Three Hills

Ann Buttenwieser on Revitalizing the New York City Waterfront

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We asked author Ann Buttenwieser three questions about her new book, The Floating Pool Lady: A Quest to Bring a Public Pool to New York City’s Waterfront, and her experience bringing innovative public projects to New York Harbor.

1. What is your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

My favorite anecdote from my research is how I discovered my topic, the history of New York City’s floating baths, while up to my ankles in rat excreta and decades of dust at the Battery Maritime building in lower Manhattan. Here sat over a century of forgotten and derelict file cabinets containing aging maps and flaking handwritten letters and reports. Who would know that I would find pure historical gold and my obsession for the next decade in this unlikely place?

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

My first two books were purely historical studies. The real challenge with this, my third book, was learning how to write a narrative that is part history, based on found and existing documents, and part autobiography. The challenges were many. Where should I stop being a historian and just be “Ann”, the protagonist of a decades-long battle to return a floating pool to New York Harbor? How should I deal with my personal relationships with people who are still alive? Where and when should I include my feelings when I was the one making history?

3. How do you wish you could change the field of History?

My writing of history was based on finding endangered documents not in a library but in a basement. A renowned urban historian sent me to this basement knowing the city sought a long-term renter for the property. These records, with historical but no monetary value, would incur an unbudgeted expense to the city to curate and were to be discarded. Fortunately, my research enabled me to get the word out. Much of this material has been preserved pending eventual curation. I would like to see municipalities and historians work more closely together to save valuable research documents that are in danger of being consigned to the dumpster.

*Featured photo by Joe Pizzio.


Ann L. Buttenwieser is an urban planner and urban historian. She has taught at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. She is the author of Governors Island and Manhattan Water-Bound.

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