McCarren Park Pool Ends Its Run as Music Venue


Published: October 02, 2008

“Welcome to the end of McCarren Pool as we know it,” Thurston Moore, frontman of NYC noise rock legends Sonic Youth, said to a packed McCarren Park Pool as the sun went down on Aug. 30. The band dove into two new songs, starting their set as the last act to ever grace McCarren’s stage.

For the past three summers, McCarren Park Pool—drained, decrepit and graffiti-ridden—has been home to the arts-loving youth of Brooklyn, along with long-time residents, tourists and commuting suburbanites. All would head in droves to the gritty, empty pool for concerts (many of them free) and film and theatre events (all of them free). But for the past 25 years, McCarren Park Pool has been a battlefield for rioting locals with conflicting hopes for the pool’s future: destroy it, restore it or preserve it as a performance space. Now, once and for all, McCarren Park Pool will be shutting its doors to bands and opening them up to swimmers when construction begins to convert it from a performing arts venue back to a community pool next summer.

Although the Sonic Youth show was one of the pool’s “expensive” Live Nation shows ($35), the pool has become famous over the past three years for its free concerts on Sundays. Since 2006, NYC-concert production company JellyNYC has brought New York’s tat-and-Ray Ban crowd out for The Pool Parties at McCarren Park Pool—the concerts came complete with dodgeball tournaments and a Slip ‘n’ Slide, and have brought acts like The Breeders, The Hold Steady, TV on the Radio, MGMT, M.I.A., Blonde Redhead and Yo La Tengo to Brooklyn youth free of charge. The Pool Parties have regularly drawn audiences as big as 10,000; the pool’s 7,000-person capacity often left many listening from outside.

Now that the parties have been busted up, in complete and utter “Do-It-Yourself” (DIY) retaliation JellyNYC is not only keeping the Pool Parties at an alternate location in Williamsburg, but taking them national to four other cities that capture Williamsburg’s same artistic, tight-knit vibes and have similar alternative concert spaces. The four newly chosen cities include Portland, Ore., Austin, Nashville and San Francisco—Sarah Hooper, co-manager at JellyNYC, says that both concert spaces and amazing talent have been confirmed for all four cities, and will be announced soon.

“Pool parties” without an any sort of pool as the backdrop may seem hard to imagine, but Hooper and JellyNYC beg to differ. “We’re looking at the Pool Parties as a state of mind,” she said. “It’s about throwing the best backyard BBQ ever, gone wild. All your friends, great local food, amazing bands, beer, Slip ‘n’ Slides, other crazy games that come out of nowhere–all in a Sunday afternoon series that is so much fun it turns into a meeting place for you and all of your friends.” For the Brooklyn shows, JellyNYC’s hopes are set high on the Williamsburg waterfront.  The company’s founder, Alexander Kane, claims that it will live on in Williamsburg, “[Even] if I have to run for mayor myself.”

The overwhelming consensus is that McCarren’s new design will best serve the community, but many Pool Party regulars and Brooklyn bloggers have noted that this marks the end of an era in Williamsburg. “Just as bohemian culture in Greenpoint and Williamsburg is having its most viable, celebratory moment, it is being bulldozed out of the neighborhood,” Ben Sisario wrote in an Aug. 1 New York Times article. “Rows of gleaming luxury condominiums have sprung up alongside the park,” Sisario said, “and the tattoo-and-skinny-jeans set is getting priced out.” The new 4,800-square-foot concert space in McCarren Park may provide JellyNYC with booking opportunities, but it will by no means fit the 7,000 fans who have filled the pool in summers past.

Perhaps just as important as salvaging the events themselves is insuring a future for the distinct subculture that thrived at McCarren Park for three years. A diverse crowd always wrapped around Lorimer Street before the Pool Parties: a bleach-blonde fashionista with gauged ears, a group of swanky 20-something tourists from Madrid, a middle-aged hippie-couple carrying their converse-clad toddlers on their shoulders, a group of FCLC kids having a mid-summer meet-up. Many returned each week solely for the unique people watching opportunities. The pool’s gritty aesthetic seemed to match that of its eclectic, bohemian crowd perfectly and was well-documented at each show by a slew of NYC photographers.

Despite heavy stage-side branding and corporate sponsorship to pay for the cost of the shows ($750,000), the DIY aesthetic flourished, and not just visually: “It was nice to see that people from the community could use it as a place to share their ideas with others,” said Jason Bergman, a junior at Northeastern University and JellyNYC’s official Pool Parties photographer. This summer, various environmental groups tabled regularly, and “Brooklyn for Barack” registered voters every Sunday.

McCarren Park Pool was last used as a pool in 1983.  The following year, tension escalated between long-time Greenpoint residents and the encroaching youth population over increasing drug use and violence in the neighborhood.  No one was willing to foot the $40 million bill to restore McCarren until summer 2005, when event planner Ron Delsner paid for a clean-up of the basin and organized the first performing arts event (a series of experimental dance performances) at the gritty, abandoned pool, marking the beginning of the pool’s short-lived history as a performance space.

According to, a Sept. 9 decision by the Landmarks Preservation Commission means that the new plans for McCarren—including an ice skating rink, pools, cafés and a community center with an indoor performance space—have been approved. Mayor Bloomberg has allotted $50 million to the 72-year old pool’s restoration, and the pool is slated to open in 2011.