I wrote the previous post, and then I talked to Kirsten Britt, President of the Sayre-Morris Advisory Council, and I realized I needed to write something else.
What’s needed to reopen Sayre-Morris Pool are not repairs to the pool itself. What’s needed is a new roof that will be safe for those beneath it. Whether they are learning to swim, training to be a lifeguard, doing aqua-aerobics, or participating in any number of non-water-based activities the Sayre-Morris rec center offers: After-school sports. Homework support. Black History Month performances. Dance programs. Senior programs. Meal distribution.
When it rains, it rains in the rec center’s second-floor girls’ bathroom. The roof issues may be worst over the pool, but it’s only a matter of time before they close down the rest of the building too.
The struggle to save Sayre-Morris is not just about the pool. It’s about every form of recreation, safe haven, and community that building holds – for West Philly, and for the city as a whole. I live in South Philly, and when I trained to be a lifeguard in 2013, Sayre-Morris was the closest place for me to do so. If we lose Sayre-Morris – one of only three remaining indoor public pools – we will lose many more of our glimmering, life-sustaining Philadelphia public pools in the decades to come, because there will not be lifeguards to staff them.
Kirsten and the Sayre-Morris Advisory Council are meeting regularly now, strategizing and organizing about how to cut through endless bureaucratic red tape to get a new roof on the building and reopen the pool and playground. They welcome support and participation from all over.
Had my first letter in the paper yesterday (see photo — I did not realize, before now, that the Inquirer‘s letters exist in the physical paper only). Wish it were for a happier reason. Maybe I will write another when West Philly community leaders succeed in getting Sayre-Morris Pool reopened.
Because this pool, of all pools, must not close. Closing it would be a disservice to its neighborhood, yes. But it’s not just about West Philly. We let this pool close, and we’re going to lose all of them, in the years to come, because we’ll never have enough lifeguards to staff them.
All of Philly needs Sayre-Morris fixed up and reopened. Everyone who wants to swim in a Philly pool come some future July or August – whether in West Philly or beyond – needs Thelma Nesbitt, and the other instructors she and Larry Brown have trained, hollering at young people about how to swim and how to save lives.
Thank you, West Philly, for leading this fight, for all of us.
(Anyone in North Philly thinking about doing the same for Hartranft?)
I’d already set out to swim in every public pool in Philadelphia the afternoon I came across the slides at Athletic. If I hadn’t yet, that might have been the day I decided to.
“There’s a pool with SLIDES,” I practically shouted at my coworkers the next day (I was a lifeguard at the time), showing them the photos I’d taken from every angle.
We worked 25 blocks due south. And we knew the rules. No balls. No games. No rafts or floats. No diving, flipping, or dunking. We understood where a lot of the rules came from, and we knew their intent was to keep everyone safe. But it was always a little disheartening to blow our whistles at parents with their kids on their backs. “You can’t be on someone’s back,” we’d call across the pool, watching a combination of confusion, annoyance and resignation wash across their faces.
But that afternoon, at a playground in North Philly, I saw a pool with built-in fun. What other amazing opportunities might our extensive pool network hold? I had to find out.
Spoiler alert: Athletic is the only pool with slides.
But other pools have their features. And since we’ll all be trying to keep cool in the days ahead, this seems like a good time to mention them.
