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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.

Wiltse writes:

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.

By Marc Fisher |  August 21, 2007; 6:33 AM ET
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Comments

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Getting construction projects done is the EASY part.

At some point, Fenty is going to have to get serious about making sure that citizens can get to and from these facilities without fear of getting mugged.

If he can make some progress on THAT, he will go down as a great mayor.
.

Posted by: gitarre | August 21, 2007 9:05 AM

How many hours per week will Wilson's Community Aquatics Center be off-limits to community members due to Wilson swimming team practice and competition? The experience at the William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center near Eastern Market - the old Natatorium - has been that many high school swim competitions are scheduled for school vacations, when community demand is greatest. Team use preempted open pool use on an irregular basis, neighborhood families could not count on the facility, and use by residents dropped off. Dual use by schools and the surrounding residents seems to make good, economical sense, but fails to consider differences in how these facilities are used by schools and their neighbors.

Posted by: Mike Licht | August 21, 2007 9:08 AM

uhhh... wasn't anyone else a white person in the 1970s? Older white people refused to swim in integrated pools and chastised us for doing it. That happened to me as late as 1982.

and if anyone has a fear of getting mugged near Wilson they have a fear of getting mugged in their house.

My mother was mugged in Gaithersburg. A friend was attacked and mugged in college park. I was at a party in Arlington when the street was closed down due to a machete attack. I mean come on people!

Posted by: DCer | August 21, 2007 9:34 AM

Public pools are tres nastee. Man, I took scuba diving lessons in a YMCA pool and what you could see down there would make anyone, white or black, question ever going into a public pool.

Posted by: Stick | August 21, 2007 9:59 AM

YMCA pools are private pools

Posted by: Anonymous | August 21, 2007 10:41 AM

I don't agree that there isn't a voice about this, or a need for a public pool in Ward 3. I'm a Ward 3 resident, and currently travel across town to either Tacoma or Hains Point to use DC's public pools. I hear from others all the time who miss the pool at Wilson, and ask about it's status. But I suppose it's just easier to drive across the city to use another pool than it is to fight the DC government on this one.

Posted by: dcer | August 21, 2007 10:58 AM

Swimming pools (public or private) are disgusting and I would never set foot in one. A lot of people take that "public bathing" concept literally and jump right in the water without showering first. If you saw the insides of their underwear when they hang them up in the lockerroom, you wouldn't get in the water either!

Posted by: C-dog | August 21, 2007 11:01 AM

I grew up swimming in the "white" Houston public pools in the '50's, all summer, all afternoon. The two dark clouds to those summer days were fear of polio and segregation.

My children swam in the pools in Austin, where the city council pledged that every child would be in walking distance of a city pool and the city itself has a giant, spring fed pool in the middle of town.

In D.C., I have lived on Capitol Hill for six years and I ignored the city natatorium behind Eastern Market. First it was being repaired, and then I just knew it would be crowded and full of yelling children. This summer I joined the senior water aerobics class. The pool is big and clean and there is time set aside for quiet swims and classes. In our large class no one worries about body image or race or physical ability. We just dance to the music, tease the people who are late, and laugh at the comments made by the young men who put us through our workout. And one day, as we lifted our arms to stretch to the music, we joined together to send our thoughts and prayers upward for one of the class members who had lost a loved one.

Public pools can build community.

Posted by: Jane Michael | August 21, 2007 11:34 AM

Some people don't want community. Some people just want to be left alone, and not have their money taxed as much.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 21, 2007 11:53 AM

Anything else happening in the 50s that might have contributed to this trend? Anything at all?

Posted by: Anonymous | August 21, 2007 12:08 PM

"Some people don't want community. Some people just want to be left alone, and not have their money taxed as much."

Whether you want it or not, you live in a community. No matter how little people are taxed, some still want it lower. Without building a community, you'll need more police protection (far more expensive than a pool) to be left alone. And of course, everybody gets to pay for that whether they want to be left alone or not.

Life costs money. There's other people in the world.

Posted by: Tim from Silver Spring | August 21, 2007 12:16 PM

Ahhh, the good life in Wealthy Ward 3. Torn-up sidewalks, garbage, boarded-up windows, weeds growing out of the cracks between the bricks, muggings. You can barely tell this "rich" side of town from a slum in any other district. If you doubt me, come walk a circle around the block between 34th and 35th/Prospect and N and have a gander at the slum-lording and general crumminess. Despite its obvious drawbacks, I still love living here for its proximity to Georgetown University (where there is a pool, but only for members of Yates gym), for the easy bus access, and for the shopping and night life on M Street/Wisconsin, but Ward 3 fares miserably when it comes to many city services, just like any other ward, although I suppose we may have better 911 response.

Posted by: Ward 3 Resident | August 21, 2007 12:29 PM

I doubt that the Wilson pool will do anything for the community at large.

There are two different functions of a public pool - one is for athletic and fitness purposes i.e. for school competitions and for adults who want to work out. What you need for that is an olympic-size pool with grandstands, such as the Wilson one.

But if you want to serve the second function as a public space that teaches people to get along, then a high school facility won't do because that's not where you can bring your family and where kids and teenagers can hang out for hours. For that, you need a park with lawn space, snack stands, volleyball field, etc. that happens to have a swimming pool as well.

