Swimming through summer

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There’s nothing like a swimming pool.

Oh, one could argue that outdoor pools are impractical in Minnesota, where the swimming season is shorter than a French-cut bikini. But those of us who live here know that it’s precisely because our swimming days are so few that we have to make the most of our opportunities. And one of the best opportunities for city slickers is a pool.

This reflection appeared in the same issue of the Park Bugle as an article on plans for renovation of the Como Park Pool

A public pool is the perfect place for people watching. For one thing, you get to see more of a person there than in most other settings. Plus, there’s usually a little bit of everything and everyone: teens, tweens, little kids, moms and dads, even a geezer or two.

The pool is also a venue for rites of passage: first time putting the head under, first time jumping in from the edge, first time off the slide or diving board, first stolen underwater kiss.

People go to a pool for many reasons: to exercise, to cool off, to see and be seen. A public pool is an intensely social place, and some people go there for the same reason they picnic in a park or camp in a campground: to be around others.

The social nature of pools has made them an interesting barometer of relations between the sexes and races. “In Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America,” historian Jeff Wiltse notes that between the Civil War and WWI, pools were looked upon more as public baths than as places for recreation.

These pools were used by blacks, immigrants and native-born whites. But although public pools were racial melting pots, they were strictly segregated by sex. Men and women used them on separate days.

Following a pool construction boom in the 1920s, along with more relaxed attitudes about relations between the sexes, the practice of men and women swimming at separate times began to disappear. However, says Wiltse, that prompted racial fears that black men would “mix” with white women, which led to pools being segregated.

In 1949, when black swimmers entered Fairgrounds Park Pool in St. Louis for the first time, they were assaulted by angry whites. Even after public pools were desegregated, says Wiltse, they were rarely integrated. Blacks and whites seldom swam in the same water.

“When black Americans gained equal access to municipal pools, white swimmers generally abandoned them for private pools,” Wiltse writes. “By the 1970s and 1980s, tens of millions of mostly white middle-class Americans swam in their backyards or at suburban club pools, while mostly African and Latino Americans swam at inner-city municipal pools.”

Besides being a focal point for racial tensions, swimming pools have dramatized class differences. In the early 20th century, a proposal to put a pool in New York City’s Central Park prompted vigorous opposition from the city’s elites. Commissioner Charles Stover worried that “it would attract all sorts of undesirable people.”

Municipal swimming pools are past their prime. Their heyday was in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when thousands of cities built pools. A 1933 survey found that as many Americans swam regularly as went to the movies regularly.

Fewer of us use public pools today. But on a hot summer day, the scent of chlorine can still be pure perfume, and one of the most irresistible invitations has just four words: “Let’s take a dip.”

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