Slides: Athletic (26th and Master, North Philly)
Grass to lie on within the pool fence:
- Kelly (next to the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park — see here for this year’s hours)
- a little bit at Marian Anderson (17th and Catharine, South Philly)
Particularly peaceful grass to lie on just outside the pool fence:
- Cobbs Creek (in Cobbs Creek Park between Locust and Spruce, West Philly)
- Lackman (Bartlett St. and Fenwick Rd., Far Northeast)
Lounge chairs and umbrellas:
- Francisville (18th and Francis, North Philly)
- Kingsessing (50th between Chester and Kingsessing — make a contribution to this grassroots pool beautification effort here)
- Lawncrest (Comly and Rising Sun, Northeast Philly)
- Lee (43rd and Haverford, West Philly)
- Marian Anderson
- O’Connor (26th and South, Center City)
- Pleasant (Chew and Slocum, Mount Airy)
- Bridesburg (Richmond between Buckius and Ash, Bridesburg)
- Hank Gathers (25th and Diamond, North Philly)
- Kendrick (Ridge and Roxborough, Roxborough)
- Samuel (Gaul and Tioga, Port Richmond)
Stairs into the water (not an exhaustive list):
- 12th and Cambria (North Philly)
- Athletic (with handrail)
- Cobbs Creek (with handrail)
- Cione (Huntingdon and Aramingo, Port Richmond)
- Cherashore (near 10th and Olney, Fern Rock)
- J. Finnegan (with handrail – 69th and Grovers, Southwest)
- Kendrick (with handrail)
- Kingsessing (with handrail)
- Lonnie Young (Ardleigh and Woodlawn, Germantown)
- Mander (with handrail – 33rd and Diamond, East Fairmount Park)
- Mitchell (Chesterfield Rd. and Whitehall Ln., Far Northeast)
- C.B. Moore (22nd and Sedgley, North Philly)
- Morris Estate (16th and Chelten, West Oak Lane)
- F.J. Myers (58th and Chester, Southwest Philly)
- O’Connor (with handrail)
- Piccoli (with handrail – Castor and Bristol, Juniata)
- Stinger Square (32nd and Reed, South Philly)
Chair lifts: Many pools have these, but winters can wreak havoc on their functionality. Two I’ve confirmed are working this year are at Bridesburg and Murphy (3rd and Shunk, South Philly). Let me know what others you know are too! Parks and Rec also runs a year-round indoor pool for people with disabilities at Carousel House (Belmont and Avenue of the Republic, Fairmount Park/West Philly).
Changing rooms (more than a bathroom, which many other pools also have)
A note on links: Info for all Parks and Rec sites is available at https://www.phila.gov/parks-rec-finder. But when a facility has an active Facebook page, that’s often a more up-to-date source for pool hours and info, so I’ve linked to those when available.
What other features matter to you?
I was getting my hair done when the conversation turned, as it does, to whether we knew anyone 16 or older, who could swim, and might like a job this summer making $13.65 an hour. Tamika, who works next to my hair guy Michael, realized such lifeguarding could be perfect for her nephew. As I sent her info on how he could apply (it’s not too late — do you know someone too?), Tamika wondered why her sister hadn’t encouraged this, when she’s been working at Sacks for years. At which point I asked if they also had a sister at Ford, and it turns out that yes, one of the best public pool lifeguards in South Philly, who I worked with back in 2013, is related to Tamika the stylist, who I’ve been chatting with on a regular basis for years. I loved this almost as much as the time I realized that the mother of one of my co-workers at O’Connor Pool had been my next door neighbor for seven years.
It’s almost pool season, which among all its many, many, many benefits reminds us just how connected we all are.
Bridesburg’s rebuilt pool kicks off the season on Monday. Other blue beauties will come alive over the two weeks that follow. Parks and Rec has not yet posted the opening schedule, but I can’t gripe about that when they’re bringing back long-closed Swim for Life camps (as well as all the pop-ups and free fitness classes of the past few years), publicizing the swim lessons every pool offers to their neighbors, and launching a swimwear drive so hopefully none of us ever again sees a kid gazing longingly at the water because they don’t have the right gear to get in.
I’ve been in Baltimore this past week, where they open a smattering of their pools – just on weekends – starting around Memorial Day. Baltimore’s city-wide pools charge $2 admission and are really quite nice (photos of Druid Hill, Patterson, and Roosevelt Park Pools below). I don’t feel like they’ve got quite the same heart as ours, somehow, but I’d still love to figure out how Philly could learn from them. Then maybe next year we could start swimming at Kelly and Hunting Park, say, and Cobbs Creek, Murphy, Awbury and Lawncrest – at least on the weekends – even earlier.
