Why America Stopped Building Public Pools
Swimming is an effective and fun way to stay cool and exercise. Not only is it good for cardiovascular health but it can also reduce stress.
In the 1920s, public pool construction boomed. These leisure resort pools featured lush lawns and sundecks for maximum enjoyment.
However, as desegregation began to appear inevitable, certain cities decided not to comply with desegregation orders by draining public pools rather than complying with them; this strategy hurt the poor the most.
1. They were a symbol of segregation|Public Pools
As Jeff Wiltse details in his book Contested Waters: A History of Public Pools in America, municipal pools were initially constructed in the late 1860s to keep rowdy working-class boys out of rivers and lakes. But soon afterwards, swimming experience quickly became the centerpiece of social change as America’s cities integrated; public pools soon became hotbeds of segregation issues as well as white privilege conflicts.
As the Civil Rights movement gained steam during the 1960s, black communities campaigned for equal access to public parks and pools–previously reserved only for white citizens. Swimming pools proved particularly contentious as their feces-laden waters could pose significant health risks to swimmers; as a result, white officials in small towns often converted public assets into privately managed assets by creating members-only clubs which selected swimmers through secret ballot.
Cities and towns where public pools still existed often responded with violence and resistance when attempts at racial integration of these spaces took place, according to the Kerner Commission report. According to their research, tensions among Americans often stemmed from limited recreational opportunities including access to swimming pools. Riots that broke out over pool desegregation in St Louis, Baltimore and Washington served as evidence that many white citizens felt pressured into sharing space with Black citizens.
Even after multiple court rulings and mass protests, some towns and cities still excluded Black residents from public swimming facilities. One notorious case occurred in Oak Park, Alabama pool was closed after federal court found its segregated recreation system violated Equal Protection Clause of Constitution; locals responded violently while its mayor stated to his crowd that federal courts should leave Alabama alone.
American cities stopped building public pools shortly after the success of the civil rights movement, leaving those that they already had to fall into disrepair. At the same time, millions of middle-class white families who once used public pools free began paying to use private and membership-based country clubs instead – gradually turning what had once been classless utopia into an arena with two hundred dollar membership fees and annual dues payments.
2. They were a symbol of white privilege|Public Pools
Pools were once an oasis for white Americans escaping racialized America; here they could swim among fellow citizens of similar hue and revel in classless utopianism, celebrating white identity without class divisions or separation. But this ideal was shatter when efforts at desegregating pools revealed just how far our nation would go to protect white privilege and subvert civil rights efforts.
As America began building large municipal pools in the early twentieth century, their aim was to bring communities together through cheap and accessible leisure activities. Pools were outfitted with sunbathing chairs for sunbathing purposes – providing families a perfect place to spend a fun-filled day at sea! By mid-20th century estimates indicated that over one thousand public swimming pools existed throughout America.
These pools were an emblematic representation of America’s desire to overcome ethnic divisions and forge an identity through recreational activities like swimming and sports, creating true democracy that would make life in America more manageable for all. Their advent came during an era in which Americans believed a universal culture would lead to more meaningful interactions and make life in America more liveable for everyone.
By the 1950s, however, dreams of unifying Americans through swimming began to dim as whites struggled to maintain segregated swimming areas. A Supreme Court ruling called Plessy v. Ferguson mandated cities that had one white pool to build another pool specifically designated for black swimmers (Jim Crow pools). St. Louis opened its first gender-integrated pool in 1913 but quickly put up fences and stationed police to prevent black swimmers from accessing it.
After World War II, white flight and economic disenfranchisement made pool construction and maintenance increasingly difficult in many cities, leading them to either close their pools altogether or invest minimally in them if they remained. If not maintained regularly, many pools deteriorated rapidly before eventually closing.
Jeff Wiltse writes in his book Contested Waters that following pool desegregation in the mid-1950s, northern cities stopped building large resort pools and allowed those they already had built to become rundown and disrepair. Millions of white swimmers who previously swam for free shifted towards paying membership fees at private swim clubs instead, ending a classless utopia of swimming pools that now had two-hundred dollar membership fees.
3. They were a symbol of class warfare
The decline of public pools is an example of government’s withdrawal from addressing American life, and has had devastating repercussions for poor and minority communities. Now, their only means of swimming are either private pool clubs or paying to use local YMCA facilities, which has created serious health hazards due to inaccessible facilities: Swimming pools are one of the top sites where bacteria cause skin infections, while studies link swimming pool use with higher rates of diarrhea, ear infection, and asthma among its membership.
Civil rights movement succeeded in desegregating swimming pools, yet also set off a period of white resistance and privatization of recreation. Middle-class white families that left urban centers for suburban life decided instead to invest in building backyard pools or joining country clubs rather than invest in public recreation facilities such as swimming pools – something further compounded when tax revolts reduced property taxes and discouraged governments from investing in public recreation such as swimming pools.
White resistance to integration grew increasingly intense over time, prompting local officials to turn over pools to private corporations to prevent any racial mixing. Warren, Ohio for instance saw local officials turn over one municipal pool for only $1 to a private association that only permitted it be used by white residents–this practice would become widespread nationwide.
This development signaled the end of public pools for those unable to afford club membership or home pools, leaving over 20 million American children without access to any neighborhood swimming facility. A legacy of segregation, privatization and limited budget for public recreation have left those without means to spend summer days cooling off at a pool with few ways of relieving the heat.
Class warfare has long been an element of American politics – but its presence has done no one any good. Our Founders understood this well when they established a nation divided between two competing factions who fought hard for both their own interests as well as liberty for all people.Also Read>>
4. They were a symbol of climate change
Few architectural types evoke such duality of purpose like swimming pools do. On one side, their presence represents domestic bliss and family fun; yet on another level, pools have long served as symbols of surveillance, death, and social conditions associated with an economic class.
Public pools were once seen as places for Americans of all races and classes to come together and enjoy swimming, socializing, and making new acquaintances during summer vacation. But like other public facilities, public pools became vulnerable to political considerations and racial strife which plagued America throughout its twentieth-century history.
As P. Caleb Smith notes, pools were initially segregated based on race and gender; this caused outrage among civil rights advocates who saw equal access to recreational opportunities as a fundamental human right; pools soon became places for protest and even violent uprisings.
As Whites began moving out of city centers, their resistance to integration forced cities to close and drain pools rather than integrate them. Mississippi saw nearly half of their public pools close down by 1972 alone. A similar pattern played out nationwide as government investment in parks and recreation waned while private swimming clubs flourished and backyard pools proliferated rapidly – now totaling over 3.8 million residential pools, according to pool industry market research firm PK Data.
As our nation grapples with climate change and extreme heat waves, public pools have never been more critical. Unfortunately, however, they’re becoming harder and harder to come by for people without access to one in their backyard or who can’t afford membership at their local country club. A combination of factors such as segregation, privatization to fund other priorities, and reduced recreation budgets make maintaining public pools increasingly challenging for cities.
Swimming pools are shrinking as both their number and quality of filtration and disinfection decrease, potentially spreading germs like E. coli, Norovirus and Cryptosporidium that can lead to illness in swimmers.