City kids took public pools for granted. We believed the glistening, chlorinated waters had nowhere else to be but waist-deep with us on days the asphalt sizzled and water ice melted in two seconds flat.
Then came summer 2020. COVID-19 shut down Philly pools and, coincidentally, it happened to be the city’s third hottest summer on record. As is often with the best things in life, we didn’t know what we had until it was gone.
The good news is that this year, the city plans to reopen its 68 outdoor pools. Not only will thousands of Philadelphians regain entry to their gated, neighborhood oases, the reopening signals a much-needed step in our journey to normalcy and to the joys of splishing and splashing. Access to water is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, where one can pick up an essential life skill — learning to swim — and enjoy the basic comfort of cooling down on days it’s too hot to think.
The reopening, however, won’t happen unless the city’s parks and recreation department is able to hire between 350 to 400 lifeguards. (https://www.phila.gov/services/working-jobs/find-a-job-or-internship/become-a-lifeguard/) So far, a little more than 200, mostly young people,have applied, eager to earn between $15.25 and $16.97 an hour. The city is covering the certification fee for those who commit to working at a city pool. More than 60% of pool staff has been hired as of early June, Soukoup says, so the city is on track to open the majority of its pools.
Parks and recreation is in a tough spot, said Thelma Nesbitt one of the five water safety instructors who is helping to oversee lifeguard certification. “COVID essentially left us having to start [our lifeguard recruitment efforts] from scratch,” Nesbitt said. “But reopening these pools is important because it brings back a sense of normalcy to the communities and after the year we had, we need it.”
On a recent hot, not-yet-summer day, Nesbitt is in the deep end of the Samuel Playground Pool in Port Richmond showing 18 lifeguards-in-training how to save a person from drowning. She’s been at it since the frigid days of late March. Because pools in city schools were closed as a result of the pandemic, the city spent thousands of dollars to heat the pool and install hot lamps so trainees didn’t have to work in the freezing cold.
The city’s recruitment campaign includes flooding local radio stations with advertisements. City officials have hosted in-person and virtual job fairs, and even gone door-to-door in neighborhoods with pools in search of teen and adult swimmers. Officials have also worked with swim coaches in area high schools to try to find an adequate number of lifeguards.
When will Philly’s public pools reopen?
Everyone is keeping their fingers crossed the pools will reopen on time at the end of June. But that doesn’t mean the impact of COVID-19 won’t be felt. Popular swim programs like Swim Philly and Philly Swim for Life Camps won’t happen, said Maita Soukup, communications director for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. “We just don’t have the time to get them up and running,” she said. The city is still working on COVID-19 safety protocols that includes a symptom check and contact tracing.
Pool enthusiasts are beyond grateful for the city’s efforts. “Last year I was afraid for the future of the pools,” said Mica Root, founder of Swimming Philadelphia, a blog that chronicles the happenings at city pools. “That would have been a terrible. It would [have] had such a negative impact on the quality of life, fight for racial justice, and everything our city is trying to improve on.”
History of public pools in Philadelphia
The first public pools were warm, unchlorinated waters that poor people bathed in back in the late 19th century, said Jeff Wiltse, a professor of history at the University of Montana and author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. There were several in Philadelphia in the 1880s.
By the early 20th century, bathhouses were chlorinated. When pools became coed in the late 1920s, they also became segregated. “Most whites at the time had racist prejudices against Black men,” Wiltse said. “So it was unthinkable to allow Black men to interact with white women in a social setting as physically and socially intimate as a swimming pool.”
The civil rights movement helped to desegregate pools in the 1950s and 1960s, but as white people moved out of the city, the pools weren’t kept up with the same fervor. Still, neighborhood residents flocked to pools in cities like Philadelphia and they became the heart of the neighborhood in hot, sticky, Philly summers.
“I started swimming in the 1980s after a bad car accident,” Nesbitt said. “I met a lot of people. I became a part of the community of lifeguards. There were so many good people. My kids all became lifeguards, too,” Nesbitt said. The experience defined a part of her life as a native Philadelphian.
Why pools are important
The reopening of the pools is a sign communities are on their way back to post-COVID-19 normalcy in a way that’s much more meaningful than eating out at expensive restaurants and returning to the hair salon.
