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At city pools, a ‘why not?' attitude can lead to simple but meaningful improvements | Helen Ubiñas

There are 70 outdoor pools in Philadelphia, 70 opportunities this summer to build community in the city.

Makayla Thomas rests on a lounge chair by the pool at the Kingsessing Rec Center, in Philadelphia, July 2, 2019. $3,000 was raised for new pool chairs, a blue and white striped privacy screen, umbrellas, a new shower head, and concrete paint, to spruce up the community pool.
Makayla Thomas rests on a lounge chair by the pool at the Kingsessing Rec Center, in Philadelphia, July 2, 2019. $3,000 was raised for new pool chairs, a blue and white striped privacy screen, umbrellas, a new shower head, and concrete paint, to spruce up the community pool.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

He was considering another job in construction, but today, his first as a Philadelphia Parks and Recreation lifeguard, Jason Williams-Gibson assumes his perch at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center pool and thinks, Why not?

Why not spend the already scorching summer near water and alongside his twin brother, Joseph — seven minutes younger — who is just a few steps away atop another lifeguard chair, the power of the whistle draped around their necks?

With a competitive starting pay of $13.65 an hour, the high school senior’s dream car, an ’02 Honda Civic, is within reach.

And who would have guessed that on Day One, a pint-sized swimmer would walk up to him and announce he’d like to be a lifeguard, too. Hey, why not?

“Didn’t think I’d be a role model,” Williams-Gibson said. “So that was cool.”

He took it all in, an oasis at the corner of 25th and Diamond Streets, and considered one more thing:

The kids had nowhere to put their stuff on the narrow concrete deck around the North Philadelphia pool. Their belongings, piled on the sides, inevitably got soaked as they splashed around.

Why not a bench affixed to the brick wall, or even some hooks?

Yes, I cheered, why not?

I was still thinking about Williams-Gibson the next afternoon when I popped into Kingsessing Recreation Center, and recalled the response I’d gotten from a rec center supervisor at another location after I noted how barren the surroundings were at many of the pools.

“It’s not a swim club,” he responded.

Well, I thought, as I was greeted by colorful umbrellas and comfortable lounge chairs at Kingsessing, no one better tell that to the swimmers at this Southwest Philly pool.

And all because Will Tung, a father and firefighter who lives nearby, looked around one day while using the pool with his family and thought, “Why not?”

Inspired by previous pop-up pool projects around the city, including Swim Philly, Tung got to work with the help of Dontae Privette, who runs the Kingsessing Roadrunners, a low-cost sports program for kids. They raised about $3,000 through a crowdsourcing campaign, enough that with volunteer labor included a makeover of a freshly painted pool deck, a privacy screen, and 40 chairs that swimmers of all ages enjoyed.

On one, Nafiys Walters, 10, was taking a break from swimming with family members. “Comfortable,” he declared.

On another was Beth Jamison, a babysitter who, while keeping a keen eye on her charge, noted how small touches could make a big difference in people’s experience and attitude. “It makes people more invested in their surroundings,” she said.

Tung agreed as we discussed the transformation under a sun sail, another recent addition.

“It makes me happy,” the fire lieutenant said. “It signifies to kids in the community that ‘Hey, people care about you, people care about you enough to fix up the place where you guys live, where you guys hang out.’”

The summer of my poolside newsroom pop-ups has just begun, but already I’ve noticed improving these community centers can be as simple as asking and then acting on “Why not?”

Why not replace Bridesburg’s aging pool, which celebrated its new one by kicking off the city’s pool season? Why not make the Kingsessing pool more inviting? In fact, why not make all the public pools more swim club than swimming hole? Add Vare, another pool I visited, to the list. Why not have Parks and Recreation take ownership of the deteriorating and defunct Hartranft Recreation Center, owned by the School District? In the 19133 zip code — the poorest in Philadelphia — kids are in desperate need of more safe havens in their neighborhood.

Parks and Rec told me they are in the process of doing that, with the help of Council President Darrell Clarke. They also told me that they’re looking into adding more amenities to pools, including Gathers, after they heard about the lifeguard’s suggestion. (If Williams-Gibson leaves the pool for that higher paying construction job, I’ll take up the cause.) Kingsessing Recreation Center got lucky and was chosen as a site to be restored through the city’s multimillion-dollar Rebuild program, although in the meantime, if you’d like to help Tung and Privette maintain the makeover, you can still donate through their GivingFuel campaign.

As I was talking to Tung and Privette, I told them about Gibson-Williams, the young man with big ideas.

That’s all it takes, they told me.

“Sometimes all these spaces need is a voice that can tell the story,” Privette said. “Once more people get behind it, and the story can get told, it goes a long way.”

Why not?