Tue, Jul 24, 2012
With summer well underway, the Brownsville Recreation Center offers a respite from the torrid weather, especially for its indoor pool. Yet for many residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood, this oasis has been fouled by oppressive air, musty odor and murky pool water.
For more than four years, the pool at the center has not had a working exhaust fan to remove the moist and chlorinated air, triggering a torrent of problems, including growth of black mold on the ceiling and walls that has staff members concerned.
“They tell us everything is fine,” said Donna Gray, the 65-year-old deputy center manager. “They come – the health department – and they say, ‘Oh, the water is perfect, the chemistry, everything is perfect.’” But Gray sees the conditions at the pool far from ideal: “When you come out of the water and you see all this mold, broken this, that, and it’s dark, I thought they would say we have to close the pool.”
According to an inspection report in October 2011 by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Brownsville center was cited for failing to correct the violations from a previous inspection a month earlier, which had indicated poor sanitizing and filtration of the pool water.
Anna Gessono, 69, stopped swimming at the pool a year ago. “Every time I went in the water my hair would fall out,” she said. “So, I stopped going and my hair stopped falling.”
Gray does not know why renovations at the pool have not been done, especially when the city Parks Department has been promising them for years. “They tell us the money is there and it’s going to happen,” said Gray, “but the outcome is the same, we’re still waiting.”
According to a spokesperson for the Parks Department, construction of a new ventilation system is slated to begin this fall. The $1.49 million project is being funded by the City Council and is expected to take a year to complete. But this promise has been met with caution, even skepticism, by people at the pool who have heard similar offers made in the past and never fulfilled.
The combination of moisture and chlorine in the air has affected the electrical wiring throughout the facility causing emergency lights to fail and the security alarm system to short circuit activating false alarms that require the system to be temporarily shut down for repairs. The duct-work and vent registers at the pool are rusted and corroded, and the build-up of rust on metal doors make them hard to close. Peeling paint from the ceiling is raining down on the pool.
Alberta Ellis, 69, swims two or three times a week with a senior citizens’ group. “I like swimming because it’s a social thing for me,” she said, “but I don’t like the idea of the roof leaking on my head or something dripping on me from the ceiling.”
Gray has been at the recreation center for 25 years. When she took office as deputy center manager five years ago, only one of the three exhaust fans was functioning, and just barely. Less than a year later, it stopped working. Since then – nearly five years ago – the center has not had the proper equipment to remove and circulate air at the pool. Neither has it had a filtration pump to automatically sanitize the pool water requiring manual testing and treatment of it on an hourly basis, and every half-hour on days where the indoor air temperature rises above 80 degrees. But according to the center’s records, the chlorine and pH levels at the pool are only checked two or three times a day during the week. On weekends, they often go unchecked.
The exhaust fans for the pool also serve the men’s and women’s locker rooms that, in addition, have mold growth caused by a build-up of condensation from the showers. “My clean-up crew, if I have one, has to go into the locker room and pour bleach to kill the mold,” said Gray. “And this is done at least two times per week.”
According to Gray, numerous phone calls and complaints have been made over the years to the city Parks Department about the conditions at the pool, but have yielded few results. Three years ago, the department sent a free-standing portable fan in an effort to ventilate the pool area. The results have been negligible. During pool hours, an outside door is kept open to help remove the stagnant air.
Twelve-year-old Joel Cordero has been coming to the pool for the last three years and looks forward to swimming with his friends. “It always feels good to be at the pool,” he said, “but sometimes it gets hot.”
Poor ventilation in moist environments can be a serious health concern. A study by the Institute of Medicine, an independent, nonprofit organization, found evidence linking exposure to indoor mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms and asthma.
Gray said that renovations at the pool were promised last year and postponed twice. But according to an email from a spokesperson for the city Parks Department, they were never planned. “Renovations are based on need and funding.”
The center first opened in 1953 as the Brownsville Boys Club and two years later re-opened as the Brownsville Recreation Center, part of the city Parks Department. In 1996, general repairs were made to the center with $400,000 in funds from the then-Borough President Howard Golden. In 1998, with funding from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s office, there was a $265,000 reconstruction of the heating and air conditioning equipment; the roof was also repaired and security lighting installed with another $1,060,000 in mayoral funds. The last renovation in 2008 – with $1.5 million allocated by City Councilman Charles Barron, and additional funding from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office – was for the improvement of the playground.
The 84,375-gallon pool is 75-feet in length and 30-feet wide. It has a maximum depth of eight-feet and has a capacity for 90 bathers. On an average day, the pool sees upward of 100 adults and children.
Jose Santos, 61, has been a lifeguard at the center since 1986. He is hoping the renovations will come soon, but is also worried for the neighborhood’s young people if the pool must be closed during the repairs. “They’re going to suffer,” he said. “Where will they go?” he asked. “Outside in the neighborhood and shoot?”
Brownsville is an impoverished neighborhood with one of the city’s highest crime and violence rates. In 1991, when the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers occurred, there was great concern at the center of a ripple effect throughout the neighborhood. The director at the time, Greg “Jocko” Jackson, ordered the center to remain open.
“We kept our building open all day and all night,” recalled Santos. “We needed to keep the kids off the streets and in this safe environment.”
Jackson who recently died of a heart attack, was the director of the center for 15 years and was a neighborhood, even citywide, legend. A native and resident of Brownsville, he understood the community well and the importance of giving the youth a place to go that was away from the lure of drugs and violence that plagues the neighborhood.
In a eulogy to Jackson, the Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, said, “When you wanted something done in the community, he was the man.”
Jackson’s unrelenting and unsuccessful effort to get funding for renovations at the center was an ongoing battle that lasted until his death. According to Gray, he reached out to Markowitz who said, “‘Jocko, I will do this for you- yes, those kids need this.’” But nothing was ever done. Gray said Jackson would get them to the door and then it stopped. “It troubled him terribly to see other centers flaunt state-of-the-art facilities when we’re struggling,” she said.
Gray is not getting her hopes high that renovations will begin this fall. “They’ve told us many times before they were coming and nothing happened,” she said. But this time Gray said contractors seem to be coming and going. “So, there’s a promise,” she said, “maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Postscript: Effective August 4, 2012, the pool at the Brownsville Recreation Center will be closed “to begin a much needed transformation/facelift,” according to the NYC Parks Department website on July 30, 2012.