Why America stopped building public pools

Jul 23, 2023, 6:00 PM

Public pools disappearing...

Many cities have struggled to hire lifeguards, leading to pool closures. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

(Hannah Beier/Reuters)

Originally Published: 22 JUL 23 05:02 ET
Updated: 23 JUL 23 18:09 ET

New York (CNN) — 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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

Racial violence

Before the 1920s, swimming pools in the North were segregated along gender lines but not racial ones.

This changed as they became gender integrated.

Racial stereotypes around cleanliness and safety, as well as intense fears of Black men interacting with White women in bathing suits, turned pools into some of the most segregated public spaces in America, said Victoria Wolcott, a historian at the University at Buffalo and author of “Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America.”

In the late 1940s, there were major swimming pool riots over integration in St. Louis; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles, Walcott said. In Cincinnati, Whites threw nails and glass into pools, and in St. Augustine, Florida, they poured acid into the water to prevent Black swimmers.

The Kerner Commission, tasked with studying the underlying causes of disorder in cities during the 1960s, found in its landmark 1967 report that the lack of recreation facilities, including pools, was a “deeply-held grievance” among Black people fueling urban unrest during sweltering summers.

Abandoning public pools

Gaining entry to swimming pools was a top priority for civil rights groups, who saw recreation as a fundamental human right.

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he described the tears in his daughter’s eyes when “she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children.”

But the success of the civil rights movement integrating pools coincided with a surge of private pools and swim clubs.

Millions of middle-class White families left cities for the suburbs and built pools in their new backyards during the era. New suburbanites chose to organize country clubs with fees rather than build pools open to the public.

From 1950 to 1962, 22,000 private swim clubs opened, mostly in White suburbs.

The development of private, gated communities and homeowners associations in the suburbs also led to the privatization of recreation. Towns formed their own tax bases and local governments with their own services and amenities.

“The decline of public pools happens at the same time as the push to privatization,” said Wolcott.

Some parts of the South revolted against integration by paving over or draining their pools rather than integrating them. Of the public pools open in 1961 in Mississippi, for example, nearly half had closed by 1972.

As Whites withdrew from public pools and parks, taxpayer funding and support for pools dwindled. In Cleveland, the city’s recreation budget was cut by 80%.

Disinvestment in public recreation grew following tax revolts of the late 1970s, Kahrl said. In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, which slashed local property tax rates and made it more difficult for the state to fund public recreation.

As cities closed pools and stopped maintaining existing ones, private swim clubs filled the void for those who could access them and backyard pools proliferated.

In 1972, there were 1.1 million residential pools, according to pool industry market research firm PK Data. Two decades later, there were 3.8 million.

Starved budgets

Lifeguard shortages and underfunded public recreation departments continue to strain local pools.

Parks and recreation agencies tend to be the first area to cut when budgets are tight and the slowest to get money back, said Kevin Roth, vice president of research, evaluation and technology at the National Recreation and Park Association.

“The budget challenge is something we’re very concerned about. It’s not new and it’s not going away anytime soon,” he said.

Public pools are costly for cities to maintain and insure.

Cities also have struggled to staff pools with lifeguards. High-school and college students have more summer job options and are less likely to pick up a job as a lifeguard over the summer than they once did, he said.

But the loss of public pools cannot be picked up fully by private pools or non-profit groups.

To give people in West Louisville a place to swim this summer, the city approved $100,000 in funding for free summer passes to the YMCA and an amusement park.

Passes will be only be available to a limited number of residents, and many residents lack transportation to get to the YMCA or amusement park.

Louisville’s metro government has allocated $6 million to renovate Algonquin and another local pool. But some local residents and leaders say renovating the Algonquin pool is not enough.

They want an indoor swimming pool open all year, like the aquatics center on the predominantly White East Side of the city, so people can access the water, take classes and stay fit.

“I would love for it to be year-round with water safety classes,” said LaShandra Logan, 35, who grew up in West Louisville and has gone to Algonquin since she was a child.

Last year, she learned how to swim through a local non-profit group, Central Adult Learn-to-Swim. Eighty-seven percent of the program’s students are Black and 85% are women.

“My biggest fear was drowning, and I wanted to learn,” Logan said. “I felt like if I could learn how to swim nothing else could intimidate me.”

She is currently enrolled in a lifeguard instruction class and wants to help other people in the community learn how to swim. Currently, there is a 2,500-person wait list of adults in Louisville who want to learn to swim through the non-profit.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” Logan said.

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Why America stopped building public pools