Telling a different story

Last week, a woman went to Hunting Park Pool in North Philly. The pool staff thought the swimsuit she was wearing was underwear and told her she couldn’t swim in a public pool in her underwear. When she proved to them that it was, in fact, a swimsuit (by showing them the tag), they let her in the pool, but one of the lifeguards publically ridiculed her until she left. Later in the week, the same woman went to Sacks Pool in South Philly, where a different pool staff also thought her swimsuit was underwear. They, too, told her she couldn’t swim in a public pool in her underwear, and showing them the swimsuit tag did not change their minds.

Philadelphia Magazine wrote about it. And now the story’s made international headlines.

There are many reasons why I’d love to see our pools make headlines. Here are just a few: Because there are more of them (outdoor ones at least) than in any other city in the country. Because they provide relief and recreation to hundreds of thousands of hot and sweaty human beings stuck in the city all summer. Because they employ 800 Philadelphia summer workers. Because the majority of those workers do an excellent job the majority of the time: teaching people to swim, making sure that those who can’t swim don’t drown, cleaning the pools and checking the chlorine levels and making sure the PH balance in the water is safe for swimming.

I’d love to see our pools make international headlines because Philadelphia’s parks and recreation system manages to do all of this EVEN THOUGH our city spends less on our parks per capita than 43 other of the 60 largest U.S. cities. (Philadelphia spends $61 per resident per year; Minneapolis, $214; New York, $171; New Orleans, $104.)

And I guess I just have a hard time believing that Philadelphia Magazine (they of the cover story on how hard it is to be a white person in Philadelphia, among other gems of race and class awareness) actually cares very much about the experiences of most swimmers or staff at Philadelphia’s public pools. Is it funny to them to stir up arguments between people who want to shame pool staffers for not recognizing a name-brand swimsuit, and people who want to shame a woman for her choice of swimsuit? Does lifting up the inappropriate and unacceptable actions of a knucklehead lifeguard help build consensus toward someday getting rid of our pools, or at least shrinking their numbers? Or am I totally off? Because if I am, I would love to see their pages run a piece on, say, the need for Comcast (among other entities profiting off our populace) to pay their fair share so that Philadelphia has enough money to fully fund our schools, our fire services, our parks and our pools.



Age: 44

From: Brooklyn, New York; has lived in Germantown since 2000

Work with the pools: As a Pool Maintenance Attendant since 2012

“I like to think that I’m good with kids. I’m a single father, so the same tactics I use here I use with my son at home. If I had it my way, I’d be a counselor that works with hard at-risk teens. I like working with kids that society forgot about, don’t want to work with no more. I can relate to them because I was brought up in the street. So I know how hard it can be out there sometimes.

Each kid is different. Some kids you have to explain to, because they’re not accustomed to having things explained to them. They get, “Stop,” “Don’t do this,” “Leave that alone.” A lot of kids you have to explain to them why you don’t want them to [run, or dive] so they have a better understanding of why you’re telling them not to do it. And just be patient. That’s one thing about kids, you have to be patient. You have to show them an authority figure, but you have to be gentle with them also. They’re children. They’re growing. They’re learning.”

Gorgeous pool photos

Many thanks to Patrick Midway for sharing these! The first pic is of East Poplar; the second, Northern Liberties; the third, Cruz; and the last, Hancock (all of which are between 8th and Front Streets and Master and Fairmount).

Patrick writes, “I love swimming, and I also was unaware of how many free public pools the city has to offer until last summer. I always saw people at the pool at East Poplar last summer on my commute home from work and I decided to stop one evening for a swim. The pool is used by mainly all Black people, I’m white. I was welcomed into the pool and became somewhat of a regular for the summer and it was a great experience. Whenever I ride by I make a point to give the lifeguards a shout-out.”

IMG_2580IMG_2619Photo Jun 28, 4 24 21 PMPhoto Jun 29, 2 57 52 PM



Age: 20

From: Roxborough

“This is my third year lifeguarding, but I went to camp here, so I’ve been here since I was eight or nine. I’ve known everyone since I was growing up. It’s kind of a second home.

