Swim in the East River? Without a wet suit, no adult would do it today, let alone allow their child to take a dip there.
Yet even after the river became the dumping ground of the city’s untreated sewage, lots of people cooled off in its bracing, choppy waters.
Perhaps no group of New Yorkers relied on the river during the hot summer months more than poor tenement kids, who often faced overcrowded public swimming and bathing facilities or preferred the freedom of diving off a city pier with their pals.
One of those tenement kids was Alfred E. Smith (below, in 1877), future governor of 1920s New York. In his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now, he reminisced about his boyhood summer days in the river.
“The East River was the place for swimming, and as early as April and as late as October the refreshing waters of the East River, free entirely at that time from pollution, offered the small boy all the joys that now come to the winter or summer bather on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean,” he wrote.
Smith was born in 1873 in a house on South Street. His river swimming days were in the 1870s and 1880s.
“The dressing rooms were under the dock. Bathing suits were not heard of,” stated Smith.
“In fact, it would have been dangerous to suggest them, for fear you might be accused of setting a fashion that everybody else could not follow.”
That explains not only the many photos that exist from the era of unclothed boys jumping into the river but also George Bellows’ famous 1907 painting, 42 Kids.
“The popular swimming place was the dock at the foot of Pike Street, built well into the river, and there was a rather good-natured caretaker who paid no attention to small boys seeking the pleasure and recreation of swimming in the East River.”
Pike Slip (but no dock) still exists—almost entirely in the grimy shadow of the Manhattan Bridge.
“In the warm summer days it was great fun sliding under the dock while the men were unloading the boatloads of bananas from Central America,” wrote Smith.
“An occasional overripe banana would drop from the green bunch being handed from one dock laborer to another, and the short space between the dock and the boat contained room enough for at least a dozen of us to dive after the banana.”
[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second and fourth images: 1910 and 1912, George Bain/LOC; fifth image: from 1937, via Stuff Nobody Cares About]