In the meantime, here’s to this Monday.
For the 2018 pool opening schedule, Parks and Rec has posted it here.
In some places, public pools start opening around Memorial Day. The weather these days suggests that would be a great idea here too — but we don’t even have enough staffing for the season we’ve got (which starts 6/20-ish).
Do you know anyone who could work as a lifeguard this summer? As long as they’re going to be 16 by the time pools open, age does not matter. Parks & Rec has upped the pay to $13.65/hour. And are still — with only a few weeks to go — running a couple of training courses.
I was super intimidated when I went to the Sayre-Morris Rec Center for lifeguard screening in the spring of 2013. I wasn’t sure I could pass. I wasn’t sure any pool would want to hire me.
I did not understand that the City is desperate for lifeguards.
If you are a decent swimmer, you can pass the screening. (If you’re not a decent swimmer now, it may be too late for this summer, but talk to staff at the screening site about practicing — for free — to prepare for next summer.)
And there are jobs. All over the city.
And if you want encouragement or advice, I’d be glad to offer either. I don’t work as a lifeguard anymore (though I do have a non-pool-related City job, which lifeguarding put me on a path to). But I love nothing more than our pools in the summer, and the lifeguard shortage is one of the biggest threats to their future.
So really: Do you know anyone?
A friend stopped by to tell me about his search for pool opening info. “Why haven’t you posted it this year?” he asked.
I haven’t posted it because there’s been no need! Parks and Rec is on the case. See here for the list of pool opening dates that, like last year, the City posted over a week in advance.
This may not seem like a big deal, that a City department would let the public in on how to use the amenities it provides. But in this case?
I started this blog in large part because basic pools info like this was so hard to find. Years past, in the weeks before pool season started, I’d be popping up at Parks and Rec facilities where I knew people, looking for someone who had the pool openings list, and was willing to share it.
The list was not easy to come by. It existed only in hard copy. Many people didn’t have it. Some who did would let me look but not take it with me. Generally, securing a copy involved a meeting late at night, for a surreptitious hand-off of one single, precious, creased and faded sheet of printer paper.
The first year I published the pool openings list (having spent hours compiling the location info), another Parks-and-Rec-employed friend called me in a panic. “Did you get that list off my desk when you were at the rec the other day?” she asked. “Because if you did, I need you to take it down.”
This phone call happened the day pools started opening.
Later that day, I did find the list available deep within the City’s website. It was an electronic version of the previously described piece of paper. It listed pool names, but no addresses, intersections or other info that might help someone actually get to one. And this predated the helpful map Parks and Rec has since posted.
To be honest, the fact that Philadelphia’s huge network of public pools operated with such stealth was part of its initial charm for me. Like so much in our City infrastructure, the pools relied on an oral tradition. People from a neighborhood knew their pool. They knew, or heard, or figured out when it was open for the activities they were looking for (and, to be fair, there were sometimes signs). For a non-native Philadelphian like myself, catching onto the secret felt like a step closer to really belonging here.
I will miss the thrill of the hunt for opening info, to say nothing of the search for the pools themselves. But even more, I appreciate the leaps the City has made in communicating about these summer sites of wonderfulness.
I am so excited for opening day on Thursday, and the two months thereafter, when there will be 69 more locations for immersion in calm cool chlorinated blue. There is nothing I love more at the end of a swamp-like city summer day.
I visit the pools just about every evening during pool season. “You must be a really good swimmer,” people say. But most of the time I don’t swim, in the active sense of the word. I dip and I dunk and I float and I loll by the wall. Washing the worries of the day away. And soaking up enough refreshment to make it through another 24 hours.