My sister worked here. My cousin came here too; she was a counselor. I was a counselor. My two other cousins went here, so my whole family’s been here pretty much. And that’s how it is with most people. They keep their kids here for generations.”

Swim Time


The pools are opening! The pools are opening! THE POOLS ARE OPENING!

And as they do, they’ll stay open Mondays-Fridays 11am-7pm and Saturdays and Sundays 12-5pm until sometime in August. (Some caveats: At most pools, only organized groups are allowed in on weekdays from 11am-1pm, aka “camp swim.” Many pools also hold swim lessons or swim team — for which you/your child should by all means sign up — on weekdays from 4-5pm. Schedules can vary a bit from pool to pool, but in general the most consistent open times for a weekday swim are from 1-4pm — aka “free swim;” 5-6pm — aka “family swim,” when any swimmer under 18 must be accompanied by an adult; and 6-7pm — aka “adult swim,” when only those 18 and older may be at the pool. There are fewer variables on weekends, when most pools have free or family swim from 12-4pm and adult swim from 4-5pm.

Pro tip: Ignore any posted schedule that includes “girls’ days” and “boys’ days” and in fact any posted schedule printed on anything other than paper — it’s likely years out of date. Instead, ask the lifeguards and pool attendants at your pool what the schedule is. And speaking of pool staff, please keep in mind that many are new each year and that even the veterans have a lot to figure out in the first week(s) to get the pools up and running safely for all of us. Opening a pool that’s been dormant and open to the elements for months — not to mention doing it 70 times over — is no small feat. So have some patience and give folks the benefit of the doubt if everything’s not going smoothly or according to schedule!)

Here’s when each oasis is scheduled to come to life:

Today – Friday, June 20th:

  • Cruz (6th and Master Streets in North Philly)

Tomorrow – Saturday, June 21st:

  • Awbury (Ardleigh and Haines in Germantown)
  • Christy (56th and Christian Streets in West Philly)
  • Myers (58th and Kingsessing in Southwest Philly)
  • Penrose (12th and Susquehanna in North Philly)
  • Vare (26th and Morris in Gray’s Ferry)

Monday, June 23rd:

  • Fox Chase (Rockwell and Borbeck in the Northeast)
  • Heitzman (Castor and Amber in Harrowgate)
  • Hillside (Fountain and Fowler in Manayunk)
  • Kelly (next to the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park)
  • Lawncrest (Comly and Rising Sun in Northeast Philly)
  • Lee (44th and Haverford in West Powelton)
  • Mander (33rd and Diamond in East Park/Strawberry Mansion)
  • Northern Liberties (3rd and Fairmount)
  • Samuel (Gaul and Tioga in Port Richmond)

Tuesday, June 24th:

Wednesday, June 25th:

  • Cione (Aramingo and Huntingdon in Fishtown)
  • Cobbs Creek (63rd and Walnut in Cobbs Creek Park)
  • Cohox (Cedar and Cambria in Port Richmond)
  • Gathers (25th and Diamond in North Philly)
  • Lederer (Montgomery and Moyer in Fishtown)
  • Lonnie Young (Chelten and Ardleigh in Germantown)
  • Ridgway (13th and Carpenter)
  • Simpson (Arrott and Large in the Northeast)

Thursday, June 26th:

  • Barry (18th and Bigler in South Philly)
  • Francisville (18th and Francis, just north of Fairmount Ave.)
  • Hancock (Hancock and Master in Fishtown)
  • Kendrick (Ridge and Roxborough in Roxborough)
  • McVeigh (D and Ontario in Kensington)
  • Mitchell (Whitehall Lane and Chesterfield Road, Far Northeast)
  • Sacks (4th and Washington)

Friday, June 27th:

  • American Legion (Torresdale and Devereaux in the Northeast)
  • Amos (16th and Montgomery in North Philly)
  • Athletic (26th and Master in North Philly)
  • Belfield (20th and Olney in Ogontz)
  • Jacobs (Linden and Jackson, Far Northeast)
  • Kingsessing (49th and Kingsessing in West Philly)
  • Mill Creek (47th and Brown in West Philly)
  • Murphy (3rd and Shunk in South Philly)
  • Piccoli (Castor and Cayuga, Lower Northeast)

