Dominick Calsolaro

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Will it be 'everybody out of the pool?'

Published on 11/9/2010 by the Times Union written by by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist

ALBANY -- In its heyday, Public Bath No. 2 was an oasis for the South End's working poor, many of whom returned home each evening to dreary flats without hot running water after toiling long hours at backbreaking jobs.

The Fourth Avenue bathhouse -- the last still standing of three built throughout the city at the turn of the 20th century -- allowed residents of the crowded immigrant neighborhood to shed the grime of industrialization in the relative comfort of its amply heated water.

Now, the 105-year-old building serves mostly as little-known $1-a-day swimming pool. According to the city, its costs now far outweigh its use.

And with the city facing a $23 million budget deficit, it's a luxury slated to close at year's end, prompting boosters for the facility to rally Monday night to urge the Common Council to restore the pool's funding to Mayor Jerry Jennings' proposed 2011 budget.

"Our kids deserve this bathhouse," said Willie White, executive director of the community group AVillage, who said he learned to swim at the bath as a child. "We will stand up behind anybody who wants to fight to keep this bathhouse open."

Unlike the recent closure of the Washington Avenue YMCA, which primarily affected more affluent downtown neighborhoods, the bathhouse is one of few public amenities in the South End, one of the city's poorest enclaves where residents have long decried the lack of a community center.

"This is where it's needed," Councilman Dominick Calsolaro told the roughly 50 people crowded inside the pool's lobby.

The pool costs nearly $223,000 to run annually, which -- among other things -- pays for three lifeguards, a custodial worker and a $70,000 utility bill to keep the 2,500-square-foot pool at a tropical 77 degrees all year despite a balky heater and leaks that drain some two inches of heated pool water into the sewers daily.

But finding the money to save a pool -- one the city says is used by between just 20 and 30 people a day -- may prove difficult amid plans to lay off roughly 34 city employees, eliminate arts funding, close a Pine Hills community center, deeply cut Albany's summer jobs program for teens and drain its reserves of $11 million.

The annual price tag doesn't include a bare minimum of at least $90,000 in capital improvements needed to keep the facility running in the near future, said Recreation Commissioner John D'Antonio.

And that figure doesn't include a new ventilation system to keep the steam from rusting the building's metal beams -- a malady that D'Antonio said helped kill Public Bath No. 3 on Central Avenue two decades ago. Council members were pelted with falling water drops Monday as they toured the aging complex. In the boiler room, city facilities supervisor John Lasch pointed to a steady stream of water trickling from a broken hot-water tank that heats the showers. Instead, it was dribbling into a rust-colored pool in a low corner.

Then there's the matter of jobs.

Calsolaro has said he believes the council can find the money in the budget to cover the pool's operating costs and most, if not all, of the borrowing to make the initial improvements.

But D'Antonio said that if the money can be found, it would be best used to keep people in their jobs -- especially, he said, because the city is working to open the 10-year-old indoor pool at the Arbor Hill Community Center more hours during the day.

"I don't take pride in closing facilities," D'Antonio said. "We've been Band-Aiding it and Band-Aiding it -- only because we want to keep it open."

But the Arbor Hill pool, while newer, isn't in the South End, Calsolaro and others noted.

Bath No. 2 was built in 1905 in conjunction with a now-closed firehouse next door and South Station, the Arch Street police outpost formerly known as Division II, said Anthony Opalka, the city historian. It's now part of the South End-Groesbeckville Historic District.

Opalka said the city's first bath, Bath No. 1, was built between 1901 and 1904 on Broadway near Quackenbush Square, and the third, Public Bath No. 3, was completed in 1909 at Central Avenue and Ontario Street.

Bath No. 1 was razed to make way for Interstate 787 and its associated highway ramps, Opalka said. Bath No. 3 survived until 1989, when then-Mayor Thomas M. Whalen III ordered it permanently closed, citing an estimated $900,000 repair bill.

"The baths were really something out of the Progressive Era," said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, a former city commissioner and county historian. "It was very difficult for working people, especially those who worked in very physical jobs, to get clean and stay clean."

McEneny recalled once urging then-Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd to change the names.

"I thought people would accept them more if they had a modern name, like swimming pools," McEneny said. "Corning rejected it. He said that they were the baths, as in classic Rome and Greece. That was the meaning of the baths: The great social centers."

Reach Carleo-Evangelist at 454-5445 or at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com