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When cities like Louisville devalue public pools, they harm marginalized groups, expert says

Two teenagers in white t-shirts stand in an urban park holding neon posters reading "WE wanna swim"
Divya Karthikeyan
/
LPM
Kids protest the closure of the Algonquin public pool at Jefferson Square Park, across from the mayor's office, on June 14, 2023.

Two public pools in Louisville face uncertain futures. A historian who studies these types of amenities said inequity around accessing them is rooted in racism.

Algonquin and Camp Taylor’s pools closed at the start of summer, and Algonquin is the only public pool in west Louisville. It is surrounded by the majority-Black neighborhoods of Parkland, Park DuValle, Hallmark and California.

In June, the city said it expected work to start on both pools after the season, and is now soliciting public input on how best to use $9.5 million to renovate and possibly replace the pools.

But with soaring temperatures and Algonquin’s pool suffering from decades of disrepair, local residents say its closure has hit Louisville’s Black communities hard.

WFPL’s Divya Karthikeyan spoke to University at Buffalo History Professor Victoria Wolcott, who’s the author of “Race, Riots and Roller Coasters,” and has studied the significance of public pools and recreation spaces in modern race relations. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Could you take us through the history of the public pool in America, especially in relation to the segregation era?

When you're thinking about the public pools that as they emerge in the early 20th century into the 1930s, when there was a big pool building campaign during the New Deal, there was this sort of sense that, in order to keep these as safe spaces they had to be racially segregated because of stereotypes around sexuality, around disease.

When finally in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Act, and with some of the more successful aspects of the civil rights campaigns, those public pools had to be desegregated. And the response to that and many communities was to simply close the pools down, fill them in. And this is part of a larger history of privatization.

Tell us more about that privatization, because at one point in time, you had white suburban families that were aspiring to have a pool in their backyard or have access to private swim clubs.

Gated communities really took off particularly in the Sun Belt states, starting in the 1970s. They become enormously popular, and many gated communities have a swimming pool, which is only open to the residents of that gated community.

For some segment of white suburbanites,this is also around a kind of taxpayer revolt, and some ideas of meritocracy, right? So, this is their voice, ‘I worked really hard. And I was able to buy a single family home. And you know, I have a backyard pool that my kids use, or we belong to the swim club in the neighborhood or to the private YMCA or whatever it is.’ So why should my tax dollars go to a fully public facility for these people, quote unquote, who are somehow not, the subtext is, somehow not deserving?

To your earlier point, you were talking about the segregation era racial stereotypes of Black communities that had denied them pool access. Are those racial stereotypes taking a different shape today?

What’s emerged is more structural in some ways. So it might be less about the interracial mixing, if you're talking about communities that are predominantly African American, and more about public investment and facilities for a group — the language tiptoes around this — that are somehow not deserving.

So if cities don’t invest in repairing a public pool that has been in disrepair for a really long time, then close the public pool as a result, temporarily or permanently. What are the costs? What are the consequences?

If pools aren’t open, kids and sometimes immigrants and sometimes refugees, like this has happened here in Buffalo, will swim in what we call natural waters like local rivers, lakes and things like that, and drown. So we've had a number of instances of drownings, our pools are almost never open. So that's the sort of tragic consequence, too, to this lack of availability of public swimming.

How would you make the case to a city government that access to recreation spaces, like a public pool, is just as important as making affordable housing a priority?

When you have vibrant both commercial and public recreation in communities, people are generally, getting along better, are happier. And so we should see it as a right just the way we see things like housing and education and employment as rights.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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News Race & EquityYouth Reporting
Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.