Here’s what else I am excited for this season:
- That all the pools are, in fact, opening (with the exceptions of Fishtown’s Lederer, aka the Swimmo, which had been leaking into the adjacent library’s basement, closed early last year, and is now undergoing renovations, and North Philly’s always-elusive Hartranft, an indoor pool, and the only one in the system I’ve yet to swim across). It wasn’t that long ago that Michael Nutter shut most of the city pools (as well as many libraries and fire stations), some of which never re-opened. Residents of other cities are still fighting to keep pools open, as Philadelphians did in 2009; luckily, for the past few years, we have not had to.
- In fact, one of the pillars of the current mayoral administration is investing in our recreation centers, parks and libraries, and it sounds like City Council has finally approved a way forward. Parks and Rec’s Swim Philly Program is back at Francisville, Lawncrest, Lee, O’Connor, and Pleasant Pools. And at least two other rec centers have taken it upon themselves to give their pools the ‘Pop-Up Pool’ treatment: Marian Anderson in South Philly, and one other, which I promised the site staff I wouldn’t name, but which I highly recommend going in search of! Last summer, lifeguards at Bridesburg and Shuler also mentioned potential repairs, so I’ll be interested to check out what happened. And each pool’s schedule is now available online (again, a bigger deal than it may sound, given that Comcast’s promise to outfit our rec centers with internet access has not yet come to pass), making it easier to check out ways communities have been maximizing their pools’ potential since well before it got trendy to talk about what the pools “could be.” Case in point: The free 6pm water aerobics class Ms. Nancy‘s been running at Strawberry Mansion’s Mander every Monday-Friday for the past 16 years!
- Word on the street is that a cohort of Parks and Rec leadership plans to swim in every pool this summer. I love this idea. The pools could not exist without their hundreds of seasonal staff people, tracked down and trained by Rec Leaders in every neighborhood. Most of these wonderful people deserve a chance to show off their work; a few of them could use a kick in the ass; having your boss’s boss’s boss show up seems like a great way to do both. (I also hope the leadership loves the slide at Athletic, and the cubby systems at Baker and Waterloo, and considers adding more.)
My plan this summer is to get back to writing pool profiles (the last one I did, about J. Finnegan, appears to have been two years ago now), returning to West and Southwest Philly. I will miss running into Water Safety Instructors Larry Brown, who retired last summer, and Herb Brown (no relation), who passed away over the winter. Between them, I’d guess Larry and Herb had a hand in training many if not most of the thousands of lifeguards who’ve worked for the City in the past few decades. I know I will never forget my training with either of them. Rest in peace, Mr. Herb.
Age: Over 70
From: North Philadelphia
First pool experience: Penrose (12th and Susquehanna), at age 7 or 8 – sometime in the 1940s
Work with the pools: In over 50 years, “I’ve worked at so many – there’s not too many pools in this city that I haven’t worked in.” First position was as a lifeguard at Rice (now closed, it was at 32nd and Ridge) at 16 or 17. Spent 20 years at Gathers (25th and Diamond, a pool he describes as “my sweetheart”), helped to desegregate Sacks (4th and Washington), and served as a Water Safety and Lifeguard Instructor at indoor pools still with us (Sayre and Pickett) and departed (Rhodes). Now a Pool Equipment Operator at Martin Luther King (22nd and Cecil B. Moore).
Favorite pool: “Any pool that got water.”
A conversation with Snake Faison is a surround-sound experience. There are audio effects. Suspenseful pauses. A voice that should play as a demonstration when you look up the word sonorous.
In the moment that someone else might yell to a child, “Stop running!” Snake spits out rapid-fire, “Hey, hey, hey, you getting ready to hit the street? You know I don’t be having that! You don’t know how to act, get out. Now go down there and swim, or go around 29th Street where the track field is!”
Then he turns to adults nearby to explain, “I talk with an authoritative tone, and they get the message.”
Ask him what it takes to be a great City of Philadelphia lifeguard, and he lowers his voice, leans in and whispers, “You really wanna know?”
Then Snake leans back, lifts his head to the sky and sings at full volume, “Patience. Plenty of paaaaatience.”
