In my experience, Marian Anderson is consistently the calmest pool in South Philadelphia. So much at the pools can vary from year to year, from day to day, and even from hour to hour. But in the seven years I’ve been visiting Anderson, there has always been space to swim from one end of the pool to the other without bumping into another swimmer.
Everyone who swims here showers before entering the pool, because the shower is set up over the pool gate so there’s really no way around it. You need to undress and leave your things on cement bleachers outside the chain-link fence (raised up from and separated from the street by another fence, and clearly visible from the pool). The pool itself is an irregular pentagon shape, with big trees shading the deep end (or deep-er end, at 4 feet 10 inches) and a view of Center City’s buildings beyond. There are lines on the bottom of the pool for lap swimming, and I met a man last summer who was learning how to swim from the “old heads” (his words) who do laps here on weekday afternoons.
Originally called McCoach Playground, the rec center bounded by Fitzwater and Catharine Streets to the north and south and 17th and 18th to the east and west was re-dedicated in honor of Marian Anderson in 1954. Anderson, the legendary contralto and trailblazer (among her many accomplishments: being the first African American to sing with New York’s Metropolitan Opera), was born in Philadelphia in 1897 and grew up in this area. The Marian Anderson Historical Society at 762 South Martin Street, in a house where she lived for nearly twenty years, sits a block and a half from the pool.
A few days after Anderson’s death in 1993, the Inquirer’s Acel Moore remembered her (and the neighborhood in which they’d both grown up) in a piece that includes this pool history: “The old facility was the only playground in South Philadelphia where black children were welcome, and its outdoor swimming pool was the only place in the city – other than the Christian Street YMCA – that blacks could go swimming, public or private, up until the mid ’50s.” Knowing that, it makes even more sense that this particular pool is named for this great Philadelphian.