.”
Thirty-five year old Midtown resident Danielle and her daughter Aminah, 8, stand over the viaduct railing, watching the people in the pool. Sporting red bracelets, they wait to swim.
“It looks cool!” Aminah exclaims.
Oasis in the city
In addition to being a reused dumpster, the pool has a lot more going for it in the eco-sense. While currently the pools plug into a regular 110-volt outlet, Macro-Sea is actively working to create a design where the pools’ pumps and filters would be generated by solar power.
Belt cites two particular environmental benefits of using the pools. The first is that they break down to an eight-foot module, which makes transportation easy and infrastructure economical.
Second is “the fact that we’re using something as common as a 30-yard dumpster that you can find anywhere, so really anybody can do it. And then when it’s done, it can go back to being a dumpster,” he laughs.
Hilda, 36, says that more than the notion of eco-friendliness, she viewed it as fun to attend with her husband and two young children.
“The atmosphere is very liberating,” she remarks. “How often do you get to swim in a pool with the MetLife building in the background?”
As to whether Belt is happy with how the dumpster pool, integral to the appeal and intrigue of this year’s Summer Streets, turned out, he says he’s loving it.
“I just think it’s so crazy that New York City let me put them right here on Park Avenue in front of Grand Central.” He smiles. “[Seeing people in bathing suits and sitting in lounge chairs] takes the pretentiousness of Park Avenue down a few notches.”
It certainly, certainly does.