About his job now, he’ll tell you, “The sun sucks up chlorine like you’re pulling soda through a straw.” And, “When I came back around here and seen [co-worker] Chuckie, my heart did boom-boom-boom-bap, boom boom. Son of a bitch!” Stamping feet like a drumroll, “Aay, aye, dee, I’m here!”
His family started calling him Snake when he was five or six, because it fit for a kid who liked to crawl on the floor and wiggle around. One of 10 brothers, Snake attended Paul Lawrence Dunbar Elementary, where he was captain of the swim team; now-closed FitzSimons, where he won city aquatics championships; and Edison High School, where he played ball, ran track, did a little boxing – and, always, swam.
“I loved that water,” he says. “Water – like that, it just did something to me. I don’t want to sound vulgar – it was almost like I was having an orgasm or something. Bang! I. Just. Had. To. Get. In. That. Damn. Water. And you couldn’t stop me! I would jump the fence at night. And the night watchman – which is one of the positions I hold right now – me and him got tight. He would let me swim. “
Snake’s family moved to Strawberry Mansion, and he started with the Department of Recreation as a lifeguard at Rice at 32nd and Ridge. Snake got shot in that pool, by another City employee, a high hurdle champ and student at Roman Catholic, now a doctor, named Malcolm Boykin.
“One Saturday, he brought in a starter pistol. And he was showing it to me. And it accidentally went off and hit me in the chest. Wow. My father never sued the City, ’cause he was a City employee. But I think a memorandum – I think it’s still there – was written up: As long as I have my lifesaving certificates, I’d be hired by the Department of Recreation as a lifeguard.
“They deemed me a troubleshooter. I would go to pools, years ago, like here, when the first door opened – chaotic, diving – I could come in and clean it up in a day. I did 20 years with the Board of Education as a disciplinarian, so you know I can spy trouble when I blink an eye. I can smell it, when something’s brewing.”
By way of example, Snake tells a story of South Philly’s Sacks. “The Blacks ran it during the day, and the whites ran it at night. I don’t know if you’re familiar with 4th and Washington. The projects are across the street, tall buildings. That’s where the gangs and the Blacks were. On the other side, going South, that was the white guys’ side. So in the daytime, the Black guys ran the pool. Up to about five-thirty, six o’clock. Then when I had night swim from seven to nine, the white guys ran it. Throughout the years that passed, the pool got segregated. Somebody had to put their foot down.
“So I started, you know, ‘Look, you wanna go swimming?’
“‘Well, why don’t you go swim by the Blacks over there?’
“‘Well, they’ll jump you!’
“‘No they won’t.’
“So one started – one white guy started, young bull, started one night. The next night it was four, then it got to twelve, then it was equal. And my policy: If you fight in here, you’re taking money out of my wife’s pocket. And I’ll split your fucking head, easy. Look. Y’all got to understand one thing. This is a equal opportunity facility. If you want to swim, you can swim in here. Only person to put you out is me and God. And that’s my right-hand man.
“Being in a public atmosphere and learning to intermingle is good for the soul.”
Snake may be the only human being who has swum in more Philadelphia public pools than I have. “I damn near been to them all,” he says. “New ones, old ones. North Philly, Frankford, Germantown, West Philly, Southwest. I’ve swum in pools that ain’t even here no more. Before your time! You ever swam at 32nd and Ridge? No.”
He was around for night swims, for deep ends and diving tanks, when all the pools were surrounded by the sort of brick walls that give O’Connor, Cohox and Kendrick their tucked-away feel.
“What would Philly be without its swimming pools?” I ask Snake.
“Ahh! Pandemaenium! Chuckie Mills,” he pulls in the legendary boxing trainer, who is also his fellow PEO, “Here’s a question for YOU. Shoot it to him, baby.”
“What do you think Philly would be without its swimming pools?” I ask Chuckie.
“It’d be like a desert,” Chuckie says.