Monday, June 30th:

  • Baker (Lansdowne and Conestoga in Overbrook)
  • Chew (19th and Ellsworth in Point Breeze)
  • Dendy (10th and Oxford in North Philly)
  • Houseman (Summerdale and Godfrey in the Northeast)
  • Max Myers (Hellerton and Bustleton in the Northeast)
  • Scanlon (Glenwood and K in Kensington)
  • Schmidt (Howard and Ontario in North Philly)
  • Shepard (57th and Haverford in Haddington)
  • Waterloo (Cumberland and Waterloo in Kensington)

Tuesday, July 1st:

  • 12th and Cambria (North Philly)
  • 39th and Olive (just north of Fairmount Ave. in Mantua)
  • Bridesburg (Richmond and Buckius)
  • Cherashore (Olney and Wagner in Olney)
  • Ford (Snyder between 6th and 7th in South Philly)
  • Hunting Park (9th and Hunting Park in North Philly)
  • M.L. King (22nd and Cecil B. Moore in North Philly)
  • Pleasant (Boyer and Pleasant in Mount Airy)
  • Shuler (27th and Indiana in North Philly)
  • Stinger Square (32nd and Dickinson in Gray’s Ferry)
  • Tustin (59th and Columbia in Overbrook)

At some point (hopefully):

  • C.B. Moore (22nd and Sedgley in North Philly)
  • Feltonville (Wyoming between A and B)
  • Vogt (Unruh and Cottage in the Northeast)
Bulletin Board at Northern Liberties Rec Center

Rec center bulletin board I saw yesterday.

Class, race, segregation, and why you should swim in a public pool this summer

NPR’s Radio Times ran an interesting segment last week: “Fifty years of the University City Swim Club; history of swimming pool segregation in America.”

The University City Swim Club, near 48th and Spruce in West Philadelphia, is a private membership club with four swimming pools that stay open 10am-10pm from late May to early September. There is a waiting list to pay $2000 (plus annual dues of $600+) to join.

The first time I heard of the UCSC was about ten years ago when my friend Desi was working as a nanny for a family with a membership. I remember her telling me one day that she and the little girl she cared for were headed to the pool when they passed some other kids playing on the street. “You going swimming?” the kids asked them. “Yep,” they replied. “Wish we could go swimming,” the kids said, shuffling their feet and looking down at the hot sidewalk.

With that as my primary association with the place, I was interested to hear that when the UCSC opened in 1964, at a time when nearly all public and private pools were racially segregated, it did so as an intentionally racially integrated swimming pool. One of the guests on the show, Dr. Lynda Murray Jackson, a member since the UCSC opened, spoke glowingly of the familial atmosphere and joy of swimming there, and callers echoed her sentiments. (As did a caller from Yeadon’s Nile Swim Club, an historically African American swimming pool that opened in 1959 a few miles away.) And while many water-lovers would probably profess similarly fond memories of their childhood swims, having a racially integrated swimming pool in 1964 was in fact a very, very special thing.

Another of the guests on the program was Contested Waters author Jeff Wiltse, who shares some fascinating history of pool segregation nationwide, starting around minute 25:11 of the recording. Here’s what I learned on the topic from reading his book:

