How Pools Became Democratizing Forces In Rapidly Changing Washington, D.C. Swimming pools are a big deal in Washington, D.C. Some of the most popular city pools were once state of the art facilities — built decades ago specifically for black city residents.

How Pools Became Democratizing Forces In Rapidly Changing Washington, D.C.

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Let's focus on one detail in the landscape of a city. Americans built that landscape across generations, so the details say a lot about who we are and who we were. If you doubt this, just ask anybody in Chicago why an expressway just happened to be built exactly on the dividing line between black and white neighborhoods.


And in that same way, let's examine Washington, D.C. Its neighborhoods are home to many public swimming pools. Washington has more public swimming pools per capita than any other city. And that special feature grows out of a darker reality of the city's past. Here's Lauren Ober from member station WAMU.

LAUREN OBER, BYLINE: Banneker swimming pool has seen it all. Since it was built in 1934, the pool has hosted countless swim meets and family picnics, water aerobics classes and tanning sessions. Swim coach Robert Green grew up a few blocks from the pool. During the 1950s and '60s, he spent nearly every waking summer minute at Banneker.

ROBERT GREEN: For us to have this was like an oasis. We would get here before the guards showed up. And the line would form on Georgia Avenue. And so we would wait patiently - sometimes not so patiently - until the guards opened the place up. And we could stay all day.

OBER: Back then, Banneker Pool was all black - one of two pools in the District built specifically for black Washingtonians. It was named for Benjamin Banneker, the African-American scientist who helped survey the District's original boundaries in the 1790s. But Banneker's gone through a major transformation over the years. That's due to the breakneck gentrification happening in the neighborhood.

ALEX MCCALL: In the last five years, it's basically changed almost all the way over.

OBER: What the pool's current manager, Alex McCall, means is that these days, Banneker's pretty white. It attracts all types of swimmers, says Tyrell Lashley, the city's aquatics director.

TYRELL LASHLEY: We see families. We're seeing a lot more millennials - the mid-20s single individuals or couples that don't have any children.

OBER: But what most of those new arrivals don't know is that when Banneker, and the other black pool, Francis, were built, they were revolutionary, state-of-the-art facilities - the kind that at the time, most black Americans were denied access to. John Tatum is a 96-year-old D.C. native who's been a lifelong swimmer. He still competes today. He says when Francis Pool opened, it was thrilling.

JOHN TATUM: We never saw anything as elaborate as a pool, you know? It had structured sides to it, good walkways. It had benches around for you to lay on and a fence. And it had a high diving board. We'd never seen those before.

OBER: These kinds of black-only facilities that were equal to what whites had were practically unheard of, says Jeff Wiltse. He's a professor at the University of Montana who studies swimming culture in the U.S. Wiltse says public swimming pools became a big thing in the interwar period. And in the district, which was still segregated, the federal government put a lot of money into building city pools - four for whites and two for blacks.

JEFF WILTSE: In most other cities, black residents were either not provided pools or the one pool that was provided for them was small; it was dilapidated; it was unappealing.

OBER: Before Francis Pool was built in 1928, John Tatum and his friends had to make do splashing around wherever they could find water.

TATUM: It was quite a place to go because we had been paddling around in reflecting pools as little kids because we lived right down there three, four blocks from the Lincoln Memorial. But we never have structured swimming until the early '30s when they opened up a pool for black people.

OBER: And swimming was huge in D.C.'s black community during that era. In the 1930s, one swim meet at Banneker featured 19 different swim teams. But something happened after World War II. All public facilities became desegregated and many white Washingtonians fled the city for the suburbs. There, they set up their own private swim clubs. Historian Jeff Wiltse.

WILTSE: So by establishing a private club out in these suburbs, the members could legally discriminate against black Americans, Latino Americans and other social groups who they didn't want to swim with.

OBER: Those private, white-only pools flourished. And the shining public swim facilities that made Washington a model for other cities, they eventually fell into disrepair. The crumbling of urban pools isn't unique to Washington. Wiltse says decline and discrimination are the main reasons that today about half as many blacks swim as whites.

WILTSE: With white families, it's been passed down for generation to generation to know how to swim, to belong to a swim team. But because of this past discrimination, it never became a common part of black Americans' recreational culture.

OBER: That's part of what Rob Green is trying to address with the D.C. Summer Swim League. We heard from his swim coach dad, Robert, earlier.

ROB GREEN: Swimming, it's an elitist sport. It's not on TV. You really only see it once every four years.

OBER: The summer league is free for any kid in the District under the age of 14. Practice times are flexible, and 18 of the city's pools field teams. League coach Dana Page says she's seen a jump in participation. Her first year, only three kids signed up for her team, the Rosedale Tiger Fish. This year, the team is 19 strong.

DANA PAGE: I think our team is the most diverse of all the pools.

OBER: At their first swim meet of the year, the kids are dying to jump in the pool, even if they don't have regulation swimsuits or know a dolphin kick from a scissor kick.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: This is Rosedale swim team.

OBER: Sydney Chloe is about to swim in her first race ever. It's the 25-meter freestyle and the 7-year-old looks ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through megaphone) Swimmers, take your mark...


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Shouting) Go Sydney, go Sydney...

OBER: Sydney's mom, Tamara, says exposing her kids to swimming young was a priority.

TAMARA CHLOE: It's a life skill. And to be honest, a lot of African-American kids do not know how to swim. And I wanted my kids to be able to swim and swim correctly with the proper strokes. And whether they decided to be competitive or not, I wanted to make sure that they were swimmers.

OBER: And Tamara herself is taking adult swim classes so she can keep up with her kids. The number of families like Sydney's is growing in the District and so is the demand for aquatic facilities. The city has recognized that and envisions four new pools built in the next 15 years - if they can get them paid for. D.C. aquatics director Tyrell Lashley.

LASHLEY: The goal is every District resident will have a spray park within a one-mile radius of their home, an outdoor pool within a mile and a half and an indoor pool within two miles.

OBER: Washington's reinvestment in its public pools isn't just a warm fuzzy for the city's residents. Banneker Pool's manager Alex McCall says that pool helped keep him and his friends off the streets as kids. And as the capital city grows, recreational opportunities help attract new residents and keep old ones, especially families. And that's something every city can dive into. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Ober in Washington.

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