In many ways, the story of the Swimmo is the backdrop to the story of Betty Adams’ life.
How could it not be? The swimming pool on Montgomery Avenue in Fishtown and the rec center across the street and library next door have long been the center of community life in this corner of the River Wards. “The spot,” Betty says.
The Swimmo, as the pool is affectionately called, was in full swing when Betty was growing up in the 1960s, and the people who swam and worked there became neighborhood fixtures: like Mary Lou Brannigan, the beloved, foulmouthed swim coach, who moonlighted as Betty’s water ballet instructor. The lifeguards from whom Betty and her friends, in their matching swim team suits, would steal doughnuts. The rec center leaders, adored as kings by the neighborhood kids — like Joe Scarps, who led the Wiffle ball tournaments.
After Betty married at 16, she sent her kids to the Swimmo and the Rec.
“Joe Scarps was my day care,” she said, laughing. And except for one week in August, the Swimmo was their Shore.
Betty eventually went to work at the Swimmo and the Rec,coaching the swim team and even taking over water ballet duties from Miss Brannigan (“without the cursing,” Betty clarified). Some evenings she would sit by the pool after closing, with the lights of the squad cars on Montgomery playing on the water and the dragonflies floating above those beautiful, chlorine-scented ripples. And in the mornings, she’d find money and jewelry glinting in the water, left by revelers who’d sneaked in for a dip after partying at the Delaware Avenue clubs. (“So I made out OK,” she says.)
And the Swimmo and the Rec were what got her through the great tragedy of her life: the murder of her son Freddy, in 1993, a star athlete who refereed hockey games at the Rec and practically lived there. A group of rival neighborhood kids beat him to death at 16.
“I don’t know why I didn’t go off the deep end — because of this, I guess,” Betty said. “My neighborhood, my friends, the tournament.”
The Freddy, the neighborhood called the annual sporting competition organized in honor of her son.
Generations of kids grew up scheduling summer vacations around the Freddy and proudly calling themselves “Swimmo rats.” And then kids grew up, families moved, and the Swimmo fell into disrepair, leaking into the library next door. It’s been closed since 2016.
As each summer heated up, rumors of the Swimmo’s revival floated. On Monday, the rumors will stop being rumors: Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Mayor Jim Kenney will announce repairs by the Trust for Public Land and the city’s Rebuild effort, which is funded by the soda tax. There will be a new playground, a multimillion-dollar redesign of the Swimmo, and repairs to Freddy’s old roller hockey rink.
It’s a reminder, if anyone needs it, that as controversial as the soda tax is, it is funding repairs to beloved community institutions like this one. And it’s a reminder that any conversations about amending the tax have to include finding ways of funding this work.
Thanks to Fishtown’s new cachet — and an influx of new families — the Rec is booming again. Now it will have the facilities it deserves, a place where new and old mix.
“It might give the new folks a chance to mix in with our kids, who are Swimmo rats,” said Helen Mullen, a dear friend of Betty, who also worked at the pool and the Rec, “and become Swimmo rats themselves.”
Two weeks ago was the 26th anniversary of Freddy’s death. Betty commemorated it by listening to a playlist her neighbors made for the tournament. And a few days later, she heard the good news about the Swimmo. When it’s done, a mural of Freddy, which had been taken down during recent construction, will go back up on a wall facing the Rec.