Philly’s indoor pools have become ‘a travesty’ after decades of disrepair and neglect
Philly can lay claim to just one of its 12 indoor pools being operational. Residents say the problem exacerbated the city’s lifeguard shortage and made swimming even harder for kids to learn.
Philadelphia boasts about being among the major cities with the most public pools in the country, but when it comes to indoor facilities that operate year-round, the city falls remarkably short.
With just one operable indoor public pool in the city, residents and activists say the closure of many of them in recent years has exacerbated the city’s lifeguard shortage and made swimming a problematic activity for kids to learn.
“The state of the pools now in Philadelphia is a travesty,” said Jim Ellis, 75, coach of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim team, which is no longer associated with the department. “They had one of the greatest programs around and they didn’t know it, and they tore it down by not continuing to finance it.”
Ellis has trained Olympic contenders who went on to professional success because of the focus and discipline they learned swimming in one of Philly’s indoor pools.
As of 2004, the city housed 12 public indoor pools. Most faced inconsistent openings, degrading facilities, and closures for repairs that never materialized, causing the city to shutter all but one pool by 2019.
Coincidentally, the indoor pool closures have disproportionately harmed communities of color. The pools served as a crucial pipeline for teaching kids to swim, and the closure problem has impacted generations of families who never learned how to swim because of the racialized dynamics of swimming.
Black Americans across the country were harassed, threatened, and even physically attacked for swimming in public pools for decades.
In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control reported that Black children were 5.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than white children of the same age. At 11 to 12 years old, that statistic nearly doubled.
“Swimming is absolutely a lifesaving skill. It’s the only sport that can save your life,” said Elaine Calip, senior director of development of USA Swimming.
Advocates for the reopening of the city’s public indoor pools secured a victory last month when the school board unanimously approved $15 million in repairs to West Philadelphia’s Sayre-Morris Pool. The pool has been closed since 2017 because of a need for “structural, pool equipment and systems repairs,” according to school district officials.
Charisma Presley is one of the leaders of Friends of Philly Aquatics, a group of activists fighting for Philadelphia’s indoor pools to reopen. The recent decision brought her some hope.
“This is incredible,” Presley said, “seeing Superintendent [Tony] Watlington include it as a component of his plan and then witnessing the affirmative vote demonstrated to our community, particularly to the students who gave steadfast testimony, that their voices still matter and that advocacy is still effective.”
Swimming saves lives
For activists, the question of whether residents have access to pools and swimming lessons is a matter of life and death.
Formal swim lessons can reduce a person’s chances of drowning by up to 88%. But a set of four private swim lessons in Philadelphia can cost anywhere from $95 to $200 — assuming a family doesn’t already pay for a membership at most YMCAs or private pools.
The city’s outdoor pools offer free or inexpensive swim lessons but fall short of the year-round instruction that indoor pools once offered.
In 2008, Nicetown’s Marcus Foster pool closed indefinitely because of the extent of disrepair to the building and pool, which was owned by the school district but ran aquatics programs through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Activists said the school district told them repairs to the pool would be too expensive in combination with other construction, despite earlier promises that it would reopen.
“We had nothing,” Presley said. “Some people came together. It was like, ‘Hey, they made a commitment to fix our pools, and they didn’t, so we want our pools open.’”
According to the U.S. Census, 40.6% of residents in Marcus Foster’s zip code live in poverty, making it difficult for families to pay the fees associated with joining the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center or a YMCA branch, which can reach hundreds of dollars depending on family size.
“Marcus Foster was closed. [E.W.] Rhodes was closed. The only alternative is to pay money,” said Philly native Cokettia Rawlerson, assistant principal at Alain Locke School. “We do pay taxes and we don’t have access to our local pool.”
Since the aquatics community in Philadelphia is tight-knit, Presley said recreational swimmers were welcomed by members of Pickett Pool in Germantown. In 2019, though, Pickett was closed for repairs that were never completed.
