I had no concept of how far Southwest Philadelphia extended until I swam at James Finnegan Pool. Or, tried to swim at James Finnegan Pool. It took three attempts to actually get in the water. The first time I tried, the pool had accidentally drained the night before and was refilling. The second time, a child had vomited in the water, so the staff was shocking it (the water, not the child) with chlorine.
A blue island in the middle of a green one, Finnegan’s a large pool, with painted lane lines, a spacious deck and stairs in two of its corners. Straddling the border of Elmwood and Eastwick, it just edges out Barry to be the city’s southernmost pool. Consulting a map indicates that it is not, in fact, at the edge of the universe, though it feels that way when I ride my bike there. It’s where a street (Grovers Avenue) would be, if two of that street’s five blocks were not subsumed by the 17.6 acres of parkland surrounding the pool. The park cuts off or makes dead-ends of about 12 other streets too, so there is no way to drive the perimeter of Finnegan Playground, though you are welcome to drive to it.
Comedian and sports radio personality Big Daddy Graham wrote about Finnegan in 2010:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Famous book, famous movie. Had I written that book based on my surroundings it would have been called A Swimming Pool Opens in Southwest Philly. That’s how important that day was to every grubby child who ever ran away from a cop because someone had just opened a fire hydrant. While no day tops Christmas morning to a kid, the opening of the public swimming pool sure came damn close.
Graham continues with stories of boys’ and girls’ swims and the “basket room” where you could leave your stuff under watchful eyes (let’s bring those back!). It’s worth a read. He wraps up:
Now I live in a “development” in Jersey where about a third of the homes have pools. My kids are older now and our pool is rarely used. Truth be told, if you added the hours up that my neighbors pools were in full swing, theirs wouldn’t amount to much time usage, either. It’s sad and embarrassing, to tell you the truth. If there was a way to give my pool away to some neighborhood that would use it and treasure it, I would. I really would.
So listen, even if you don’t live in the city anymore, sign a check the next time the cities pools are in danger, write a check. Even if it’s five measly bucks, it all adds up. It’s that important to a kid that the pool is there. Walk a block, climb a fence, cut through the alley, and DAG! There it is in all its blue glory.
(There used to be another swath of blue glory in deepest Southwest, Island Road Pool, at 2227 Island Avenue. But Island Road didn’t make it through the 2004 budget cuts, that rec center is now the Philadelphia Montessori Charter School, and these days Finnegan’s it for miles in every direction.)
Finnegan opened in 1956 and over the years has reflected its neighborhood’s economic hardship and racial unrest. Rodger Caldwell, a 40-year veteran City lifeguard, tells of being dispatched there in the mid-1990s to help work through Black-white tensions that were playing out in the water. Over three decades earlier, Father Paul Washington and journalist and community leader Charles Sutton organized a series of planned swims to integrate Finnegan, which – while always public and in theory open to all – had in practice operated as a whites-only facility. In an August 1960 piece for the Philadelphia Tribune, Sutton and Washington wrote:
The first planned swim was held on Thursday, August the fourth. The group included ten neighborhood Negro boys, ranging from nine to sixteen. Two Negro adults, one a clergyman, and two white adults one a clergyman, also went swimming with the boys. Another white clergyman was present.
The Negro and white children swam and played happily and naturally together for the first hour. Then trouble developed. An observer on the scene later pointed out that a woman had arrived and began inciting trouble.
She walked over to a group of about ten white teenage boys who were about to enter the pool and exclaimed angrily about the Negroes using the pool.
These boys and others they had incited, about fifty in all, began splashing and booing and chanting, “we hate niggers.”
The demonstration, however, was short-lived. It appeared to us that many of those who were called into the demonstration did not have their hearts in it.
There was no further trouble, though some people did taunt us when we left.
Since then there have been three more planned swims. Aside from some grumbling by a few white adults, there have been no more unpleasant incidents.
The hope of the group is that soon the Negro boys of the neighborhood will stroll over to Finnegan or ride over on their bikes whenever they get the impulse, as boys do everywhere.
No one in our group considers this a “victory.” There still indeed may be trouble. But we believe any trouble can be contained. We believe that most of the people in the community are on the side of decency.
Finnegan Pool is right in the middle of its rec center grounds, south of Dicks Avenue, north of Lindbergh Boulevard, and bounded by 68th and 70th Streets. The most direct access is to cut though the playground from 69th Street.
Finnegan Pool refilling, 2013.