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

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

Donna DeShazo

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Age: Late 50s

From: West Philadelphia

First pool experience: Kelly Pool in 1962, with her parents

Work with the pools: As a Pool Maintenance Attendant (PMA) and Pool Equipment Operator (PEO, or head PMA) at O’Connor Pool since 2007

Donna DeShazo has worked at O’Connor Pool for seven years and never once been in the water. “On the hottest day, I won’t even get underneath the shower. And people always ask me, people always say, ‘Do you get in the pool?’ No.” But she loves being there. “I love watching everybody else in that water. I love it. I get a joy out of watching people in the pool, that I’m able to watch them. I’m watching over them. I really feel as though God has placed me there to be their covering. To keep them safe, you know what I mean?”

Ms. Donna, as everyone at the pool calls her, has worked at the Overbrook School for the Blind for 26 years. But come summertime, she’s O’Connor’s Pool Equipment Operator. She’s been at the pool longer than any of the other summer staff, has outlasted three Rec Leader supervisors, and carries an authority born of experience as well as seniority. “I know sometimes even down to our staff, I can work their nerves. Because I want the best, you know what I’m saying? I want the best. I’m older, and I know we have young ones that we work with, but I want them to take the job serious.”

When Donna was growing up in Haddington, her mother would put oil in her children’s shoes if they were running wild – and pray for them either way. “That was the covering she placed on us every single day. ‘The prayer of the righteous avails much.’ You got to trust in God. You got to be prayed up every day. That’s what I do, and I continue to do. I trust God to keep us. I trust God to protect us. Because this is world is a wicked world, unfortunately. I just really wish the leadership – the mayor, the governor – to push for the people. It’s not about themselves. It’s not about money. It’s just about the people.”

“When we came up, we had a lot of programs that was given to us, opportunities that was given to us,” Donna reminisces. At Haddington Rec alone, she attended cooking, sewing and dance classes. “For that to happen for our kids would be so great.”

Donna has a son and a daughter, but she’s not just talking about them. “You see a lot of kids that come to O’Connor – parents will put them out early in the morning, to fend for themselves. And the pool – between the pool and the camp at Markward [Playground] – became their home for the summertime. I mean, we had this one particular family of kids that the mother put them out at ten o’clock in the morning. And they were not allowed to come back home until six o’clock in the evening. She gave them no money. They had no clothes. They were raggedy. They would come to the pool; they would go down to the playground, eat their little lunch. They weren’t campers at the playground, but the camp would still feed them. We’re home away from home.”

“We have some kids that have nowhere to go. Parents can’t afford to take them on vacation. The pool is their vacation. These kids need stuff like that. Not even just the kids. Adults. We have adults that come there faithfully. Who work hard each and every day, pay taxes like anybody else, and because they can’t afford to go on vacation, the pool becomes their vacation.”

Donna has a way of talking that invites you to be part of something with her. As often as not, her sentences end with “you know what I’m saying?” or “you know what I mean?” She explains why you’ll never catch her in the water: “I had a bad experience. When I was 11 years old, one of my big sisters called themselves teaching me how to swim. And almost had me drown. And that was a horrible, horrible experience that I need deliverance from,” she laughs. “But I have not gotten deliverance from that. It’s funny. My two kids learned how to swim. My husband know how to swim. Me? No dice.”

Donna’s husband grew up in South Philly, learned to swim at the now-filled-in public pool in “Chicken Bone” – aka FDR – Park, and later became a Navy man. He taught their son to swim at Haddington and Cobbs Creek pools. But he never swam at O’Connor – which, when he was young, was whites-only. Now, Donna says, “This pool is about everybody. It is not about your type or my type. This is for everybody, and it’s for the whole community.”

“I’m at the gate sometimes, but at the same time I’m watching. I’m watching. I’m looking to make sure everybody’s ok, making sure everybody’s doing what they supposed to do. Guys come in who’ve never been there and want to test the waters and dive in the pool when you say no diving. You have patrons where we have a limit, and they have to stand outside, and they wanna cuss you out. You get that. But for the most of it, I have had patrons where even in situations like that, as long as I explain the situation to them, they are so understanding. Like I tell everybody that comes in there: Please just go according to the rules and regulations. We’re here to have fun.”

Risk of getting sick? .0004%

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report last week on “Recreational Water-Associated Disease Outbreaks.” You can read it here, or check out this analysis from RealClearScience Journal, which concludes:

The number of disease outbreaks from recreational water is likely far underreported, but even if every instance were documented, public swimming pools would still come out looking squeaky clean. Judging on available evidence, the stereotype that public pools are slosh pits of disease doesn’t hold water. 301 million people over the age of six swim in public pools each year, and a mere .0004% come home with an infection, and a minor one at that.