Contested Waters: How Rich and Poor Swim in D.C.
Quick--what's the one part of the District that has no public swimming pool? No, it's not any of the city's impoverished, struggling sections, but rather, the richest part of town, Ward 3 in upper Northwest.
The city's wealthiest ward (average income, according to census figures from 2000: $187,709) has been without a swimming hole since a wall collapsed at the pool at Wilson High School in Tenleytown in 2003. Ever since then, a long parade of politicians have promised to rebuild and reopen the pool, with no effect.
Yesterday, the peripatetic Mayor Adrian Fenty arrived at Wilson as the demolition crew finally started to take down the old pool building on Nebraska Avenue NW so that work can get going on a $29 million facility featuring the same amenities as other, far poorer parts of town have had for several years now--a 25-yard by 50-meter competition pool, a leisure pool, an adult whirlpool, seats for 500 spectators, locker rooms and a recreation room. It was Fenty who as Ward 4 councilman spearheaded the drive for the Takoma Aquatic Center, the model for the city's new pools. The new facility at Wilson is now promised for summer 2009.
Two questions float to the surface here: Why did this project get paralyzed for so many years? And what does the lack of a public pool in the city's most affluent section tell us about the role of public pools in this society?
"There really is no good reason why this has taken so long," Fenty told me at the demolition site. "There's enough blame to go around for everyone, including myself." As a council member during all the years of unfulfilled promises, Fenty was one of many politicians who expressed frustration but failed to get the pool project moving. Now, as mayor, he says, he should be held responsible for making sure that this project "gets done with the same efficiency as if the private sector were doing the job."
To make that happen, Fenty has put Allen Lew, the administration's superstar flavor of the month, in charge; Lew, the former head of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission who previously supervised construction of the city's convention center, was appointed to take command of all school construction projects, and now D.C. politicians are piling on more and more jobs for the one man who seem capable of getting big jobs done in this government. The Wilson pool was supposed to have been rebuilt under the auspices of the Parks and Recreation Department, but they failed utterly to get the work going.
Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh told me she's "never gotten a proper accounting" of what went wrong with this project. "Inertia takes on a life of its own," she said. "Nobody made it his or her business to make it happen." After taking office at the start of this year, Cheh pushed to get the pool demolition started, but nothing happened. "Finally, in utter despair, I called [city administrator] Dan Tangherlini," Cheh said. Finally, the decision was made to take the job away from Parks and Rec and give it to, of all agencies, the Housing Authority. What does a swimming pool have to do with public housing? Zilch, but in the strange ways of the D.C. government, someone was able to affix the pool demolition to a contract that the Housing department had and miraculously enough, the demo crew showed up yesterday.
In the Fenty government, the emphasis is clearly not on creating new, smoother bureaucracies so much as it is on busting through the existing mess and getting things done. It's an ad hoc approach, which can make for dramatic short-term achievements, though it's not yet clear whether any of this will be sustainable in the longer run.
But pull the camera back a ways and ask why a presumably powerful part of the city could go for so many years without a resource that most places take for granted. Why was it so easy for politicians to get away with doing nothing about having a pool in a heavily populated and extremely affluent part of the city?
The easy answer would be that residents don't care; they're rich enough to find their own private places in which to swim. And there is some truth to that--many Ward 3 residents do shell out big bucks to belong to suburban swim clubs. But far more people just went without, and for the answer to that puzzle, we have to look to a new book by a University of Montana historian who's been studying the role public pools play in the changing racial and class dynamics of American communities.
Jeff Wiltse's "Contested Waters" looks at the great civic sense of togetherness that public baths and New Deal public pools fostered in cities where people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds found themselves living in very close quarters. And Wiltse advances the story to the present, focusing on how the move to the suburbs and the residential choices that many American families made led to an abandonment of the big urban public pools and their replacement by individual backyard pools and private swim clubs where people could and did choose to be among their own type, however they defined that.
The proliferation of private swimming pools after the mid-1950s, however, represented a retreat from public life. Millions of Americans abandoned public pools precisely because they preferred to pursue their recreational activities within smaller and more socially selective communities. Instead of swimming, socializing, and fighting with a diverse group of people at municipal pools, private-pool owners fenced themselves into their own backyards. The consequences have been, to a certain extent, atomized recreation and diminished public discourse.
In big cities like Washington, public pools came to be seen as something the government provided largely for the poorest neighborhoods, on the theory that only they could not afford suburban alternatives. That, however, left out middle and upper class urban residents, who watched with envy as wealthy suburbs such as Fairfax County later figured out that the public sector could indeed create successful public gathering places centered around aquatics--the water parks that proliferated in the 1990s.
Fenty heard the clamor for that kind of facility and pushed hard for the Takoma project, which has turned out to be one of the District's big successes of recent years. Will such a facility do well in Ward 3? Will the well-to-do population there make use of a facility that also serves Wilson's student population--the great majority of whom commute to the school from east of the park? We shall see, but Fenty is betting that they will, that those who choose to live in the city want to be part of a mix, even if residential choices still create a sharply segregated city when it comes to race.
Fenty is not pushing the Wilson pool as a latter-day iteration of the 1930s notion that public pools would create social change--"Take away the sham and hypocrisy of clothes, don a swimsuit, and we're all the same," as a pools promoter is quoted as saying in the Wiltse book. The mayor just wants things to work. But his personal involvement in this project is built on a foundation that very much buys that old-fashioned purpose of public places--and if the pattern of successes in recent Washington area development--downtown Silver Spring, the District's East End, Pentagon City--teaches us anything, he may well be right.
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