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Brookline Reservoir: Bring back the breast stroke

Posted by Your Town  September 14, 2012 11:25 AM

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By Beth Jones

In 1920, the Brookline Baths and Gymnasium Committee reported the obvious: “There is no place in the town where open-air bathing can be had.” The same report concluded, tantalizingly, “The town owns the Boylston Street reservoir and this body of water could be utilized for such a purpose.”
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In these waning dog days of summer almost a century later, it’s quite a notion.

The reservoir, now referred to as Brookline Reservoir Park, was filled to capacity in 1848. It was decommissioned as a water source shortly thereafter and for many years, the annual Brookline Swimming Carnival – a grand day of swimming and diving competitions - was held off a dock on the eastern shore. (The photo on the left is from a 1925 Boston Daily Globe article about the carnival.) Olympic gold medalists appeared, local clubs fought for dominance, throngs of spectators cheered, but a beach and public swimming for residents has remained a mid-summer night’s dream.

The carnival tapered off during World War II, but in August 1947, the issue of public outdoor swimming in Brookline was revived. A proposal by the town Advisory Committee urged, “that the easterly end of the reservoir be roped off, the bottom cleaned and sanded, a beach made, a raft and diving boards installed, a bathhouse erected, and life boats and guards provided.”

Clearly, this never happened.

I am a frequent runner at the reservoir, as well as a Brookline resident, and I’ve often wondered: Why doesn’t leafy, green-minded, fitness-focused, park-proud Brookline have any public outdoor swimming?

From the grassy western end of the reservoir, downtown Boston is visible over the tops of mature trees, and it’s hard not to think of the park as a perfect urban swimming hole.

Cambridge and Boston have their pools, along with the on-going quest by many Boston residents and numerous late night skinny-dippers to include swimming as a sanctioned activity at Jamaica Pond. Newton has Crystal Lake and Gath pool; Winchester has Sandy Beach on Mystic Lake and Milton has Houghton’s Pond. Why did the conversation about Brookline’s “outdoor bathing” sink over the past 65 years?

Certainly economics and real estate play a role. These are tough times and it would be costly to locate and build an outdoor pool, and it would require more than shovels and some sand to convert the old reservoir into a swimmable beach. In addition to liability, construction, parking, and increased noise, “There’s not enough water flowing through it and there’s 160 years of muck down there,” said preservationist and Waterworks Museum board member Dennis DeWitt.

There’s also the neighbors. Based on the vehement neighborhood response to a recent proposal by the high school for two person sculls and a small motorboat to hold practices in the reservoir, I suspect swimming would likely be met with even greater resistance.

But these are not reasons to abandon the idea.

Although many area pools and ponds are managed by the DCR, Brookline’s ownership of the reservoir would permit independent management. This would be particularly beneficial as the DCR is currently struggling against an operating budget that decreased 30.6% from fiscal year 2009-2011.

A significant initial outlay of resources would be required to convert the reservoir, and a fund to cover annual staff costs. The 2012 (non-staff) operating budget of Houghton’s Pond was $40,000, and there is no entrance fee. If the reservoir were to be converted for more active recreation, residency requirements and a fee for use applied to both residents and guests would provide revenue (the model already in use for the indoor Evelyn Kirrane pool, Crystal Lake, and other community-based facilities).

This idea might be simplistic and idealistic, but outdoor swimming is one of summer’s sweetest gifts. The Evelyn Kirrane pool is more than serviceable for fitness swims, lessons, and aqua Zumba. Yet outdoor, vitamin-D absorbing, fresh water swimming can provide an entire day of healthy activities for all ages.

Brookline is believed to be the first municipality in the nation to offer public bathing and pools. It works extraordinarily hard to give residents progressive and creative activities to pursue. It’s time to get the conversation, and the water flowing again.

This item also appeared in the boston.com Green Blog.

Beth Jones is a book author and freelance writer. She is co-author of Three Wishes: A True Story of Good Friends, Crushing Heartbreak, and Astonishing Luck on Our Way to Love and Motherhood.

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