Back in the day, deep South Philadelphia had an especially grand public pool in “the Lakes,” otherwise known as FDR Park. Huge and legendarily awesome, it closed in 1996, leaving the Barry Playground Pool as the only free spot for a swim south of Oregon Avenue. Barry’s been more than up to the task – as this 2010 summer journal attests – except when repairs (in 2002) or budget cuts (in 2009) have kept it dry. Author Jennifer Baldino Bonnet, who learned to swim at Barry and decades later watched her children do the same, calls the pool “a gift from my city.”
In 2001, a kerfuffle over Barry’s gender-segregated swim days resulted in changes at pools city-wide. On July 2nd of that year, Jim Nolan and Carla Anderson of the Daily News reported, “It was 95 degrees in the shade in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, and like any sane person, Anne Marie Ulerick decided to take her 11-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son to the Barry Playground pool for a swim. Seconds after arriving at the well-kept rec center on 18th and Bigler Streets, Ulerick’s daughter jumped in and began frolicking in the refreshing water. But when Ulerick decided to take a dip with her baby boy, she was told to stay out of the pool. The reason? It was ‘girls day’ at the pool.”
Most if not all Philadelphia public pools once held “girls days” and “boys days” – you can see as much on outdated schedules posted on pool gates around the city. Dividing the population along gender lines helped control the number of people trying to swim on any given day, and allayed fears (as old as the pools themselves*) of inappropriate contact among swimsuit-clad young people.
But by July 17th, 2001, two weeks and a flurry of articles after they first shared Ulerick’s story, the DN was reporting that all children five and younger and their parents would be allowed to swim on both boys’ and girls’ days (which was already the case at many of the pools with gender-segregated swims, though not at Barry), and that in future years, pool supervisors would need to provide justification and get approval from Rec Department brass to continue any single-sex swim times.
Barry still takes its rules seriously. While most city pools rely on the department-issued Rules and Regulations signs, Barry’s got additional directives duct-taped to a board by the entrance. (Mind you, this is a service. Plenty of other pools have these same additional rules; you just might not hear about them until you’re en route to breaking them.) These include leaving your belongings outside the pool gate, so leave your valuables elsewhere.
Barry Playground sits between Johnston Street to the north, Bigler Street to the south, and 18th and 19th Streets to the east and west. The pool is on the Bigler Street side, but its entrance is inside the playground and most easily accessed from 18th Street.
* In Contested Waters, Jeff Wiltse writes, “Since their origin in the nineteenth century, sexuality and concerns about sexuality have profoundly shaped the use and regulation of municipal pools. During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, cities gender-segregated pools in order to protect women’s modesty and protect them from advances by anonymous men. Gender separation also served as a means of social control. It limited the opportunities unrelated males and females had to meet and interact in public, thereby maintaining traditional family authority over mixed-gender socializing and courtship.”
Philadelphia built our first municipal pools in the 1880s as public baths for the poor, most of whom did not have bathing facilities at home. Working-class men and boys of all races bathed on some days; (many fewer) women and girls on others. Swimming gained popularity among women in the early decades of the 20th century (Wiltse: “In 1914 an average of 300 to 500 females swam in each of Philadelphia’s twenty-three outdoor pools each week. By 1934 the city averaged 1,200 to 1,500 female swimmers a day at each of its thirty-nine pools.”), and public pools began allowing men and women to swim together in the 1920s. Not coincidentally, that was also when pools across the northern U.S. started segregating along racial lines.