July 23, 2023

Why America stopped building swimming pools

Why America stopped building public pools

By Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN

Updated 10:43 AM EDT, Sat July 22, 2023

New YorkCNN — 

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Gerome Sutton looked forward all week for his chance to swim at Algonquin Park pool on the weekend.

“It was like Christmas in the summer time,” said Sutton, now 66 and a local minister. “It was the best time of the week.”

Louisville’s public parks were desegregated in 1955, a year before Sutton was born. This included the newly built Algonquin outdoor swimming pool on the West Side of Louisville.

It cost 35 cents to swim at Algonquin at the time, Sutton said. He and his seven siblings took turns going on alternating weekends because the family could not afford to send all eight children at the same time.

fairgrounds park pool RESTRICTED

A drained swimming pool shows how racism harms White people, too

“We would go swimming. That makes a big statement” against segregation, he said. “There was an organized effort on the part of government to keep children engaged with an activity.”

Public pools have played a critical role in American culture over the past century. But as climate change and extreme heat worsen, they are taking on an urgent public health role. Heat kills more Americans than any other weather-related disaster, according to data tracked by the National Weather Service.

Yet just as public pools become more important than ever, they’re disappearing from sight.

Pools have become harder to find for Americans who lack a pool in their backyard, can’t afford a country club, or don’t have a local YMCA. A legacy of segregation, the privatization of pools, and starved public recreation budgets have led to the decline of public places to swim in many cities.

“If the public pool isn’t available and open, you don’t swim,” Sutton said.

‘Swimming is mental health’

In the early 2000s, Louisville had 10 public pools for a population of around 550,000.

Today, the city has five public pools for a population of around 640,000, ranking 89 out of the largest 100 cities in swimming pools per person, according to Trust for Public Land, an advocacy organization for public parks and land.

Algonquin is the only pool left in West Louisville, and residents say the city has neglected basic maintenance and improvements for years.

This summer, as temperatures climb to the 90s in Louisville, Algonquin is closed for repairs, leaving around 60,000 people — most of whom are Black and middle-or-lower income households — without convenient access to the water.

Algonquin Pool at 1614 Cypress St. in Louisville, seen in May. The pool is closed this summer.

Algonquin Pool at 1614 Cypress St. in Louisville, seen in May. The pool is closed this summer.Matt Stone/Courier Journal/USA Today Network/Imagn

Some will miss out on a chance to learn how to swim, get more comfortable in the water, and build life-saving skills. Kids and teens won’t have a key place to gather and play during the summer months when school is off. And seniors can’t participate in Aqua Zumba fitness classes held at Algonquin during the summer to help them stay active.

“Swimming is mental health. It’s therapy. You have to have activities. It’s bigger than just a pool,” said Louisville Councilwoman Tammy Hawkins, who represents the district.

Swimming disparities

Access to swimming pools has long been hotly contested in America.

Giant municipal pools were built in the first half of the twentieth century, and desegregating public pools was a key target of the civil rights movement. But, strapped for funding, many local governments have neglected public pools.

“We’ve gotten to a point where a lot of the recreation taking place in the summers is happening in private spaces or in places with lack of support,” said Andrew Kahrl, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South.”

“We’ve seen the complete erosion of the public side of this equation,” Kahrl said.

Private pools, like these in Southern California, have replaced public pools in recent decades.

Private pools, like these in Southern California, have replaced public pools in recent decades.Mario Tama/Getty Images

There is one outdoor public pool for every 38,000 people in America — from 34,000 in 2015 — according to the National Recreation and Park Association.

The retreat of government and privatization of swimming pools and recreation has hurt poor and minority groups hardest, historians and public recreation experts say.

“Poor and working-class Americans suffered most directly from the privatizing of swimming pools,” writes Jeff Wiltse, a historian at University of Montana, in “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.”

Today, 79% of children in families with household incomes less than $50,000 have no or low swimming ability, according to a 2018 study. Sixty-four percent of Black children, 45% percent of Hispanic children and 40% of White children have no or low swimming ability, the study found.

When America built pools

While public pools are a rarer sight today, governments built enormous pools during the twentieth century.

The New Deal led to the biggest burst of public pools in American history. The federal government built nearly 750 pools and remodeled hundreds more between 1933 and 1938.

The Astoria Swimming Pool, built during the New Deal, in New York City in 1936.

The Astoria Swimming Pool, built during the New Deal, in New York City in 1936.Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses opened 11 pools funded by the federal Works Project Administration, and San Francisco opened Fleishhacker Pool, the largest of the era.

A 1933 survey of Americans’ leisure activities found that as many people swam frequently as went to the movies.

“Pools became emblems of a new, distinctly modern version of the good life that valued leisure, pleasure and beauty,” Wiltse writes.

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