Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Earth & Environmental Sciences


Setha Low

Subject Categories

Geography | Urban Studies and Planning


Bathhouses, Pools, Public space, Swimming, Water


Since 1870, the city of New York has engaged in a project of building and maintaining enclosed sites for municipal bathing, including building floating `river baths' (1870 - 1942), indoor municipal baths (1901 - 1975), eleven enormous outdoor pools built with WPA funds (1936 - present), and outdoor pools of various sizes built under the Lindsay administration (1968 - present). This dissertation explores the changing rationale, over almost 150 years, for the municipal construction of public bathing places in New York City, and the ways in which the physical structures have taken on new social goals, meanings and ideals, both for patrons and for agents of municipal government over time.

Each bathhouse and pool is a physical site that belongs to an infrastructural network, and is also bound up in its relationship to reigning ideas about what public space should encompass and for whom it should provide. Throughout, water has been attributed particular characteristics in order to mediate social life in public space, through programs of building, teaching and regulating. These are theorized in terms of public space and the public life that bring them together as a material, technological, symbolic whole.

The municipal bathing project has resulted in corporeal publics over time, which produce public social life through the bodies of users, both real and ideal, through infrastructures that integrate materials, water, capital and political will. Contests over who belongs to the corporeal public and how it should be managed, based on race, gender and sexuality, class, and age, are mediated through shifting notions of hygiene and wellness in the urban setting.

Research methods include archival research in New York City since 1870, including municipal records, other local archives, newspaper sources, and secondary histories; observation (and some participation) and interviews with the Harlem Honeys and Bears, an African-American senior citizen synchronized swim team; and comparative ethnography of outdoor pools in the summer, including extended participant observation at Kosciuszko Pool and McCarren Pool in Brooklyn, as well as interviews with Parks Department officials.