“I like that one,” says Snake. “Dry land.”
“Right now,” Chuckie continues, “The kids, they can be free-spirited; they can relax; they can identify with theirself – you know, that little precious time, for the few weeks of summer. And you know, they could be somewhere getting in trouble.”
“Mmmhmm, mmhmm,” Snake agrees.
“Water relaxes you,” Chuckie says. “You be around water, and it relaxes you. You know, every time we have a crisis, like with the President or something, they say: ‘Why’s he fishing, when he should be here or there.’ And you know, he’s thinking. He’s near water.”
“Water makes you relax,” Snake says.
“It help you think,” says Chuckie.
“I’m over 70 and I’m having the best time of my damn life, right now. Sitting with my homie. And if you didn’t know it, we argue like husband and wife,” Snake laughs a deep belly laugh and stamps his feet.
“See, this is the kind of camaraderie that builds my spirit. Keeps me more… focused. Instead of being like that brick wall. Hard core. NO! No. I had brainwashed myself. I thought I used to be like that. And then my wife said, ‘You know, you walk around like you an iron man, but when you come home you’re just as meek as a damn granny pussycat.’
“Some of the people that I worked with throughout the years, it’s like when you see ’em, and you ain’t seen ’em in a while, that harmony look like it never left. Like when I came back around here and seen Chuckie, my heart did boom-boom-boom-bap, boom boom. Son of a bitch! Aay, aye, dee, I’m here! You know, things like that make you feel good.”
The Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation posted specific pool opening dates yesterday. Thirteen days before the pools are set to start opening. With pool locations. (Map here.) This is a serious culture shift. This is amazing.
(A word to the wise: See the day the pool you’re interested in is slated to open? Make it the following day in your head and you’re less likely to show up to a half-filled pool behind a locked gate. Which isn’t what’s supposed to happen, or what usually does happen, but it can happen, and is that really how you want your first swim attempt of the summer to go? Use that extra day to learn more about the people and infrastructure that make the pools possible and you’ll enjoy swimming in them even more, I promise.)
Meanwhile, I believe I heard at City Council the other day that not only is the sugary drinks tax (which would make it possible to fix up rec centers, among other community needs) moving out of committee (to a final vote next Thursday), but that Council President Darrell Clarke recommended that some of the revenue from it go to Parks and Rec staffing as well. I can’t find written confirmation of this anywhere, but here’s hoping.
And finally, the brilliant Pop-Up Pool Project will be brightening up pool time at four new locations this year, in addition to repeating last year’s wonderfulness in Francisville. This year’s lucky spots:
- In Center City (at 26th and South): My first pool, my love, the place where this website was born. Already called “the Taj Mahal” and “the Country Club” by people who work at other City pools, O’Connor Pool + Pop-Up Pools is going to give private swim clubs a serious run for their money. Which I suspect is the point.
- In West Philly (at 44th and Haverford): Lee Cultural Center is the true Philly public pool lover’s pool. When I begged Ms. Thelma, who trained me to be a lifeguard, to name a favorite pool other than her own, she conceded Lee. Head lifeguard Boston Berry is a legend – he trained the people who now train people, from beginner’s strokes up through lifesaving.
- In the lower Northeast, near Olney (at Rising Sun and Comly): This is not Lawncrest‘s first shot at swagger. Will the intricate walk-through sculpture that lightning turned into a permanent hazard zone get revived for the Pop-Up? I am excited to see. And at any rate, the pool’s big.
- In Mount Airy (at Boyer and Pleasant): Pleasant Playground lives up to its name. It’s a family spot. In terms of the Pop-Up locations, it’s probably the smallest, with the least feel of being tucked away. Which makes it representative of many of our less lauded, but equally vital, Philly public pools.
- And back in lower North Philadelphia (at 18th and Francis): The poor man’s infinity pool, Francisville will Pop-Up again.
It’s shaping up to be a wonderful summer.