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The racially charged incident in McKinney, Texas, shows why public recreation facilities like pools are important and needed investments.
WASHINGTON — Where I live in the nation’s capital, there are plenty of nearby options for swimming, many of them managed by the D.C. government. There’s an indoor Olympic-size pool that’s one bus ride away from my apartment. There’s a smaller indoor facility about three blocks from my apartment, though it’s not in the best of shape. There are also a few private hotel pools that offer neighborhood memberships within a 10-15 minute walk.
But I usually end up going way across town to the Takoma Aquatic Center, a few blocks from the Maryland border. It can sometimes take an hour to get there depending which public transit route I take—and they all require at least one transfer. If I have a Zipcar, it still takes at least 30 minutes to get there.
The Takoma pool isn’t the newest, most deluxe public swimming facility in D.C., but it’s in pretty good shape physically and the lifeguards and staff members are very friendly compared to some other facilities.
I used to think I kept returning to the Takoma pool, despite the distance, because it was a reliable bet that you could walk in and easily get a lane.
But Friday’s headline-grabbing racially-charged incident in McKinney, Texas, involving the aggressive police response to a teenage pool party, made me realize there’s a different reason why I like swimming at Takoma: Its incredible diversity.
Most swimming pools are good reflections of the communities they serve and in D.C., patrons of the aquatic facilities come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, skin colors and athletic abilities.
Takoma is home to the historic D.C. Black History Invitational swim meet. It’s also the pool where the Washington Wetskins water polo team, whose LGBT membership is bolstered by straight allies on the team, plays.
On any odd day at the Takoma pool, you’re likely to see Ethiopian and Eritrean cab drivers swimming laps, white millennials training for triathlons, senior citizens lifting water weights, local college athletes doing drills in their spare time, and former competitive and U.S. Master’s swimmers keeping in shape.
I was never a competitive swimmer in high school or college and only started swimming laps two years ago for exercise. I was initially intimidated by the highly regarded Olympic-size pool across town because it attracted plenty of advanced swimmers whose body language and annoyed facial expressions made slower swimmers like myself feel unwelcome for taking up valuable lane space. (This pool was also the scene of a great swimmers' civil war over 25 meter vs. 50 meter lanes a few years ago.)
So even though my performance has steadily improved to a point where I can hold my own against many more advanced swimmers—swimming laps three days a week will do that—my preferred pool is still on the other side of town. It’s a welcoming place, no matter your age, skin color, sexual orientation or athletic ability. We’re all there to stay healthy and in the summer heat, cool off.
Compare that to the situation in McKinney, where initial reports have pointed to an argument involving a white resident at the pool telling the black swimmers that they were unwelcome and needed to return to their “Section 8 home.” The private community pool in question is in a predominantly white suburban residential development, where a black resident hosting a pool party invited the black swimmers involved in the police incident.
In a Slate article, Jamelle Bouie details the history of America’s racially separated swimming pools where many white Americans retreated to private pools and abandoned municipal pools during desegregation:
As integration came to the United States, municipal pools were closed, filled in, or left in disrepair. Americans still swam, of course. But they honed their skills in private pools. As the civil rights movement gained steam, millions of mostly white Americans built residential pools or joined private pool clubs, organized by suburban associations.
The history of discrimination involving pools isn’t pretty.
In New York City, master builder Robert Moses constructed 10 community swimming pools during the 1930s. But in “The Power Broker,” author Robert A. Caro details one tactic Moses used to discourage non-white residents from using nearby pool facilities in white neighborhoods:
… while heating plants at the other swimming pools kept the water at a comfortable seventy degrees, at the Thomas Jefferson Pool, the water was left unheated, so that its temperature, while not cold enough to bother white swimmers, would deter any “colored” people who happened to enter it once from returning.
The notion that there are racially rooted water temperature tolerance thresholds for swimming is, of course, absurd. So too is the notion that African-Americans can’t swim, but it’s something that has popped up on social media in the wake of the McKinney situation.
All of this highlights the importance of having public facilities open to everyone. Private pools are, naturally, private. But in many communities across the nation, such members-only facilities are often the only option available for swimming.
And in some cases, highlighted by the 2009 lawsuit over racial discrimination at a private swim club in suburban Philadelphia, the doors are often closed to non-whites.
Pools and aquatic centers are not cheap investments—and I should note that D.C.’s municipal pools are fee-free for residents, which is fairly unusual for a city of any size. Pools take dedicated resources and consistent support from agency managers and elected officials to make sure they don’t fall into disrepair.
All in all, a budget line for a municipal swimming pool might seem like a fairly ordinary—albeit expensive—thing. But such investments are important symbols of a community’s priorities to create the necessary public spaces that are the great equalizers of society.
And as our nation becomes more and more diverse, local governments will need to figure out ways to create and finance access to such spaces for everyone.
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