Lap Swimming with the German Couchsurfers

couchsurfers in front of red hook pool
August 27, 2015

I brought my Couchsurfers along for the night owl lap swim. 

Kristina, in the middle, is into swimming. Her friends Bastian and Felix, not so much. They hung out on the pool deck while Kristina and I did laps. She has way better technique than I do.

Strangers in the background is a distracting element in a shot, but significant in context of this moment. Taking the photo, we all noticed the kids eating on the steps1234. And that all the people sitting on the steps were black.

The surfers are German, which they're aware of. All four of us are also white. Walking through Bed-Stuy, it's obvious5. Folks notice. That's something the surfers said they hadn't really felt before. 

I do the best I can to explain the USA to the foreigners who crash at my place. Today it meant talking on the why and how of feeling white and the history of housing policies and segregated neighborhoods and the residual effects. We traveled through Brooklyn from Bed-Stuy to Red Hook on the way to the pool from my apartment. There was plenty to observe and discuss along the way.

German surfers I've hosted have all been attuned to group dynamics and power disparities and their consequences, articulate and candid in discussing them.

The Red Hook pool, situated near public housing, is filled with black people by day. They're the residents of this neighborhood. However, they're just standing around and splashing in the water, not swimming. Of those doing the swimming laps at night, almost all are white. Like us. There's just one regular there who's black. Why there aren't more black lap swimmers is, like the present existence of poor black neighborhoods, also a residual effect of history. 

Brentin Mock, a writer I once worked with (under our real names and some fake ones too) while creatively directing Deek Magazine addresses theories on why in a worth-reading article from 2014

It's a different situation at the St. John's rec center pool where I swim when it's not the summer. I'm often the only white lap swimmer there. Most everyone else is black, and most of those folks are Afro-Caribbean immigrants. There's a large population in Crown Heights, where the pool is located. I don't have data to back it up, so I'm going to wildly speculate that growing up on an island means proximity to water, which would probably lead to learning how to swim in it? I've not been to any other pool in NYC that has so many black swimmers.

  1. NYC distributes food for kids under 19 at city pools in the summer
  2. 19.8% of Brooklyn's residents live with food insecurity
  3. Half of NYC is living near poverty
  4. The poverty rate is increasing
  5. My neighborhood in Bed-Stuy is 90%+ black.

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