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Swim Free or Die

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  • Swim Free or Die

    London Terrace: Swim Free or Die
    by Dean Smith

    The Great London Terrace Rent Strike began in the Fall of 1992 over the swimming pool. Once billed as "the largest apartment complex in the world," London Terrace occupies an entire square city block on the north side of 23rd street between Ninth and 10th avenues. The "Great Briton in Manhattan" opened in 1929 with elegant dining rooms, stores, London bobbies manning the doors and nearly 1,800 apartments. The all-inclusive complex is the size of a small Midwestern town larger in population than Door County, Wisconsin. London Terrace has always been a prestigious Chelsea address, built on what was the estate of Clement Clarke Moore, author of "Twas the Night Before Christmas." It is now an expensive locale for the likes of Deborah Harry, Sam Watterston, and Isaac Mizrahi.
    The London Terrace Towers condominium owners had long sought to renegotiate use of the Olympic-size swimming pool by the London Terrace Garden renters. Kreisel Corporation manages the four Tower buildings and had just completed an expensive renovation of the largest swimming pool in the city. Built in 1931, the pool features six lanes, locker rooms, a balcony, and art deco fixtures. Clarendon Management oversees the rental properties in London Terrace Gardens, the ten interior buildings on 23rd and 24th street. Clarendon had paid a meager $5,500 a year to the Towers for use of the pool for thirty years. Swimmers by the hundreds including myself came from the Gardens. Our site manager, Andrew Hoffman offered $50,000 to keep us in backstrokes but the Towers were looking for more like $150,000. We were barred entry from the pool, a place of sanctuary from the rigors of Manhattan life.
    The London Terrace Tenant's Association called an emergency meeting. Writers, painters, musicians, set designers, fashion photographers gathered in a cramped apartment that belonged to a record album collector. Tom Duane, a City Councilman at the time, gave us a primer on the landlord tenant relationship. "I've met many landlords and not one of them was Mother Theresa. A reduction in services means a reduction in rent." Swimming cuts across a large demographic. One publisher had just taught his child to swim. A teacher took his sister with Alzheimer's. The pool helped people with heart conditions, high cholesterol. I swam laps in the evenings after work. It was great to walk twenty-five yards in my robe to the entrance of the pool in the wintertime, sometimes through snow for a relaxing hour. The Tenant organizers asked for volunteers. I chose publicity.

    After the meeting, I met Marie Giardine, an elderly Italian woman with a bowery toughness about her. I soon discovered the pool had a history. She ran the pool for forty-five years. "I'm mad as hell," she told me. She coached Gertrude "Trudy" Ederle at London Terrace, the first woman to swim the English Channel. Buffeted by waves and plagued by seasickness, Ederle swam the Channel from France to England, breaking the men's record by seven hours. The pool was the first place that a woman's swim team trained in the United States. Florence Chadwick practiced at the pool, the first to swim the English Channel both ways. An original bathing beauty and Olympic gold medalist, Caren Cone trained under Marie's direction for the 1939 World's Fair. Johnny Weismuller trained in the pool. Marie was very upset. "I'm going down to the river and jump in," She told me. "I have to swim. When the police pull me out, I'll tell them I had to swim."

    I created a flyer that featured a school of dolphins under the headline, ARE LONDON TERRACE SWIMMERS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES? I pasted them on 200 floors and in every elevator. Pool access had been cut-off during the time of Hurricane Andrew. Andrew Hoffman wasn't being responsive so I made a placard especially for him: HURRICANE ANDREW DEVASTATES POOL, HUNDREDS SWIMLESS. I left it under the rental office door. Hoffman had been less than cordial to me on a number of occasions including the first time I inquired about an apartment. "Good, another sucker to rip-off," he mumbled underneath his breath to the guy who introduced me to him. He was not returning our calls. Inquiring renters were being shown the pool, real estate ads continue to feature it, but it was off-limits. The swimmers met again at the record collector's and plotted the next move. I suggested a march to the pool.

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