City Cast

From The Archives: The Complicated History of Philly's Public Pools

Brittany Valentine
Brittany Valentine
Posted on August 1
outdoor public pool in Philly

Nearly 400 lifeguards work to keep Philly pools safe every summer. (philaparksandrec/Instagram)

During hot Philly summers, public pools are a haven for many residents. But these essential public spaces have a dynamic and sometimes difficult history.

In 1884, Philly built the nation’s first outdoor city pool, Wharton Street Bath in South Philadelphia, creating a model that other cities soon replicated. Eight more pools opened by the end of the decade, more than any other U.S. city. Men and women swam separately, with three days each week set aside for each sex.

When pools first opened, they were largely used as tools for sanitation and public health. In 1850, most residents had no indoor plumbing access and would use rivers and streams for bathing. Residents that couldn’t afford to travel down the shore would bathe in the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers.

Initially, the pools were not segregated. But as the racial demographics of the city shifted, tensions rose at local pools.

In 1941, at a rec center pool in Brewerytown, three white boys dunked a Black boy under the water, leaving him gasping for air. The incident resulted in a violent riot that left 20 people injured. (H/T to The Philadelphia Inquirer for their deep dive into the fraught racial legacy of city pools.)

Over the next decade, white residents mostly abandoned Philly public pools, fleeing to the suburbs, or choosing to swim in residential pools and at private swim clubs. For years, Philly failed to properly fund and maintain the pools, leaving the city's mostly Black and Brown residents with very limited swimming options.

However, Philly’s public pools continue to serve as vital summer spaces. This year, the city launched an intense recruiting campaign to hire enough lifeguards to open 61 of its public pools. Hear from a local aquatics director and lifeguard about how the city attempted to solve this staffing shortage. [City Cast Philly 🎧]

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