No Horseplay! The Fight to Save Philly Pools

About a dozen children stand in an empty swimming pool holding signs that read "no pools, no fun."

Image caption: Betty Beaufort [at left in pool with green shirt] organized with her Point Breeze neighbors to protest the closure of their pool in summer 2009. Photo by Suzy Subways.

By James Yeun

In the wake of the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Philadelphia found itself with a projected $1 billion deficit. In the middle of the recovery from one of the worst economic disasters in modern history, Mayor Nutter began his budgetary rampage. Across the city, fire-houses were shuttered and libraries were threatened. As library patrons and firefighters stormed the streets, alongside them stood dozens of children armed with floaties. This summer, 74 public pools will be open but, in 2009, all but 13 were to be closed.

* * *

Philadelphia has more public pools per capita than any other U.S. city. This system has long served the needs of the multiracial poor and working-class communities of Philadelphia. In his book Contested Waters, Jeff Wiltse, Professor of History at the University of Montana, covers the origins of Philadelphia’s public pool system as bathing pools for the poor and working-class. Built in the 1880s and 1890s, these facilities were incredibly popular during the summer, recording an average of “1,500 swimmers per day.” While men and women swam on alternating days, Black and white Philadelphians swam in the same pool. Within the social context of public bathing, for those in power, the racial difference between the bathers stood out less than common filthiness. In 1898, Daniel Kearns, secretary of Boston’s bath commission, reported, “I must say that some of the street gamin [street kids/“thugs”], both white and colored, that I saw, were quite as dirty as it is possible to conceive.”

In 1972, Jim Ellis started the first African-American swim team at a Philadelphia recreation center. In a swim world awash with whiteness, Coach Ellis’s program sent Michael Norment to be the first Black member of the U.S. national swim team and trained many young Black swimmers to compete regularly for Olympic positions. His story would later become the loose basis of the movie “Pride.” However, when Jim Ellis’s pool closed down, his team had nowhere left to swim and disbanded.

Betty Beaufort, a long-time Philly resident and an organizer for the fight to Save the Pools, recalls: “We protested the closing of the pools because, what are the children going to do in this city? It was their fun for the summer. Just the idea of closing pools is so silly in a neighborhood where that’s all we have for our children during the summer.” As Nutter slashed budgets and families reeled from the Recession, it was the working class and communities of color — in particular, Black children — who found themselves bearing the dual burden of economic collapse and municipal neglect.

Point Breeze 2
Children in Point Breeze, South Philadelphia protest the closure of their neighborhood pool in summer 2009. Photo by Suzy Subways.

* * *

As Beaufort told me, the fight to defend the pools came from the existing coalitions built through the Coalition to Save the Libraries in 2008 and 2009 (which managed to keep the libraries open). They quickly gained community support. Beaufort said, “Once people see you doing something, they join in. If they don’t see, they don’t do.”

Facing the closure of 68 out of 81 Philly public pools, protests were called across the city. Nutter relented. On February 6, rather than raise taxes, Nutter launched a massive fundraising operation, begging the public and large corporations to donate to keep the pools open. Between this fundraiser and Nutter’s decision to restore some money cut from the budget, Nutter raised the number of pools being kept open from 13 to 49.

However, this still left many children without a nearby pool. On July 10, protesters rallying in South Philly lamented that young children would be left to walk 30 minutes to overcrowded pools. On July 14, the Coalition for Essential Services and the Coalition to Save the Libraries held a rally in front of City Hall, urging Nutter to keep open all public pools, forcing Nutter to promise to re-open more pools by the next year.

“Once he [Nutter] made the statement that pools will be re-opened the next year, we backed off,” Betty Beaufort said. “And he did!” By 2011, Nutter re-opened 70 public pools.

Several children and adults stand holding signs that read "Pools for kids and seniors = safe street for the neighbors" and "no pools? no jobs? no fair!"
Residents of Gray’s Ferry, South Philadelphia, protest the closure of their neighborhood pool in summer 2009. Photo by Suzy Subways.

* * *

All Philadelphians have a right to public spaces. But with pools, this is about the right for children to have a place where they can be children. “Children love to go swimming because it’s fun! It’s something they can do and they won’t be disturbing no peace,” Betty Beaufort told me. She continued: “They be enjoying themselves. Enjoying what they enjoy doing, and that’s what most children don’t have an opportunity to do: enjoying what they want to do, because they’re so controlled by other people — don’t do this, don’t do that — but swimming gives them the privilege of being themselves and being with their friends and their peers.”

We need to invest in our public spaces and, in particular, our pools: A 2017 audit by the city found that only 30 pools were observed to be safe. Moreover, as temperatures climb due to climate change, access to cheap or free ways to stay cool become a matter of public health.

Mayor Kenney has offered as a solution the $500 million Rebuild initiative, which aims to renovate the rec centers, libraries and pools. Not only is this initiative partly funded by the regressive soda tax, it replicates the politically spineless revenue-raising model of Nutter. Rather than raise taxes on the rich, Mayor Kenney would rather ask them for voluntary donations in exchange for greater political power. The William Penn Foundation fronted $100 million for Mayor Kenney. In an Op-Ed to the Philly Inquirer, Janet Haas, the Chair of the Board of Directors of the William Penn Foundation, wrote: “We believe the combination of these features holds great potential to leverage additional public and private funding, and may render Rebuild a new model for community reinvestment emulated by cities and communities across the country.”

But what is this model? A city cannot be run like a large charity operation. If Philadelphia values its rec centers, libraries and pools, they should be funded properly. We cannot close budget gaps through philanthropy — we need higher taxes on the rich and cuts to their corporate welfare.

This isn’t just a question of sensible fiscal policy, but of basic democracy. The model laid out by Mayor Nutter and, now, Mayor Kenney and the William Penn Foundation decides what gets funded or unfunded based on the personal preferences of the rich. While the rich can avoid the political process by simply paying to have nice local charter schools, or their own personal sanitation department and police force, the rest of us sit and watch while our roads crumble, our schools get turned into luxury apartments, and our roads pile with trash.

The right to a decent life in Philadelphia belongs to every Philadelphian, regardless of income. It is the same for the children of Philadelphia. Philadelphia should defend all its children for the sake of their childhood, not because it is in the interest of the rich.

. . .

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