Pools, like libraries, museums, and public parks, encourage gatherings that cross racial and class lines. Because neighborhood pools are often within walking distance, access to them is not hindered by a lack of reliable transportation. I may not have learned to swim until I was well in my 30s, but I had a lot of fun playing in city pools on those hot days in summer camp growing up in 1980s New York. Without this experience, I know I’d be afraid of water.
In our post-COVID-19 world, time spent at pools amounts to the few blocks of time when kids interact with each other in a technology-free setting. Pool play “is tactile, it’s boisterous, it’s physical, it’s one of the best ways kids can break the chains of the COVID restrictions,” Wiltse said. “They are the perfect antidote to the restrictions that we have been living with this past year.”
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10 Philly pools to visit
The best pool is the one with water in it, Root said. And we agree. Here are some fun pool facts that may help you narrow down your decision. After all, there are 68 from which to chose. Happy swimming.
(Note: Hours are subject to change once the official pool schedule is released in late June.) To find the pool nearest you, visit Inquirer.com/pools
Athletic Recreation Center Pool
This is the only pool in town with slides. So in a city where diving, running, and jumping and even having a floaty is forbidden, pool behavior, this pool — among the oldest in the city — is worth checking out.
1401-55 N. 26th St., 215-685-2709, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
This is an Olympic-size eight-lane pool that is known as the best city pool for lap swimmers. During the day, children are allowed to play in the pool; the city’s expert swimmers don’t mind sharing their space. The deck of the pool is surrounded by picnic area.
42nd St. & Parkside Ave., 215-685-0160, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
Mander Playground Pool
This spot has a reputation for top-notch water aerobics classes. The free 6 p.m. water aerobics class has been a part of the neighborhood’s pool culture for more than a dozen years. We hope they are able to come back.
2140 N. 33rd St., 215-685-3894, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
John A. Lee Cultural Center Pool
This pool has — gasp — a changing room. We can’t guarantee the floor won’t be wet, but any swimmer knows that when it comes to pool amenities, an actual changing room makes for a life-changing experience.
4328 Haverford Ave., 215-685-7655, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
Bridesburg Recreational Pool
With its $3.7 million state-of-the-art renovation, this is the city’s newest pool. The entire pool was rebuilt; that means a new floor, new walls, and a sparkling new deep end.
4625 Richmond St., 215 685-1247, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
Samuel Playground Pool
This outdoor pool, the main attraction of the Fishtown community center, was the recipient of a brand new heating system in the pool and on its deck. So even in unseasonably chilly temps, swimming is an option.
3539 Gaul St., 215-685-1246, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
J. Finnegan Playground Pool
Planning a day to trip to Bartram’s Garden and FDR Park? End it with a splash in the J. Finnegan Playground Pool. One of the only pools in Southwest Philadelphia, J. Finnegan is a destination hangout spot
6801 Grovers Ave., 215-685-4191, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
Ridgway Pool is one of the few located in the heart of Center City. It’s situated in the backyard of Creative Arts Performing High School. This location makes it a popular hangout with teens and tweens.
1301 Carpenter St., 215 685-1848, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
Cobbs Creek Park Pool
Make a day of it: Hike the winding — and generously shaded ― Cobbs Creek Park trail and lounge at the Cobbs Creek Park pool. The West Philadelphia park is the place for picnicking, reading, and relaxin’ under the beaming Philadelphia sun.
280 Cobbs Creek Pkwy., 215-685-1983, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
Hancock Playground Pool
This Fishtown neighborhood poolis surrounded by a new playground. We’re talking $1.1 million worth of state-of-the-art swings, slides, and exercise equipment. Hours of outdoor play topped off with an afternoon swim? It doesn’t get any better than this.
147 Master St., 215-685-9886, Open daily from noon to 5 p.m.
Thelma Nesbitt water safety instructor for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.
Maita Soukup, communications director for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation
Mica Root, founder of Swimming Philadelphia, a blog that chronicles the happenings at city pools
Jeff Wiltse, PhD, professor of history at the University of Montana and author of Contested Wates: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America