  • The earliest public pools were established as baths for the urban poor at a time when many people did not have a way to bathe at home. Philadelphia built three such baths in the Delaware River before opening South Philadelphia’s Wharton Street Bath in 1884 (and five others by 1892). Poor and working class men and boys of all races swam there together without incident or even comment. By 1920, Philadelphia had opened 20 public swimming pools. The rationale for them had shifted from providing baths to improving lives, curbing delinquency, alleviating tensions, inspiring patriotism, and otherwise “socializing” immigrant and working-class children – but the demographics of who swam in them (poor and working-class men and boys) remained the same. As Wiltse explains, “Pool use divided along class lines – but not ethnic or racial lines – because city officials, reformers, and the middle-class public viewed the working classes en masse as ‘the great unwashed.’ …Middle-class Americans at the time perceived immigrants, laborers, and blacks as equally dirty and prone to carry communicable diseases. As a result, they avoided swimming in the same pool with the working classes no matter their race or ethnicity.” (p. 76)
  • Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston were early believers in the value of municipal pools (my hometown of NYC, by contrast, hadn’t opened a single public pool by 1920). In the 1920s and 30s, public pools’ popularity widened as over 1000 cities and towns built new ones. It was also during this time that pools became less segregated along class and gender lines and more segregated along racial lines. Wiltse cites a number of different factors in this shift, including a decline in working-class identity (propelled by consumerism and assimilation), an increase in white identity (fueled in the northern US by the Great Migration), and a fear – as more women started swimming – of Black men being so close to white women’s bodies. Accordingly, the health and cleanliness prejudices that had previously been levied against the working class were now levied against African Americans. (The Radio Times piece talks about how at the time the UCSC was founded, many pools that were not officially segregated would drain and scrub their facility after African Americans had swum.)
  • Black-led pool desegregation struggles began as early as the late 1930s, with the NAACP suing more and more cities and towns after 1945. Yet even after Brown v. Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, a Baltimore court upheld segregation at their city’s pools. Wiltse writes, “In reconciling his decision with Brown, [Judge Roszel] Thomsen explained that swimming pools were ‘more sensitive than schools’ because of the visual and physical intimacy that accompanied their use.” (p. 156) The Baltimore court’s ruling was overturned in federal court, but there, as across the country, “pool desegregation” didn’t mean that Blacks and whites started swimming together. It meant that whites abandoned public pools, with those who could afford to building private club and residential ones instead. (And as we know in this area, not all of those have moved beyond segregation even today.)

In the final chapter of Contested Waters, Wiltse writes:

The privatization of swimming pools during the second half of the twentieth century degraded the quality of community life in America… Hundreds and even thousands of people at a time interacted and socialized at these public spaces… Community life was fostered, monitored, and disputed. After racial desegregation, millions of Americans consciously chose to stop swimming at municipal pools and chose instead to organize and join swim clubs. Collectively, these choices represented mass abandonment of public space and effectively resegregated swimming along class lines…

Poor and working-class Americans suffered most directly from the privatizing of swimming pools. When middle-class Americans abandoned municipal pools in favor of private pools, cities downgraded the public importance of swimming pools. They built relatively few new pools, neglected maintenance on existing pools, and eventually closed dilapidated pools rather than pay for costly repairs. As a result, those Americans who could not afford to join a swim club or install a backyard pool had less access to swimming and recreation facilities than did previous generations. By the end of the twentieth century, many poor and working-class neighborhoods in American cities lacked appealing public spaces where residents could gather to socialize, exercise, relax, play, and forge community bonds.

Some of this is and has been true here of course, but the bottom line is that Philadelphia still has 74 public pools! I have swum in nearly half of them and can attest that they are indeed ideal places to socialize, exercise, relax, play, and forge community bonds. They don’t have the bells and whistles of private swim clubs, the midnight swims and snack bars and special memberships for your family nanny to attend only with member children ($795 this summer at the Lombard Swim Club). But they are equally cool and wet on a hot summer day, and if you live in the city you can probably walk to one from your house. They open (on a staggered schedule) in late June and stay open Monday-Friday 11am-7pm and weekends 12-5pm until late August. Most have free swim lessons for kids, special family swim times, and an adult/lap swim the last hour of every day. They can get crowded for sure, but overall they are underused (in the summer of 1937, Philadelphians swam in our pools 4.3 million times; last summer, we swam 820,012 times). Any concern that they are not clean is completely unfounded and – as Wiltse’s history makes clear – grounded in race and class prejudice.

So I say to all my fellow Philadelphians – no matter if you’re languishing on a private swim-club waitlist or standing outside one shuffling your feet and looking down at the hot sidewalk, huddled inside in the air-conditioning or sitting on your stoop trying to catch a breeze – you too can come swimming this summer! I hope you do.

Here’s the Department of Parks & Recreation list of all the pools.

