Stanley “Snake” Faison, Sr.


Age: Over 70

From: North Philadelphia

First pool experience: Penrose (12th and Susquehanna), at age 7 or 8 – sometime in the 1940s

Work with the pools: In over 50 years, “I’ve worked at so many – there’s not too many pools in this city that I haven’t worked in.” First position was as a lifeguard at Rice (now closed, it was at 32nd and Ridge) at 16 or 17. Spent 20 years at Gathers (25th and Diamond, a pool he describes as “my sweetheart”), helped to desegregate Sacks (4th and Washington), and served as a Water Safety and Lifeguard Instructor at indoor pools still with us (Sayre and Pickett) and departed (Rhodes). Now a Pool Equipment Operator at Martin Luther King (22nd and Cecil B. Moore).

Favorite pool: “Any pool that got water.”

A conversation with Snake Faison is a surround-sound experience. There are audio effects. Suspenseful pauses. A voice that should play as a demonstration when you look up the word sonorous.

In the moment that someone else might yell to a child, “Stop running!” Snake spits out rapid-fire, “Hey, hey, hey, you getting ready to hit the street? You know I don’t be having that! You don’t know how to act, get out. Now go down there and swim, or go around 29th Street where the track field is!”

Then he turns to adults nearby to explain, “I talk with an authoritative tone, and they get the message.”

Ask him what it takes to be a great City of Philadelphia lifeguard, and he lowers his voice, leans in and whispers, “You really wanna know?”

Then Snake leans back, lifts his head to the sky and sings at full volume, “Patience. Plenty of paaaaatience.”

About his job now, he’ll tell you, “The sun sucks up chlorine like you’re pulling soda through a straw.” And, “When I came back around here and seen [co-worker] Chuckie, my heart did boom-boom-boom-bap, boom boom. Son of a bitch!” Stamping feet like a drumroll, “Aay, aye, dee, I’m here!”

His family started calling him Snake when he was five or six, because it fit for a kid who liked to crawl on the floor and wiggle around. One of 10 brothers, Snake attended Paul Lawrence Dunbar Elementary, where he was captain of the swim team; now-closed FitzSimons, where he won city aquatics championships; and Edison High School, where he played ball, ran track, did a little boxing – and, always, swam.

“I loved that water,” he says. “Water – like that, it just did something to me. I don’t want to sound vulgar – it was almost like I was having an orgasm or something. Bang! I. Just. Had. To. Get. In. That. Damn. Water. And you couldn’t stop me! I would jump the fence at night. And the night watchman – which is one of the positions I hold right now – me and him got tight. He would let me swim. “

Snake’s family moved to Strawberry Mansion, and he started with the Department of Recreation as a lifeguard at Rice at 32nd and Ridge. Snake got shot in that pool, by another City employee, a high hurdle champ and student at Roman Catholic, now a doctor, named Malcolm Boykin.

“One Saturday, he brought in a starter pistol. And he was showing it to me. And it accidentally went off and hit me in the chest. Wow. My father never sued the City, ’cause he was a City employee. But I think a memorandum – I think it’s still there – was written up: As long as I have my lifesaving certificates, I’d be hired by the Department of Recreation as a lifeguard.

“They deemed me a troubleshooter. I would go to pools, years ago, like here, when the first door opened – chaotic, diving – I could come in and clean it up in a day. I did 20 years with the Board of Education as a disciplinarian, so you know I can spy trouble when I blink an eye. I can smell it, when something’s brewing.”

By way of example, Snake tells a story of South Philly’s Sacks. “The Blacks ran it during the day, and the whites ran it at night. I don’t know if you’re familiar with 4th and Washington. The projects are across the street, tall buildings. That’s where the gangs and the Blacks were. On the other side, going South, that was the white guys’ side. So in the daytime, the Black guys ran the pool. Up to about five-thirty, six o’clock. Then when I had night swim from seven to nine, the white guys ran it. Throughout the years that passed, the pool got segregated. Somebody had to put their foot down.

“So I started, you know, ‘Look, you wanna go swimming?’


“‘Well, why don’t you go swim by the Blacks over there?’

“‘Well, they’ll jump you!’

“‘No they won’t.’

