Swimming Pools

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Swimming Pools

In 1988, a local dispute in East Hampton, Long Island, received national attention. An affluent couple was threatening to sue their town for refusing them a permit to build a second swimming pool at their ocean-front home. While the dispute hinged on issues of zoning restrictions and environmental protection, the story was widely reported due to its almost comical justification of Thorstein Veblen's 1899 critique of the "leisure class." If one backyard pool is an emblem of comfort and leisure, two pools at an ocean-front home exemplify conspicuous consumption run amok.

At the same time, a different sort of swimming pool controversy was raging in Greenspoint, New York. Residents of this Brooklyn neighborhood bitterly disagreed about what should be done with the crumbling remains of the McCarren Park municipal pool. Some in the community, especially the Latino and African American residents, wanted the pool restored to its former splendor. Built in 1936, this enormous pool, which could accommodate 6,800 swimmers at a time, had served as a recreation resort for locals unable to afford memberships at private pools and, according to a New York Times writer, had been "the hub of the working-class neighborhood's summertime social life." Other area residents, most of whom were white, wanted the pool closed permanently or rebuilt on a much smaller scale. They feared that such a large public pool would become a locus for urban crime.

These two episodes reveal the diverse and often discordant cultural meanings Americans attach to swimming pools. Private pools symbolize, sometimes in an extreme way, the "good life"—a life of material comfort and leisure. Public pools, however, evoke very different images. Some of the residents of Greenspoint associated public pools with urban decay and social disorder, while others saw the possibility of a rejuvenated and vibrant community life. These contradictory cultural meanings date back to the first swimming pools built in America and highlight some of the successes and failures of twentieth-century American society.

Athletic clubs, colleges, and wealthy homeowners built the first private swimming pools in America during the Gilded Age. These pools were used for both sport and leisure, which at the time were the almost exclusive domain of the well-to-do. Early public swimming pools, built in and around large northern cities, served a different purpose for a different segment of society. Brookline, Massachusetts, opened the first municipal pool in 1897. Like most early public pools, it was located within a bathhouse. Progressive reformers and municipal leaders viewed these swimming pools as public health institutions and intended them to promote cleanliness among the nation's growing population of urban poor. Gradually, public pools evolved from baths to fitness institutions to, by the second decade of the twentieth century, recreation and leisure facilities.

Social and cultural conflict dominated the history of swimming pools in America during the first half of the twentieth century. The vast majority of pools during this period were public. They were intensely contested civic spaces—controversies over where pools should be built, who should be allowed to use them, and how they should be used reflected the dominant tensions in American society. These racial and class tensions, often obscured in other areas of life, appeared with striking clarity and definition at public pools because Americans perceived them to be intimate and potentially hazardous spaces. Swimming in a pool necessitated exposing one's body; it brought swimmers visually and, in a way, physically into intimate contact with one another. Swimming also exposed people to the dirt and disease of other swimmers. Consequently, the class, ethnic, and racial phobias that circumscribed and limited social interaction in general at this time became heightened at swimming pools.

In the early twentieth century, the social and cultural contests over swimming pools divided along class lines. A controversial proposal to build a swimming pool in New York's Central Park illustrates this class dynamic. John Mitchel, president of the Board of Aldermen, proposed the pool so that the city's poor, especially the children, would have a clean and cool place to bathe and play during the summer. Without such a pool, these children had no place to swim except among the rats, garbage, and sewage in the East and Hudson Rivers. The mostly middle-class New Yorkers who opposed Mitchel's proposal were determined to maintain the park in its original form. A pool would "desecrate" the park, they feared, by transforming their oasis of genteel recreation into a popular amusement center. "No Coney Island, if you please, in the park," one opponent pleaded. These critics were also determined to protect the park's social landscape. "I have never been in favor of putting a swimming pool in Central Park," affirmed Park Commissioner Charles Stover, "I should consider it disastrous if the only swimming pool belonging to the city was put there. It would attract all sorts of undesirable people." Stover suggested instead that this swimming pool for the masses be built in a more appropriate location: "under the approaches to the Manhattan bridge." By keeping the swimming pool out of Central Park, New York's middle class defended their Victorian pastimes and reinforced the physical distance between themselves and their working-class neighbors.

