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Against the Current

Swimming in Shit

by ELLIOT SPERBER

New York City’s municipal swimming pools will open their gates, and their blue, chlorinated depths to the public in a few weeks. And while local and even national papers will report the advent of the city’s swimming season, the conduct of the crowds, the (overwhelmingly petty) crimes that tend to arise when so many people are concentrated into such tight confines, and (to a lesser degree) the ongoing privatization of the public realm that is limiting these spaces ever further, as so often happens the real issue will hardly be discussed at all – the real issue being: why is it the case that in a city that is almost entirely built on islands – a city literally surrounded by water – are there so few places to swim and cool off in the first place?

Though billions of dollars were recently spent refurbishing some of the city’s municipal pools, such as the McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, these pools can only accommodate a fraction of the overheated. All the while, the potentially refreshing waters of the Hudson and the East River – among other bodies of water which could radically improve people’s quality of life – are treated less with respect, and more with sewage and toxic runoff. Notwithstanding the occasional, anomalous swimming events (such as the annual Brooklyn Bridge Swim) and the accommodationist efforts of advocates of pools designed to float in the East River and filter the river water – the city’s natural waterways are practically unswimmable. Why?

Anyone who takes a not-so-short view of the city’s (and the world’s) history will quickly recognize the answer to this only apparently beguiling question; the present political-economic system, today’s exploitative, exchange-value economy (capitalism), has deformed the once bucolic harbor and rivers – not to mention the land and its inhabitants – into their present carcinogenic configurations. Indeed, in their descriptions of the region, early European chroniclers (such as Henry Hudson) without fail called attention to not only the salutary beauty of the harbor, and to the abundance of fish, but to the intensity of the sweetness of the air as well.

It takes little to see, and smell, that these conditions no longer prevail. And just as early explorers (blind to the indigenous inhabitants’ cultural practices) erroneously attributed this apparent pristinity to untrammeled nature, they raise a question as important as it is elementary: What is the point of an economy, and of technological prowess, and of society itself? Is it to create good swimming conditions – and, by extension, a healthy, peaceful world? Or is it to destroy these things?

As the planet continues to heat up (limiting places to cool off while creating greater demand for such places), and as the writing drips from the storm-washed walls, it is only becoming more evident that radical, transformative political and economic changes need to be enacted to keep cities, and the rest of the world, from growing ever more unlivable. Radical (and critically rational, as opposed to merely instrumentally rational) political and economic changes cannot take place, however, before a deeper shift occurs – one in which, among other reprioritizations, exchange-value and profit are subordinated (normatively and, ultimately, legally as well) to use-value and the well-being of the people, animals, and habitats of the planet.

As New York City’s municipal pools prepare to open for the summer season, many will no doubt dismiss projects designed to create a genuinely healthy environment, and to renew swimmability to New York City’s waterways, among others, as utopian and misguided. Yet such a project – which demands the correction of vast social and ecological harms – really ought to be regarded as what it in fact is: one of the most crucial social, economic, and practical questions of our time.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com, and on twitter @elliot_sperber