The Incredible Potential of Philadelphia’s Neglected Public Pools
This would be a great pool day. I’ve heard it uttered a dozen times this summer, probably more, by friends wallowing in sweat-stained misery or baking on city concrete. Sure, it would be nice if everyone could afford the Lombard Swim Club or had an uncle in Ardmore doling out guess passes to his private pool. But those aren’t the only chances Philadelphians have to take a dip. Within walking distance of most people’s home are a multitude of free public pools, run by the City of Philadelphia.
And yet, they’re an afterthought, if that, for many Philadelphians. Why?
The long legacy of racial and class segregation associated with municipal pools has probably ruined some of the allure. Then, there’s scientific studies like this one — about the real reason your eyes turn red in a pool (hint: it’s not the chlorine) — that skeeve people out. Lots of people also don’t know or don’t believe how convenient they are to access. But it’s mostly about the austere, vaguely-penal appearance of city pools: the barren concrete around the water, nary an umbrella in site; showers with rust-colored water stains, the bathroom graffiti. A lot of them are in equally bleak rec-center complexes. Many of the city-run pools are part of rec-center complexes, which by and large “look like the Soviet Union,” as Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, puts it.
Bleak, then, but also abundant. There are 70 outdoor public pools in Philadelphia, one for almost every neighborhood in the city, and more than any other city in the nation. New York has one pool for every 150,000 residents. In Philly, it’s one for every 22,000.
What if they weren’t so desolate looking? What if city pools could be made into something more than holes in a concrete expanse? What if, in other words, we treated these pools like the incredible civic assets that they actually are?
They would be amazing. And we know this because urban planner Ben Bryant got nearly $300,000 from a Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge grant to transform a public pool in Francisville. Bryant, of the planning and urban design firm Group Melvin Design, collaborated with the landscape architecture firm of Sikora Wells Appel, to add umbrellas, palm trees, aqua zumba classes and poolside yoga. Bryant is calling it a “pop-up pool.” It’s an astute misnomer: he’s not creating a pool out nothing as much as he’s borrowing the aesthetic of other pop-ups to create excitement around these oft-forgotten public facilities.
And the effect has been completely transformative; like Extreme Makeover touched down on a gritty slab of the city.
The new amenities are also attracting a bevy of new users, Bryant says, including young white professional types who were probably not regulars at city-operated pools before. Bryant is well aware that the pop-up phenomenon is, fairly or unfairly, often associated with largely white, affluent crowds. His project — appropriately aims to avoid that. “One of our mission statements was: we’re not doing a pop-up that is next to a pool; we’re doing a pop-up that makes the swimming experience better,” Bryant says. “Hopefully this doesn’t become a gentrifying thing.”
No, hopefully it becomes something much better than that: a template for a completely reinvented public space and community hub.
Most of Philadelphia’s public pools were designed for swimming and little else. With the exception of Francisville, the city’s pools are simply not equipped for lounging or tanning or reading a book. It’s no wonder, really, that people without families of their own are not fixtures on the edge of a steaming hot city pool, Artctic Splash in hand. The pools are for the kids.
In a physical sense, Bryant is striving to achieve something that public pools were known for in the 1920s and ’30s. Then, many municipal swimming holes offered many of the amenities we associate with private pools today: “Many of these gender-integrated pools were leisure resorts—larger than football fields and surrounded by sun decks, grassy lawns, and artificial sand beaches,” writes Jeff Wiltse in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues.
Of course, the vast majority of pools had signs reading “Whites Only” until the 1950s, when they slowly began to integrate across the country. Desegregation led to disinvestment, as white attendance plummeted and the facilities became less of a priority for municipal governments to maintain. In the suburbs, meanwhile, backyard pools became almost commonplace, growing 20-fold during the 1950s and from 2,500 to more than four million nationwide in the last half of the century. Private swimming clubs boomed as well. As Wiltse recounts in his book “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America,” exclusion was inherently a reason for the uptick:
As a result of their social exclusivity, club pools redivided swimmers along class lines. Americans from different social classes once again swam and socialized at different pools. The primary appeal of pool clubs, however, was the assurance of not having to swim with black Americans. Civil rights laws applied only to “public accommodations,” so private pools could legally continue to exclude black swimmers even after the courts had forced cities to desegregate municipal pools.
This legacy is still with us. It was conjured up earlier this year, when a police officer in McKinney, Texas, pulled a gun on black teenagers at a pool (a private pool, no less). Just as it was conjured up in 2009, when black kids were denied entrance into a Huntingdon Valley pool club. The popular assumption is that municipal pools are predominately the realm of lower-income residents, often black kids and teenagers, a line of thought which also assumes that people with disposable income only prefer the Shore or a private club. Bryant is trying to explode the perception that racial and economic divisions are an inherent part of the public pool experience.
That change of heart is already evident on the city’s end. “We always catered to the kids in the neighborhood — it’s the only summer vacation that they get,” says Leo Dignam, Deputy Commissioner of Parks and Rec. The new flourishes at the Francisville pool have shaken up the entrenched bureaucratic mindset. “The pop-up pools are getting us to think of adults and families.”
