J. Finnegan (69th and Grovers)

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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.

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Finnegan Pool refilling, 2013.

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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.

Vare (26th and Morris)

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South Philly’s largest public swim spot, Vare’s pristine waters sparkle between a century-old rec center and its adjacent expanse of threadbare fields. People who’ve been around for a while sometimes refer to the pool as “Gray’s Ferry” for the surrounding neighborhood, a blue-collar community hit hard by deindustrialization and often defined – at least externally – by racism.

Originally built around 1925, the pool (which has been rebuilt since) was in a white section of the neighborhood and did not start integrating until the late 1970s/early 1980s. In response to some particularly scrutinized area incidents of racial violence in 1997, the City committed to funding programming and renovations at nearby recreation facilities – which were both sites of conflict between Irish-Americans and African-Americans, and sites with particular potential for reconciliation and community-building. That commitment included valiant measures to keep Vare’s pool open, including fully or partially draining its 75,000 gallons every night during pool season (to be able to clean up bottles that were thrown in the pool to keep Black swimmers out) and equipping Vare with the largest police presence of any pool in the city.

Vare’s pool still gets drained every night (although I’ve heard now that’s more to keep people from swimming than to clean up hate-fueled debris), and the regular circulation means it’s got some of the freshest swimming water in the city. Its size and shape make it perfect for laps, though when I’ve visited jumps and flips seem to be more common.

Vare Playground occupies the block between Morris and Moore and 26th and 27th; the pool is on the Morris Street side.

Stinger Square (32nd and Dickinson)

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Stinger Square is only one square Philly block, but I think of it as a little slice of heaven,” says Irene Russell, President of the Friends of Stinger Square. “Although Stinger Square was established in 1910, it wasn’t until the early 70s that the pool was built. Vare Recreation Center had long been the only pool in Grays Ferry, but Grays Ferry was the most racially volatile area in the city and Vare was in the white neighborhood, which did not want Black kids swimming with their children. So the answer to the problem was to give Blacks their own pool, and that would keep them away from Vare. Since then our children have been swimming in a safe environment that welcomes all ethnicities, and having the time of their lives.”

The gate was closed when I walked up to the pool on a sweaty Saturday in July, so I asked the PMA on the other side if I could come in. “Of course, honey,” she said, taking a momentary break from sweeping the pool deck. “This pool is for everybody.” The bathing-suits-only rule seemed to have gone out the window that day, and a fair number of kids were swimming fully clothed. The lifeguards had enough to handle trying to keep the enthusiastic jumping and flipping games under some semblance of control. “Can you believe I learned to swim in this motherfucker?” I heard one woman laugh to another.

Search through local news archives, and the main things you’ll turn up about Stinger Square are a flurry of reports, every ten years or so, about anti-violence efforts in the area. Talking to Irene Russell paints a much fuller picture. “Stinger Square has always been a safe haven for families to come to, for generations,” she explains. “And the atmosphere at the pool reflects that. It is an air of camaraderie and good wholesome fun. Most of the people who work there are from the neighborhood and familiar with the children and their families so things don’t ever get too far out of hand. It is important to the neighborhood because it is a vital part of our park, which hosts reunions, birthdays, church picnics and many other community events. Also, many summer camps come to the pool so their campers can swim. There is also a high attendance from younger and older adults for adult swim time.”

“Over the years Stinger has evolved with the times. A group of community members formed the Friends of Stinger Square and have been working since 2000 with Parks and Rec, PA Horticultural, the Conservancy, as well as our Council leaders and State Reps to keep our park ‘An Urban Oasis,’ as our welcome sign says. We will be getting a major makeover this winter and look forward to the ribbon-cutting in the Spring. I welcome everyone to come out and visit our park but I must warn you too: ‘Once you do Stinger, you don’t go back!’ But really though, everyone I’ve seen visit our park I’ve seen come back and bring their families with them. They become a part of the Stinger Square family.”

The pool is on 32nd Street between Reed and Dickinson, on the east side of Stinger Square. Wind your way through the family and neighborhood cook-outs to the pool entrance, which is inside the park.

Sacks (4th and Washington)

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The mini melting pot that is Sacks Pool encapsulates South Philly’s diversity – racially, linguistically, aesthetically – and has the energy to match. The surrounding fence hugs the pool close. And despite Solomon Sacks Playground’s 3.7 acres and Jefferson Square Park across the street, there’s no mistaking that you’re anywhere but the heart of the city.

Sacks Pool was built in 1971, a few years after the recreation complex of which it’s part. Sacks’ well-worn soccer field and baseball diamond now also host the culminating event of the largest Cinco de Mayo festival in the United States, the San Mateo Carnavalero or Carnaval de Puebla. Back in 1778, the site hosted a different sort of festival, a giant farewell party (known as the Mischianza) for British General Sir William Howe, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the early years of the Revolutionary War. In the intervening years, from around 1836 to 1945, the spot was home to the Southwark Foundry and Machine Company, manufacturing engines, boilers and other machinery.

In 1994, Bruce Springsteen filmed part of his video for “Streets of Philadelphia” at Sacks (you can almost make out the pool deck around minute 1:45) and afterwards donated $45,000 to its upkeep. Successful community efforts to maintain and improve the underfunded facilities made the Inquirer in both 1990 and 2004, and in 2005 Home Depot and the National Council of La Raza paid to refurbish them. Closed for the season during the 2009 budget cuts, Sacks also hosted Mayor Nutter’s 2010 press conference to announce all the pools would re-open that summer.

Sacks’ facilities take up the block between Washington and Federal and 5th and 4th Streets; the pool is on the Federal Street side, closer to 4th.

Chew (19th and Ellsworth)

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It may be little, but Chew isn’t a pool to mess with. Their swim team is sizable, and one of the best in South Philly. The rules – No Jumping as well as No Diving – are strictly enforced. And hopefully by now, city officials have learned to stop trying to shut it down.

In 2004, Chew Playground (which includes the pool, a playground and constantly-in-use basketball courts and playing fields) was part of the 25% of city recreation facilities Mayor Street proposed to close, lease or sell. But Point Breeze marched and rallied behind it, and City Council ended up restoring funding for Chew and all the affected centers. In 2009, Mayor Nutter did shut Chew’s pool for the summer – and the surrounding community was again one of the most vocal about their need and love for this oasis.

The Playground entrance is on Ellsworth Street between 18th and 19th; from there, the pool is on the far side of the colorfully muralled building to your left. You’ll need to leave all your belongings outside the gate (on the ground or wedged into the fence), sign in and shower before getting in the water. On a hot day, children’s shouts will drown out the sound of the traffic on Washington Avenue.

Check out this nice picture too.

Community rally in 2009's empty pool. Photo by Coalition to Save the Libraries.

Community rally in 2009’s empty pool. Photo by Coalition to Save the Libraries.