“So one started – one white guy started, young bull, started one night. The next night it was four, then it got to twelve, then it was equal. And my policy: If you fight in here, you’re taking money out of my wife’s pocket. And I’ll split your fucking head, easy. Look. Y’all got to understand one thing. This is a equal opportunity facility. If you want to swim, you can swim in here. Only person to put you out is me and God. And that’s my right-hand man.

“Being in a public atmosphere and learning to intermingle is good for the soul.”

Snake may be the only human being who has swum in more Philadelphia public pools than I have. “I damn near been to them all,” he says. “New ones, old ones. North Philly, Frankford, Germantown, West Philly, Southwest. I’ve swum in pools that ain’t even here no more. Before your time! You ever swam at 32nd and Ridge? No.”

He was around for night swims, for deep ends and diving tanks, when all the pools were surrounded by the sort of brick walls that give O’Connor, Cohox and Kendrick their tucked-away feel.

“What would Philly be without its swimming pools?” I ask Snake.

“Ahh! Pandemaenium! Chuckie Mills,” he pulls in the legendary boxing trainer, who is also his fellow PEO, “Here’s a question for YOU. Shoot it to him, baby.”

“What do you think Philly would be without its swimming pools?” I ask Chuckie.

“It’d be like a desert,” Chuckie says.

“I like that one,” says Snake. “Dry land.”

“Right now,” Chuckie continues, “The kids, they can be free-spirited; they can relax; they can identify with theirself – you know, that little precious time, for the few weeks of summer. And you know, they could be somewhere getting in trouble.”

“Mmmhmm, mmhmm,” Snake agrees.

“Water relaxes you,” Chuckie says. “You be around water, and it relaxes you. You know, every time we have a crisis, like with the President or something, they say: ‘Why’s he fishing, when he should be here or there.’ And you know, he’s thinking. He’s near water.”

“Water makes you relax,” Snake says.

“It help you think,” says Chuckie.

“I’m over 70 and I’m having the best time of my damn life, right now. Sitting with my homie. And if you didn’t know it, we argue like husband and wife,” Snake laughs a deep belly laugh and stamps his feet.

“See, this is the kind of camaraderie that builds my spirit. Keeps me more… focused. Instead of being like that brick wall. Hard core. NO! No. I had brainwashed myself. I thought I used to be like that. And then my wife said, ‘You know, you walk around like you an iron man, but when you come home you’re just as meek as a damn granny pussycat.’

“Some of the people that I worked with throughout the years, it’s like when you see ’em, and you ain’t seen ’em in a while, that harmony look like it never left. Like when I came back around here and seen Chuckie, my heart did boom-boom-boom-bap, boom boom. Son of a bitch! Aay, aye, dee, I’m here! You know, things like that make you feel good.”


J. Finnegan (69th and Grovers)


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 unrestRodger 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 plannedFinnegan.1960 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.

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!


Marian Anderson (17th and Catharine)


View of the pool from the bleachers.

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.

“Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America”


I was excited to find this book (written by Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana; published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2007) at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

I was even more excited that the Introduction begins:

In 1898 Boston’s mayor Josiah Quincy sent Daniel Kearns, secretary of the city’s bath commission, to study Philadelphia’s bathing pools. Philadelphia was the most prolific early builder of municipal pools, operating nine at the time. All but three were located in residential slums and, according to Kearns, attracted only “the lower classes or street gamins.” City officials had built the austere pools during the 1880s and 1890s — before the germ theory of disease transmission was popularly accepted — and intended them to provide baths for working-class men and women, who used them on alternating days.The facilities lacked showers, because the pools themselves were the instruments of cleaning. Armed with the relatively new knowledge of the microbe, Kearns was disturbed to see unclean boys plunging into the water: “I must say that some of the street gamins, both white and colored, that I saw, were quite as dirty as it is possible for one to conceive.” While the unclean boys shocked Kearns, blacks and whites swimming together elicited no surprise. He commented extensively on the shared class status of the “street gamins” and their dirtiness but mentioned their racial diversity only in passing. Nor did racial differences seem to matter much to the swimmers, at least not in this social context. The pools were wildly popular. Each one recorded an average of 144,000 swims per summer, or about 1,500 swimmers per day.

In the first chapter, Wiltse mentions that one of the first municipal pools in the U.S. was Philadelphia’s “swimming bath,” which opened in June 1884 at 12th and Wharton Streets. I live about fifty feet from that intersection (where, sadly, there is no longer a pool). I cannot wait to read more.