Attracting an older demographic is one reason why the pop-up pool project holds so much promise. Doing so might just be essential to the long-term viability of maintaining all 70 city-owned pools. “If the pools stay a hidden resource, there is never going to be a constituency for them. The city is not building new pools and they’re expensive to run,” says Bryant. “Kids are seen as being the biggest users of the system. But kids don’t vote or have a voice.”
Replicating the success at Francisville will take more than a constituency. It’ll take money. Millions of dollars, in a city that struggles to pay for basic services and to fund its schools — which is why there’s still a legitimate discussion to be had about whether some “right-sizing” of the pool system is in order. After all, most of the original pool infrastructure was built at a time when the city was half a million people larger. And pool attendance was much higher as well: in 1937, 4.3 million people swam in Philly public pools; nowadays, roughly 1 million attend annually.
Depending on your point of view, you’ll either see great inefficiency or great opportunity in this void of pool-goers. On the one hand, pools are an expensive civic asset to maintain and appeal to a narrow sub-section of the city (as my Millennial-age cohort can attest).
Pools are inherently expensive. They’re so costly that other localities, such as Montgomery County, Maryland, have resorted to charging entrance fees membership dues for access to public pools (those fees have also paid for better maintenance). In Philadelphia, each pool has five lifeguards and five maintenance staff on deck for the eight to 12 weeks of the season. All told, seasonal staffing costs $2.3 million each year, which excludes the salaried plumbers who check each facility daily. That’s a lot of money to spend on what can seem like an extra. Pools aren’t trash collection or policing, after all.
On the other hand, there never seems to be a shortage of people trumpeting the importance of spiffy new public spaces in Center City. Or of skate parks. Or of maintaining the Wissahickon. All of these public spaces are supported by tax money and serve relative slivers of the population. And, let’s face it, Center City residents, skateboarding devotees, regulars at Wissahickon — they are majority white. Users of municipal pools? They’re predominately kids whose parents can’t afford a 75-mile weekend jaunt to the Shore. And that’s one huge reason why they’ve been overlooked.
In other cities, public pools are in big trouble. Sacramento has gone from a dozen pools down to three in the last 15 years, just as plenty of other cities have closed pools either temporarily or permanently to shrink shortfalls in their budgets. In the summer of 2009, at the height of the recession, Philly closed half its pools for the summer, but since then the city has been moving in the opposite direction. It’s not only reopened almost all of those pools, it’s added some 20 spraygrounds into the mix, including the ever-popular toddler magnet at Sister Cities park. There are no plans to close pools in the near future.
“I think over the last 20 years, we’ve gone down from 74 to 70 pools,” says Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources Mike DiBerardinis, who ran Parks and Recreation between 1992 and 2000. A net loss of four pools was the only casualty of two fiscal crises the city found itself in: first, during the early Rendell years, and later, during the Great Recession. As DiBerardinis sums up, “The system has held up pretty well.”
That’s a testament to how effectively pool advocates galvanize when a pool is threatened over the years. Back in 2004, there were 20 pools slotted for closure. The city faced a $227 million budget deficit and the Recreation Department proposed closing a quarter of its pools (along with 62 rec facilities) to help close the gap. Neighborhood groups simply wouldn’t have it. North Philly residents formed a human blockade along 22nd street when the Cecil B. Moore Rec Center (its pool being the main attraction), was on the chopping block. The political pressure worked.
So city pools have a strong enough constituency to stay open, even when times are lean. What they don’t have — at least not yet — is a constituency that demands and gets a robust maintenance budget. And so the city’s public pools are slowly deteriorating. That could be ascertained from a 2014 report from the City Controller’s office, which found that 30 percent of the pools had hazards like cracked concrete, standing water and electrical hazards — worst of all was a rogue current that shocked three children while the inspectors were on site at O’Connor Pool at 26th and South. The city did its due diligence this winter, patching the holes and addressing the hazards.
During the mayoral election, Public Citizens for Children and Youth partnered with 39 other organizations to develop a pro-youth pledge for the candidates to sign, which calls for upgrading rec centers in the city, among other initiatives like universal Pre-K. Both Jim Kenney and Melissa Murray Bailey have signed it, meaning that certain pool upgrades could be in store. Or so Cooper hopes. “We haven’t been threatened by a pool closure lately,” she says. “It’s harder to build a constituency when there isn’t something being taken away.”
Unless, that is, the potential constituency gets bigger and broader.
Next year, the Knight Foundation grant will fund two more pop-up pools, but the city, which has turned from skeptic to believer on the project, wants to do more. “I won’t lie, I wasn’t sold on it up top,” says DiBerardinis. The city will be doing an assessment of costs come September in anticipation of deploying a scaled-down model of Francisville in several locations across the city. Those might include adding no-frills seating and shade, for example, but no palm trees. How to pay for those upgrades is yet to be determined, says DiBerardinis although it could come from corporate advertising with temporary signage. “My hope is we can do, in addition to the two pop-ups, we can do 10 to 15 more like it.”
And from there, who knows? The Knight Foundation wants this idea to spread. “There are cities with more convivial pools than others, but most are like the ones that Ben found in Philadelphia,” says Carol Coletta, vice president of community and national initiatives for the foundation. “If his team could pull it off in Philadelphia, it would serve as the model for other cities.”
Perhaps this little project in Francisville will change how the entire city thinks about public pools: like assets, instead eyesores. Everyone likes to cool off with a dip in summer. Why can’t we all do it in the same place?