The late 1920s and early 1930s marked an important transition in the history of swimming pools. The number and popularity of public pools increased dramatically. Large northern cities doubled and even tripled the number of pools they provided for their residents, while southern cities and smaller communities built municipal pools for the first time. The social contest over these pools changed as well: race replaced class as the most important distinction in determining patterns of discrimination. This racial contest, however, still occurred within a larger class context. Middle-and working-class blacks competed with working-and lower middle-class whites for the use of public pools, while wealthy whites swam at private pools.

The pattern of the racial struggle at public swimming pools was closely tied to the size of the community and the region in which the pool was located. In the South, black Americans were excluded from using public pools entirely. In large northern cities, racial discrimination took the form of segregation. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston largely avoided direct racial conflict and violence by providing separate pools for black residents. However, in smaller communities, black and white residents often competed over the use of a single pool. The dynamic of this struggle varied from town to town, but generally involved exclusion, protest, and violence.

Elizabeth, New Jersey, for example, opened its municipal pool in June, 1930. By August of that year, a group of black residents had filed a complaint with the city protesting their exclusion from the pool. The city's Board of Recreation Commissioners ruled that blacks should have equal access to the facility. The pool remained tenuously integrated for two summers, but in 1933, black residents stopped using it because white swimmers continually harassed and assaulted them. In 1938, black residents tried to integrate the pool again, but were once again subjected to the same abuse. Finally, the Board closed the pool. It could no longer condone the discrimination and violence, but apparently would not arrest the perpetrators.

The history of swimming pools fundamentally changed after World War II. America's rising economic tide, the increased rate of suburbanization, and racial desegregation combined to cause a dramatic increase in the number of private and residential pools. The economic prosperity of the postwar era coupled with advances in pool construction made backyard pools affordable to America's expanding middle class. In 1950, Americans owned only 2,500 private residential swimming pools; by 1970 they owned 713,000. During the same period, proliferating suburban communities often chose to build private swim clubs instead of public pools.

This general trend towards privatization was, at least partially, in response to the forced desegregation of municipal pools. During the 1940s, black Americans won several important legal victories against communities with segregated swimming pools. One such community was Montgomery, West Virginia, which built a public pool in 1940 but did not open it. The city's elected officials faced a conundrum: they did not want Montgomery's black residents swimming in the pool, but they were reluctant to defy West Virginia's anti-discrimination statutes by openly turning them away. The city eventually leased the pool to a private non-profit community association in 1946 for one dollar. The pool finally opened that summer and the now "private" administrators denied blacks admittance. The African American residents of Montgomery quickly sued the city, arguing that leasing the pool to private interests did not relieve the city of its obligation to afford black citizens equal rights. The federal courts agreed: "Justice would be blind indeed if she failed to detect the real purpose in this effort of the City of Montgomery to clothe public function with the mantle of private responsibility. 'The voice is Jacob's voice,' even though 'the hands are the hands of Esau."' The court-ordered desegregation of Montgomery's pool, however, was a hollow victory for the city's black residents. In response to the court's decision, Montgomery closed the pool until 1961. White residents were apparently more willing to go without a community pool than swim with their black neighbors.

Pool use continued to divide along racial lines in the 1970s and 1980s. Just as many white Americans chose to avoid living next to black Americans during this period by moving to restricted neighborhoods, they chose to avoid swimming with them by joining private swim clubs or building backyard pools. African and Latino Americans, many of whom continued to live in large cities, were left to swim at deteriorating public pools. Even most whites who remained in urban areas did not swim at public pools. As the Greenspoint controversy shows, some did not want municipal pools in their neighborhoods at all. America's history of segregated swimming pools thus became its legacy.

The shift from public to private pools has, in some ways, transformed the quality of community life in America. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the public swimming pool served as a stage for public discourse. Community life was fostered, monitored, and disputed at these municipal institutions. The recent privatization of swimming, however, constitutes a retreat from public life. Private pools, especially residential ones, have stifled the public discourse that used to occur at community pools. Instead of swimming, chatting, and fighting with their neighbors at municipal pools, private pool owners have fenced themselves into their own backyards. The Greenspoint controversy shows that public debate at and about municipal pools has not been silenced completely; however, too many controversies in contemporary America resemble the East Hampton dispute: people fighting to get away from their community rather than fighting to be a part of it.

—Jeffrey Wiltse

Further Reading:

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Leeuwen, Thomas, A. The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1998.

Nasaw, David. Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements. New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1993.

Riess, Steven A. City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996.

Williams, Marilyn Thornton. Washing "The Great Unwashed": Public Baths in Urban America, 1840-1920. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1991.