Of drug tests and parades


Swimming season is almost here!

Yesterday I went for the drug test that all City of Philadelphia lifeguards must pass to work at our pools. It was at the City health center at 19th and Fairmount and generally the same as last year. Then, having to perform jumping jacks and squats for a doctor while wearing only a paper gown – to make sure I wasn’t concealing any pre-peed, drug-free urine on my person – took me a little aback. But not this year! I chatted with my fellow lifeguards as we waited around in our crepe-paper outfits, picked up some of the City’s handy free condoms while I was there, and after a mere hour and a half was again on my way.

Larry and Thelma are training new lifeguards at Sayre-Morris most days of the week. Rec leaders all over town are hounding their pool staff for paperwork (in addition to the drug test, lifeguards need documentation of a doctor’s physical, an FBI clearance and a PA state police background check). And I, for one, am breathlessly awaiting opening day.

I’d love to celebrate our pool openings with parades, the way NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses did back in the 30s. As Jeff Wiltse describes in Contested Waters:

Laguardia and Moses organized extravagant opening ceremonies for the pools. Each ceremony started with an afternoon parade through the local neighborhood that ended at the pool. With thousands in attendance, a local priest blessed the water, and Olympic stars and circus clowns performed swimming exhibitions. The climactic event occurred at nightfall, when LaGuardia flipped the switch to the innovative underwater lights and declared “Okay, kids, it’s all yours!” The sudden illumination never failed to mesmerize the crowd. Some of these dedication ceremonies attracted as many as 40,000 people and were described as “the most memorable event in the history of the neighborhood.”

These events celebrated not just a season’s opening day but the first-ever unveilings of New York’s WPA-funded swimming pools. So priests and circus clowns might be overkill for Philly this June. But neighborhood parades? That’s the least our pools deserve!


Murphy (3rd and Shunk)


Elevated above the street and bigger than most, the deck at Murphy Pool gets put to good use. Plastic wading pools near the entrance give little kids a shallow spot to get wet. Benches along the perimeter make good spots to dry off. And when head lifeguard Rodger Caldwell blows everyone out of the water for a lecture on pool rules and regulations (as he does a few times a day), it can be nice to have some room to wander around.

There’s been a pool on this corner since 1925, when Murphy was known as the Greenwich Recreation Centre – check out theses great old photographs (under “History”), including one of the brick-wall-enclosed pool (since demolished and rebuilt). Today Murphy hosts huge flea markets and events for everyone from Mummers to the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia in addition to their own programming; in 2002, pro-wrestling outfit Ring of Honor launched their broadcast career here. This isn’t a neighborhood known for its trees, but huge ones line the sidewalks beside Murphy’s fields, creating a visual and psychological separation from Oregon Avenue’s industrial sprawl.

The pool is at 3rd and Shunk; its entrance is up a flight of stairs from the rec center fields.

Barry (18th and Bigler)


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.

Ford (Snyder between 6th & 7th)


Hemmed in mid-block, Ford’s got an often trash-filled playground to one side, a bright and busy mural looming over another, and the rumble of Snyder Avenue laid out in front. There are no open fields here.

Steps from one of South Philadelphia’s more notorious corners, “the Ford Recreation Center at 7th Street and Snyder Avenue – a one-time haven for drug sellers – suddenly became the anti-drug rallying point for a neighborhood” in 1990, according to this Daily News piece, which also mentions that the Police Athletic League (PAL) took over center operations that spring. PAL did not take on the swimming spot, however, and Parks & Rec still staffs and runs Ford Pool.

It is the only pool I’ve visited where they asked to search my bag for weapons. From 1911 through the 1950s, 7th and Snyder was the site of the Grand Theater (you can still make out the old “Talkies – Matinee Daily” sign on its castle-like exterior). These days, like in 1990, it’s an intersection with a rough reputation. That being said, as the South Philly Review reflected in this 2009 feature on Ford: “During a bright and sunny mid-summer day, there is no safer place then [sic] a neighborhood pool.”

The pool entrance is on the north side of Snyder Avenue, halfway between 6th and 7th.