Volume 80, Number 45 | April 7 - 13, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Photo by Daniel Stein
The front and back of the invitation for the renaming of Hamilton Fish Pool as Sammy “The Nudge” Fleischer Pool in 1993.
Photo by Clayton Patterson
Fleischer with a tribute from fellow strongman Mighty Stefan, a bent No. 10 nail and a torn phonebook.
‘The Nudge’ and the renaming of the Pitt St. pool
Last week’s Clayton’s Page, about Lower East Side photographer Daniel Stein, noted how documentarian Patterson and Stein first teamed up to photograph community activist Sammy “The Nudge” Fleischer. Fleischer was a unique individual, and the story of him and the pool that briefly bore his name is unique, as well.
The pool was constructed at Houston and Pitt Sts. in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration in the already-existing Hamilton Fish Park, named after the state’s 16th governor and former U.S. secretary of state. The Olympic-sized swimming spot was an immediate hit, drawing everyone from immigrants seeking relief from sweltering tenements to the U.S. Swim Team, which practiced in it before the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Yet the once-proud pool had fallen on hard times by the late 20th century. It was none other than “The Nudge” who nudged the Parks Department to restore it, and for his efforts, the pool was renamed for him while he was still alive, which generally isn’t done for New York City parks. In an equally unusual move, after “The Nudge” died, the pool reverted to its original name, Hamilton Fish.
Elsa Rensaa, Patterson’s wife, said Fleischer was an inspiring figure. “In his youth, he did a strongman act, sort of like a carny,” she said. “He had several students who learned from him — like bending metal bars and bending nails with his teeth. I think we’ve still got some of the nails around here somewhere… . He was short and really strong. He grunted a bit, but that was part of the act: You can’t make it look too easy. When he got older, he had a room in the Baruch Houses with crutches, wheelchairs, slings and other supplies that could be recycled that he gave to people who needed them.”
He got his nickname, Rensaa said, “because he bugged people to make them do things. If someone needed a place to live, he would nudge people to give them something. He was always on the lookout for other people. He was really nice. He tended to complain about things that didn’t look right. He was a big complainer. He saw that the pool was looking run-down and disused, and brought it back.”
As for why “The Nudge” was nudged off the pool’s name plaque, Rensaa speculated, “Maybe the Fish family got pissed off.”
A Parks Department spokesperson confirmed that the pool had briefly born the name of the legendary kvetching he-man.
“Yes, the pool was indeed named after Sammy ‘The Nudge’ Fleischer during Betsy Gotbaum’s tenure as Parks commissioner,” said Philip Abramson.
Henry Stern, who was Parks commissioner after Gotbaum, said he thinks the City Council might not have officially changed the pool’s name from Hamilton Fish, but that it was just something Gotbaum did on her own. Stern said, in general, he believes — as Olmsted and Vaux did — that parks shouldn’t be named after people, which gets “political,” but after geographic features, like East River Park or Riverside Park, or neighborhoods, like Morningside Park. He noted that the Pitt St. pool was one of 10 built by former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses during a prolific period of pool construction.
“I don’t remember a conscious decision to change the name,” Stern said of how the pool’s moniker reverted back to Hamilton Fish. “I liked Sammy ‘The Nudge.’ He was a genuine local do-gooder. I’m sure he’s nudging from heaven to get a sign put up for him in Hamilton Fish Park — a bathhouse or a shower room would be suitable. A major Moses pool is a little grand, however.”