It’s hot. And getting hotter.
Today’s papers carry some scary news about the heat—the Washington Post ran infrared images that show a sunburned planet, next to headlines like, “Record heat roasting Texas and the South set to swell back to Phoenix.” One handy map allows readers to look up their own city to see how dangerous the next few days will be. It reveals half of the continental U.S. is in the “caution” range, 19 percent in “extreme caution,” and 17 percent “dangerous. That leaves only 14 percent of the nation at low risk. Heat is responsible for more fatalities than any other weather-related disaster.
For many people in U.S. cities and small towns, for nearly a century, there was a way to escape the heat: the public swimming pool. But public pools are harder to come by now.
What happened to pools can be summed up in one word: privatization. Well, two—privatization and racism. They often go hand-in-hand. In fact, the trajectory of pools from public to private is a microcosm of what happens with racism-driven privatization—it’s a pattern that schools, parks, public transportations—even whole neighborhoods, have followed.
“We tend to drain the pool of public goods when the public becomes more diverse,” Heather McGhee, author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, said in an interview.
Public pools began appearing at the turn of the last century as a public health measure, but they got the biggest boost during the New Deal. Between 1933 and 1938, the government built 750 public pools and remodeled hundreds more. (A website that chronicles the public works projects of the New Deal includes a section on public pools that makes for an interesting read.)
As McGhee explains in The Sum of Us:
“The American landscape was once graced with resplendent public swimming pools, some big enough to hold thousands of swimmers at a time. In the 1920s, towns and cities tried to outdo one another by building the most elaborate pools; in the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration put people to work building hundreds more. By World War II, the country’s two thousand pools were glittering symbols of a new commitment by local officials to the quality of life of their residents, allowing hundreds of thousands of people to socialize together for free. A particular social agenda undergirded these public investments. Officials envisioned the distinctly American phenomenon of the grand public resort pools as ‘social melting pots.’ Like free public grade schools, public pools were part of an ‘Americanizing’ project intended to overcome ethnic divisions and cohere a common identity—and it worked. A Pennsylvania county recreation director said, ‘Let’s build bigger, better and finer pools. That’s real democracy. Take away the sham and hypocrisy of clothes, don a swimsuit, and we’re all the same.’”
Whatever the vision, the reality was that Black people were barred from many public swimming pools first by statute, then by practice and violence. When integration arrived, white people left—the pool, and sometimes the neighborhood and city.
“When Black Americans gained equal access to municipal pools, white swimmers generally abandoned them for private pools,” writes Jeff Wiltse in his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.
Today, there are more than 10 million private swimming pools in the U.S. and about 309,000 public ones—although that number includes pools at condos, hotels, and schools that are functionally not public.
What happened to the public swimming pools that were built? Some pools closed outright rather than integrate—filled in with dirt and grass—disappeared except from memory. Some of those that remained experienced disinvestment and disrepair and eventually closed. Over the following decades, with ever-tightening local government budgets, pool maintenance and operations were presented as a luxury cities couldn’t afford. Pools closed or opened for fewer and fewer hours. In the last couple of years, communities have had difficulty staffing pools, especially with lifeguards.
In this present moment that has seen an increased willingness to invest in goods in common and the common good–not to mention an increase in temperatures everywhere, now would be a great time to revisit the community public pool. As the heat index rises, we might not be able to afford not to.
Image: Poster for Cleveland Division of Health promoting swimming as healthy exercise, from WPA’s Federal Art Project