Dear Council Member Vallone,
I would like to tell you what happened at the Astoria Park swimming pool yesterday (Wednesday) during the record-breaking heat wave.
I arrived at the pool at 5:00 pm and the line was almost to the end of the park. It started moving and within 40 minutes I was at the corner of the building just 3 steps from the entrance gate. At this time the security guards came out and started shouting for us all to go home because the pool is closed. It was 5:45 pm. This was the first sign of an employee I had seen during my 40-minute wait. As the crowd grew restless and shouted back questions the guards ignored everyone and walked back inside the gate, which was then closed. The sentiment going through the crowd was that the pool was open until 8:00 pm and everyone was staying in line hoping to get inside.
At this point I had been in line for more than an hour and called 311 to make a complaint. While I was on the phone to 311, two of the female security guards, now in their street clothes and leaving for the day, were shouting that we were all “fools for hanging around because there was no way we were getting in because the pool was full to capacity.” I shouted (to be heard over the crowd) to her that if people came out won’t people be let in? She addressed me with a racial slur (she is black, I am white) and told me to f**k off and to shut my mouth. This happened while I was on the phone to 311. I asked her name and she looked at me and laughed. The crowd was not happy with her response. I should also mention that while waiting at the top of the stairs we all noticed that a portion of the pool was closed for lap swimming – there were TWO people swimming laps while 500 or more waited to get inside the pool This did not go over well either.
Now it is about 6:15 pm and still no one has come out to address the 500 or so people waiting fairly patiently in line. This entire time the police assigned to the pool were nowhere in sight. The crowd started to become more restless and a couple of shouting/pushing matches broke out but nothing major - yet.
The people waiting in line were very orderly but as time passed more and more “line jumpers” crowded the front gate area while all of the blue-shirted “staff” and the green-shirted “parks and recreation” people talked among themselves or on their cellphones ignoring the questions from the crowd. The employees did nothing to keep these people back from this area and the throng continued to grow. People continued to exit the pool but no one else was allowed entry.
At 6:45 pm the lifeguards started blowing their whistles for everyone to exit the pool. The crowd outside was relieved because we thought everyone inside was going to made to leave so we, who had been waiting for 2 hours, could go to the pool.
As people were ready to exit, the employees still did nothing and soon the waiting area outside the locker rooms was stuffed with people trying to get out. Instead of opening the main gates for people to leave they were being directed to a back exit. I started shouting “Miss, Miss” to the young female employee (blue-shirt) who had been on her cellphone for the past hour and a half. She looked at me and kept talking. I shouted “Sir, Sir” to a green-shirted man. He ignored me. So I started cussing like a sailor screaming as loud as I could that we wanted to know the name of the person who shut down the pool when the Mayor said it was open until 8 pm. My cussing finally got the man’s attention in the green-shirt. He came near the gate and I told him we all wanted to know the person’s name. He gave me a good, long sarcastic look and said “Edgar the Lifeguard”. Then turned around to another employee and said “That bitch thinks she’s gonna get a name - please.” When he turned around I saw his name was Mr. Ward. The employee on the cellphone stared at me while she talked loudly to another employee about how much she hated white people. The Hispanic man waiting in front of me become so angry that he started yelling at her for talking to me like that - he said this made him more mad than not being let into the pool. Now many of us were clamoring for the name of someone in charge, every time the employee would just give us dirty looks or would turn their backs and walk away.
By this time I had made a second call to 311 to make another complaint and I told them the situation was about to get out of hand and that the cops were nowhere, the employees were ignoring us and someone needed to be in charge. I debated whether to call 911, and in retrospect I should have, but really didn’t want to get on the bad side of the crowd by calling in the law. I encouraged everyone to call 311 to file a complaint and to call your office.
Meanwhile we are all standing there watching people leave, the pool is empty and there is still an hour of swim time left. Still the gates remained shut and the employees ignored the crowd. The situation had reached a boiling point.
Someone threw a half-empty bottle of water into the gated area at one of the guards but it hit a little girl in the foot. The mother starts shouting at the crowd and throws the bottle back, which opened up a floodgate of trash, food and plastic bottles being hurled back and forth over the gate. Still no cops. Then POP, POPPOP - just like everyone says it sounded like a firecracker. The people go berserk, half of them trying to get out of there and the other half becoming a mob which attack and loot the swimsuit vendor completely destroying his tables, tent, racks and merchandise. Still no cops.
I stay by the gate, not wanting to get trampled and now very determined to get some names of the inept pool employees. Now the cops arrive. Not the cops assigned to the pool, they are still inside somewhere. About a dozen officers show up and keep telling the 20 or so people still at the gate that THE POOL IS CLOSED and for us to leave. We tell the cops we want names and they just keep trying to get us to leave. POP, POPPOP, POP - cops start scrambling up the hill to the sidewalk and all hell breaks loose again up there. Then some of the pool cops exit the screen door which I assume leads to the pool offices. They didn’t actually come out of the gates though, they stayed inside the pool area. They also ignored the questions about who was in charge.
Many of us continued to try to talk to the employees about who is in charge, trying to get names of people and we were totally ignored. I tried to get the girl’s name who “hates white people” but 3 employees told me they weren’t going to give out ANY names. Finally at about 7:30 pm we managed to talk to Venice Smith, who didn’t want to take any responsibility either when she said “I’m just one of the supervisors.” She did tell me the girl’s name on the cellphone was LaToya Argo. And then refused to answer any other questions.
Now, Mr. Vallone, I understand that the pool had reached capacity but surely this isn’t the first time. Isn’t there a better system that is more fair to the majority?
Ultimately blame has to be placed on the heads of the pool/park staff and the police.. If they had done their job by keeping the crowd more informed in a more positive way and keeping the gate area clear, the situation would not have gotten so out of control. And the police should have been there for crowd control. What are the employees there for? They aren’t lifeguards - they don’t clean the locker area - what is it they do besides sit around (yes, there are chairs there for all the employees to lounge in), talk on their cellphones, hurl racial/rude comments at their customers and collect city wages? Why were we treated like this when Mayor Bloomberg tells us over and over to turn off the air conditioners and “head to the pool”?
I appreciate everything you are trying to do for the residents of Queens after we suffered through the week-long blackout. I hope you can do something about the Astoria Pool situation as well.
(address deleted for posting)