Lauren Myers, a Mount Airy resident and former PDR swimmer, found a second home with her kids at Pickett Pool, where they took lessons and eventually joined the swim team. “I loved it,” she said.
Then, problems started. The pool would close on and off because of heating and other issues. Myers said that many calls for help went unanswered, “I would just get so frustrated with the lack of attention, the lack of caring,” she added.
Presley and others in Friends of Philly Aquatics argue that indoor pools create a direct pipeline to increasing the number of lifeguards in the city by teaching neighbors of all ages how to swim and consistently engaging them with aquatics. Without that consistency, there is less interest, less opportunity for recruiters to find interested people, and makes it harder for current or former lifeguards to get recertified.
The Friends of Philly Aquatics started to attend community meetings and came to a realization: Neighbors in low-income communities of color all over the city had lost their indoor pools the same way.
“You know, this African proverb says until the lion tells his story, the hunter will always win,” Presley said. “The problem was that we were never hearing other people’s stories because they were running the same game on everyone else.”
Lifeguard jobs and life skills
Milan Howell, a senior at Masterman School, became a lifeguard last year. She testified at a school board meeting in January that she was only able to become a lifeguard because she could travel to Lincoln High School, the only place where Parks and Recreation held training at the time.
As of March, Parks and Recreation held free training sessions at Lincoln High, Friends Select in Center City, and St. Joseph’s Preparatory School. It now has additional training at Roxborough YMCA and Samuel Recreation Center, a heated outdoor pool.
All but Lincoln are not typically open to the public year-round.
Howell said becoming a lifeguard had many benefits, including learning to swim, a guaranteed summer job, and the rewards of teaching younger children to swim.
“I learned so much from getting a job this year,” she added.
Sports participation in general has been shown to positively impact all aspects of a child’s health — not just physical. That includes lowered rates of anxiety, depression, stress, and substance abuse risk, and an increase in confidence. Research has even shown a correlation between sports and increased cognitive ability and educational and career success.
Kids also improve traits like determination, personal responsibility, and empathy. Many studies highlight the additional impact of these on disadvantaged communities with high rates of trauma.
In his late teens, Michael Thomas, a West Philadelphia contractor and business owner, spent most of his time playing cards and “hustling,” following his days wherever they took him, including the more dangerous corners of North and West Philadelphia.
“I was in the streets, doing the things that people do in the streets,” he said. Despite enrolling at Temple University for electrical engineering, he was failing out, hardly attended class, and didn’t see much good in his future. “I didn’t believe that I could do things differently.”
Sometimes, his days would take him to the indoor pool at the Howard Sayre-Morris Recreation Center, where he liked to swim with his brother. One day, then-manager Ellis challenged the two to a race. Thomas beat him in each and every stroke.
The two formed a bond after finding out that they were neighbors, often playing chess together. The games turned into conversations about Thomas’s life and where it was going.
“He said, ‘If you give me your body for one year, I’ll get you a full scholarship to college,’” Thomas recalled. “And that’s what he did.”
After he started swimming, his life changed. He earned a scholarship to Albany State University in Georgia, started participating in student organizations and social events, became the president of his class, and made the school’s honor society.
His transformation led Ellis to start the swim team at the Philadelphia Department of Recreation, then called the Sayre Aquatics Club, which has sent students to levels as high as the Olympic trials and the Atlantic Coast Conference championships.
“We started from a learn-to-swim program,” Ellis said. “We were trying to [first], put more people of color in the sport, but [second], show that young men could come and make the Olympic team coming from a program in the city.”
Ellis’ program also created future lifeguards and water safety instructors for the city. He spoke about it as a place where all residents — families from across the street, older adults from the senior living complex nearby, and even gang members — could find balance.
“They were just glad that they were treated like human beings,” Ellis said. “You saw people that looked like you that could swim … you were comfortable in your own skin. You were comfortable in the pool.”
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.