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Philadelphia pool closures leave neighborhoods without a vital community resource: ‘Why our pool?’

Across the area, pools have been closing down because of lifeguard shortages and ongoing renovations. No one is certain when, or if, some pools will open again.

Weeds have started to grow in the seams, concrete floor, and walls because of the long gap between use at Gathers Pool, part of the Hank Gathers Recreation Center.
Weeds have started to grow in the seams, concrete floor, and walls because of the long gap between use at Gathers Pool, part of the Hank Gathers Recreation Center.Read moreAllison Beck/Logan Center

On a March afternoon, Lakia Toney recalled the sounds of kids laughing and splashing in the clear blue water during a summer afternoon. Neighbors of all ages joined in on the fun at 12th and Cambria Recreation Center.

She smiled at the memory of her North Philadelphia community enjoying the safety of the city-run pool, and one another’s company.

“Everyone from everywhere will come in, and it will be like a gathering for everyone to cool off,” said Toney, the center’s after-school program coordinator, standing near the now-drained pool. “It would be a great time to see ... your neighbors, to see ... the children in the neighborhood or on the block.”

12th and Cambria Pool hasn’t opened in three years. A bright mural adorns the rec center behind it, but the pool itself is full of algae-infested water, dead leaves, and chipped white paint.

Patrons of 17 Philadelphia pools are dealing with a similar story. Between lifeguard shortages and renovations, no one is certain when, or if, the pools will open again. The area pools that open often do so later in the season, with their gates closing after as little as six weeks.

An empty pool is a sobering sight. Large, dirty puddles and piles of debris build up in deep ends and by rusty ladders, juxtaposed against the sounds of kids playing at surrounding playgrounds and basketball courts.

“It’s kind of devastating. Everybody’s asking, like, ‘Why our pool?’” said Daniel Edmunds, a recreational specialist instructor at 12th and Cambria.

Philadelphia’s pools took a hit at the beginning of the pandemic. All city pools were closed in 2020, and many struggled to reopen the following year amid a national lifeguard shortage. Cities across the country are facing difficulties recruiting, training, and retaining guards because of low pay, high training costs, the temporary nature of the job, and a general lack of interest.

Just 50 of 72 city pools opened in 2022, and many of them for only a portion of the summer.

Parks and Recreation has been recruiting lifeguards through high schools, community groups, and employment organizations. The department is hiring Philadelphians who do not yet know how to swim and offering free training and certification ahead of the summer. Pay was recently raised to $16 per hour, with a $1,000 end-of-season bonus if guards submitted their applications by April 15.

Toney said the background checks and drug testing needed for lifeguards are a big barrier for some neighborhood youths. All candidates are required to submit to background checks and must pass a drug screening if they are over 18, according to Andrew Alter, a spokesperson for Parks and Recreation.

“When there are opportunities like this where they could be making a great income or helping out the community, helping out themselves, they’re not able to,” Toney said. “They can’t be a part of that because they’re involved in things that they’re not supposed to be doing and it’s hindering them from actually helping themselves and others.”

» READ MORE: ‘Playing Fields, not Killing Fields’

Sherrione Dempsey, 30, a North Philly resident, did not even know there was a pool at the same playground where her son was playing on the jungle gym. They’ve been going to the playground at Marie Dendy Recreation Center, at 10th and Jefferson, for a year and a half. The last time the pool opened was the summer of 2019.

She believes pools give young people something to look forward to doing.

“I feel like if kids had something to do with their time, like if their time was more prioritized, then you know, they would not resort to so much negativity,” Dempsey said.

Ikey Raw, 46, of Northeast Philly, was a regular at the Penrose Pool at 11th and Susquehanna. He said he can’t swim but would spend the entire day there splashing around.

Raw, who advocates for families of murder victims, said that pools give kids an alternative to hanging on the streets or getting into trouble.

“Don’t get me wrong, you will have some knuckleheads sometimes want to start something at the pool, and we know how that goes,” Raw said. “But for the most part, it’s going to deter kids from looking at one of the old heads or somebody on the block who’s selling drugs and got a gun. Instead they’ll be at the pool, having fun.”

According to a report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, one of the conditions that increase the likelihood of community gun violence is under-resourced public services, and “as a result, whole neighborhoods are exposed to and impacted by the adverse health effects of gun violence.”

Last year, 512 people were murdered in the city, and close to 1,800 wounded, with 38 shootings alone in Dendy’s zip code. In 2022, teenagers were victims in 70 fatal and 307 nonfatal shootings in Philadelphia. This was more than double the figures in those categories from 2015.

A look at six North Philly pools struggling to open:

Playing Fields, not Killing Fields is an Inquirer collaboration with Temple’s Claire Smith Center for Sports Media and The Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting, to produce a series examining the current state of Philadelphia’s youth recreation infrastructure and programs. The project will explore the challenges and solutions to sports serving as a viable response to gun violence and an engine to revitalize city neighborhoods.