At their neighborhood pool in West Philadelphia, Markyda Anderson’s kids couldn’t wait to get back inside. They had grown tired of playing in a nearby splash pad while lifeguards periodically checked the chlorine levels. Then, once the break was over and the swimmers were welcome again, they dashed back and — plunk, plunk — got into the water.
« It gives the kids something to do — something positive, » said Ms. Anderson, a 38-year-old nursing assistant who freshens up with Isaiah, 7, and Elijah, 3, at the Tiffany Fletcher Recreation Center in the Mill Creek section of the city. Without the pool, Isaiah said, « I’d stay in and play Fortnite on Xbox. »
It was scenes like this, at dozens of city-run swimming pools, that sent 71-year-old Joy Watson into a fit of rage about her neighborhood of Overbrook Park, about a mile away. Next to her townhouse, the one with the Barack Obama mural beside it, the swimming pool at the Charles Baker Playground hasn’t been open since July 2019.
« They say it’s a shortage of lifeguards, » Ms Watson said on Friday. « My question is, do you have all these other pools open and can’t you swap lifeguards? »
In this sense, Philadelphia is no different from other cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston, where lifeguard shortages have led to reduced swimming hours or the complete closure of swimming pools. That scarcity stemmed from the pandemic, which caused staff members to find work elsewhere and disrupted the training of future potential hires. About a third of the nation’s roughly 300,000 public swimming pools were affected last year, and 2023 is just as bad or worse, according to the American Lifeguard Association, which runs training and certification programs.
With July poised to become Earth’s hottest month on record, lifeguard shortages and swimming pool closures are particularly distressing for many of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents who need safe, cool places, and who live in parts of the city that are disproportionately feeling the effects of poverty, ill health and gun violence.
Mill Creek, where 97 percent of residents are non-white, faces major challenges, with the health of residents at particular risk during peak temperatures, according to the Philadelphia Heat Vulnerability Index, an interactive map produced by the city that outlines danger zones during extreme weather. According to city statistics, nearly half of the neighborhood’s residents live below the federal poverty line and a quarter of adults do not have a high school diploma. One in five has diabetes and high blood pressure, obesity and asthma are rampant.
This year, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department undertook a major campaign to get its public pools ready, spending millions more than ever before and promising to open 61 of its 70 pools for all or part of the season. For the first time, the city is requiring and providing swimming lessons to all 6,000 summer campers. Most of the campers are black, and fewer swim instruction opportunities in low-income communities have put black children at greater risk of drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At Fletcher Playground, two dozen daycare campers splashed in the pool, jumped rope and played on the monkey bars. The facility, formerly called Mill Creek, was among the first to open this year, June 14, the first day of summer break. It also had a new name, in honor of Tiffany Fletcher, a 41-year-old parks employee and mother of three, shot and killed by a stray bullet in September just outside the playground.
“This is not only an essential service; it’s a renaissance in the use of public spaces,” said Bill Salvatore, deputy commissioner for parks and recreation, of the push to open swimming pools.
However, thousands of residents await that renaissance where it is needed most. The city has worked to spread lifeguards, but it’s still a few dozen away from opening more pools. And at least four other pools that have yet to open due to staffing issues or long-term repair needs are in areas where the health of residents is at high or very high risk, according to the heat index. Temperatures in the city dropped into the low 80s this weekend but were expected to reach the upper 90s towards the end of this week.
On Friday, at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, day campers and visitors played on swings, played basketball and whizzed through the splash pad, a series of three- and four-foot water fountains that gush out of concrete. A few steps away was the freshly painted but dry swimming pool behind a locked wire fence.
Wannetta Williams, 56, who drove kids from a day care center, recalled her youthful summers at other Philadelphia swimming pools, where, she said, she and her friends stayed out of trouble, learned to care for little ones and socialized as teenagers.
« They rely on the outdoors, » Ms. Williams told the children. « They need this activity and fresh air. »
The pool’s scheduled opening date of July 5 had come and gone, the result of a shortage of lifeguards, but Mr. Salvatore said there were more staff in the works. A dip in February’s « Philly Phreeze » winter pool, the city’s first of its kind, raised money for $500 and a $1,000 lifeguard bonus and helped more than 730 people apply for daycare and other jobs. Gathers pool, when it opens, could be among those with extended hours for a few weeks beyond the typical Labor Day closure.
In Overbrook Park, that’s no consolation to those who live near Baker Playground. Ms Watson, whose house with the Obama mural overlooks the park, and fellow neighborhood activist, 43-year-old Aaliyah Small, pointed to a corner where a 22-year-old man had been shot in the head just four hours earlier.
For Ms Small, chair of the Baker Playground Advisory Council, lifeguards are only part of the problem. While acknowledging that gun violence is a problem in the neighborhood, she also said opening more pools could help solve it by creating needed detours for residents. People, she said, need to turn their negative thinking around.
“They look at these shootings and they say, ‘What if the kids playing are affected?’” Ms. Small said. « What they should be saying is, ‘If we open up the playground, they won’t be affected.' »
Javon Williams contributed report.