Philadelphia’s pools are safe havens — spaces to connect, cool off, and decompress. But amid a lifeguard shortage, many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods will go a second summer without their pool, and residents say the consequences may be dire.
In East Germantown, where escalating gun violence upends residents’ lives — and has even shut down the neighborhood pool in the past — requiring kids to walk a mile to the next-closest pool puts them at risk, said Ernice Burbage, vice president of the Belfield Rec Center Advisory Board.
“There is so much violence between this block and that block, [children] are fearful of going too far out of their own comfort zone,” said Burbage, 76. “They wouldn’t know where to run if something happened. They wouldn’t know how to get away from the danger.”
“It’s easy to say go ahead, it’s not so far from you, but when you’re 12 or so and you’re taking younger siblings, that’s a long way to travel and keep an eye on whether you can stay safe,” she said.
This week, Philadelphia announced that 22 pools would not reopen this summer amid a lifeguard shortage. To open all 69 outdoor pools, the city needed to hire more than 400 lifeguards. But only about 200 have been certified, the result of a worker shortage and the pandemic limiting the time they had to train and recruit. Residents can find an updating list of open pools and spraygrounds here.
The city said it considered geography, past pool usage data, staffing, and other nearby cooling options like spraygrounds to determine which pools to reopen, said Parks and Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup. If a neighborhood had multiple pools, the largest or most popular one was opened to serve the most residents, she said.
An Inquirer analysis shows that the pools that will not reopen are disproportionately located in lower-income neighborhoods, especially North Philadelphia. Of pools that won’t allow swimmers this year, 73% are in zip codes with median incomes below $40,000 — often also areas with higher percentages of residents of color — while 27% are in zip codes with median incomes above that level.
For pools scheduled to reopen, about 53% are in zip codes with median incomes below $40,000 and 47% are in ones with median incomes above.
Soukup said the city took a “very thoughtful and strategic approach in how we chose which pools to open” and some neighborhoods simply have a higher concentration of pools than others.
But some residents, councilmembers, and community leaders in areas losing their pool say the list is inequitable and want the city to reevaluate it. And, as more young people need safe spaces to go amid surging gun violence, the stakes are high to get it right.
“Where are these children supposed to go?” said Alfreda Moore, 48, who raised her family in Hunting Park, which will not see its pool reopen due to maintenance repairs. “At this point, walking even a block can be a risk of your life.”
In Hunting Park — which can run more than 20 degrees warmer than other areas during a heat wave — community leaders say there could be health impacts associated with losing its sole pool. The area is what’s known as a “heat island,” which are urban and often low-income neighborhoods that see especially high temperatures due to factors including a lack of tree cover and proximity to highways or industrial sites.
“For this community to lose a pool, [it] really can be dangerous to folks’ health,” said Quetcy Lozada, vice president of community engagement and organizing at Esperanza, a nonprofit that serves Hunting Park’s large Hispanic community.
For many Hunting Park families, “the pool is their only source of heat relief,” Lozada said. “Pools and rec centers are the only vacation they know.”
The pool at Hunting Park — along with Lawncrest, Zeihler, and McVeigh — is closed because of repair and maintenance issues discovered this spring, Soukup said. The goal is to have repairs completed by next summer, and the city is “committed to looking into ways to provide additional cooling options for Hunting Park residents,” including expanded PlayStreets.
Leroy Fisher, president of the community group Hunting Park United and a former rec center employee, said the gazebo that houses pool equipment is collapsing and isn’t safe to enter. Fixing up the pool is the next step in a long line of needed improvements to the building — the rec center recently received a new roof and was cleared of asbestos — and while the timing is unfortunate, the repairs are necessary, he said.
But some Hunting Park residents question why those repairs weren’t identified and completed during the 18-month closure, and said it speaks to the city’s failure to maintain recreation centers in lower-income neighborhoods.
The lack of maintenance drove some residents to stop using the pool a long time ago, said Martin Strom, 58. Residents did what they could with upkeep, he said, but gave up on complaining after seeing little response. Strom didn’t feel safe allowing his son to use the park or pool.
“If that pool was in ... another zip code, trust me, it would be maintained, it would be pristine, and would be utilized for all. But because it is where it is, they don’t give a damn about it,” said Moore.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke, whose North Philadelphia-based Fifth District includes the Fairhill and Hunting Park pools, has expressed “serious reservations about the pools that were not opening” to the administration, Clarke spokesperson Joe Grace said. Clarke suggested that the city create “pop up” pools for underserved area, and Parks and Rec is looking into it, Grace said.
Councilmember Cindy Bass said the city should have been prepared for lifeguard shortages. Bass said Council in recent years has requested funding for a lifeguard training program called Ready to Swim, only to be rebuffed by the administration.
She wrote a letter to Kenney on Tuesday requesting the city immediately open all pools and work more closely with district councilmembers to craft plans for their neighborhoods’ facilities.
Bass also questioned the city’s choices for which pools will not reopen, saying that the Kenney administration appears to be failing its promise to ensure policy decisions take into account the potential for racial inequities.
“I find it odd that we keep making decisions through a racial equity lens that end up being negative to Black and brown communities. I don’t understand how this keeps happening,” she said.
The 12th & Cambria Playground pool in Fairhill, south of Hunting Park, will also remain closed. Claudette Page, president of the rec center’s advisory board, said they were two lifeguards short. Kids are growing frustrated, she said, especially since the rec center is still closed to the general public.
Page said they don’t have sprinklers either but will meet this week to make a plan.
Just a few blocks from the Hunting Park rec center, the North10 Lenfest Center reopened the doors of its newly renovated, 50,000-square-foot community center to the public for the first time Tuesday. The center has a cooling room that can fit up to 60 people, with games, water, and snacks, as well as an adult classroom, gym, and food market — all free.
Chris Gale, North10′s chief program officer, said the space will be a refuge for kids and adults this summer, especially without the pool.
Two blocks over, neighbors Rafael Polanco and Manuel Davila opened a fire hydrant for kids to play in. They were concerned about the pool closure but welcomed the update that North10 had reopened.
“That’s gonna save a lot of kids’ lives,” said Davila, 48.
Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.