Posted by: cpw | August 21, 2007 12:36 PM

Uh, Ward 3 resident:

"If you doubt me, come walk a circle around the block between 34th and 35th/Prospect and N and have a gander at the slum-lording and general crumminess"

That's Ward 2

Posted by: Ward 2 resident | August 21, 2007 12:58 PM

Mark,

This is great news, and especially for the kids in that neighborhood. It will make Wilson a better school and it will give new options to all of us in DC.

C-Dog,

Why are you looking inside people's underwear, anyway? You're a sick puppy, C-Dog.

Posted by: KK | August 21, 2007 1:44 PM

KK: If people hang their dirty laundry up on hooks in the locker room, I have no choice but to see it when I walk by. It's not as if I WANT to see someone's dirty, multi-colored underwear. But knowing that the person who was wearing those fetid scraps is now frolicking around in the pool is more than enough reason for me to stay out of the water. There ain't that much chlorine in the world to make me feel comfortable in that bacterial frappe!

Posted by: C-Dog | August 21, 2007 2:24 PM

Way to Race Bait or Class Bait. This (lack of a) story has nothing to do with the fact that people are either rich or poor, black or white. It is totally about the fact that the DC government is inept. Now, the fact that it is run by black people for black people is another story. One that M. Fisher doesn't have the nuts to write.

Posted by: Shaw Resident | August 21, 2007 3:27 PM

Mark,

As always, you're a second-rate journalism student grasping for an overarching social issue.

Posted by: Chlorine Huffer | August 21, 2007 3:38 PM

Hooray for public pools! When all is said and done, even when it's heavily chlorinated, all of our kids' urine tastes the same.

Posted by: Ivan Groznii | August 21, 2007 4:07 PM

I have resented having to cross to Montgomery or PG County on a regular basis to go, and take my kids swimming. While I am glad that Wilson is being rebuilt, why stop there?

The City should buy that Patterson Street house in Chevy Chase and build a community pool next to it.

The City should build an outdoor public pool in a land transfer from NPS at Ft. Reno.

The City should build a pool at Guy Mason and or Palisades Park.

Every little community in Montgomery County has a pool, with kiddie pool and spash area. In Ward 3, we can't even keep the water on at Turtle Park or Lafeyette Park on weekends...better to simply open the fire hydrants, but most of those don't work either.

Posted by: Ward3er | August 21, 2007 4:58 PM

If the Takoma Pool is such a "model for the city's new pools", then they need to work on their maintenance and upkeep. I have been swimming at the Takoma Pool for almost 2 years, and it is almost always in need of a good vacuum. As of last night there was algae building up on the bottom.

Posted by: Amy Lynn | August 21, 2007 5:00 PM

It was my understasnding that the city Parks and Recreation Department only cared about themselves, and that is why they built a multi-million dollar recreation center at their headquarters for "public" use -- except it really is not well known that they have that facility, or that it is open to the public. This was at a time when many of the public pools were not open throughout the summer in this city because of lack of maintenance and inattention by the same department, and the claim that they lacked resources.

On a similar subject to why Ward 3 has not had public pools that were available, they at least have public baseball facilities for the Babe Ruth and Cal Ripkin leaguyes to play on? On Capitol Hill, there is no City Recreation Center, so there is no baseball field. The leagues have to rent school ballfields, and the parents and coaches have to mow the grass themselves, kill the ground bees thmselves, and pick up the trash before the games. City Parks and Recreation Department says they are not responsible. Why is that? The city seems to think the kids on Capitol Hill are fine without recreation facilities that are well used by the other kids in town.

Posted by: Swimmin' | August 21, 2007 5:05 PM

Instead of spending money on "necessities" (whatever those are these days), the government now has so much money it is building pools. Take my money at gunpoint to build a library with books...that maybe I can live with. Take my money to build a pool? Torture in the afterlife isn't enough. I want some right now. You can have your pool if I can have my torture.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 21, 2007 6:26 PM

The Crystal Pool in Glen Echo Park should be next. That would be an amazing place to go for a swim if anyone could reconstruct it.

Posted by: Michael | August 21, 2007 7:24 PM

I am constantly amazed at how pretentious Marc Fisher is. Each column he seems to sink to an unbelievable low and I cannot imagine how he could be even worse. Yet he consistently surprises me.

Posted by: Friday Knight | August 21, 2007 7:46 PM

"If you doubt me, come walk a circle around the block between 34th and 35th/Prospect and N and have a gander at the slum-lording and general crumminess"

Not only is that Ward 2, there's a great pool a few blocks away in Volta Park. All sorts of people, from all over the city, in a nice mix. Could be a little cleaner...but otherwise a real gem.

Posted by: Gtown resident | August 21, 2007 7:54 PM

Jane Michael,

Did they change the name of the place back to natatorium? When I left Capitol Hill in the mid 70's, they had changed it to swimming pool ostensibly because people didn't know what a natatorium was. It was a wonderful place to go to in the winter.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 21, 2007 8:30 PM

oh god, I thought it was a Natalorium, a birthing center. That must have been sounds of kids giggling and splashing in the water that I heard. I always thought it was like... afterbirth or something hitting the cold cement and echoing around while women were in labor. a pool. that makes much more sense

Posted by: Anonymous | August 21, 2007 9:06 PM

Obviously, I'm posting late, but that's just because I'd hoped this blog entry would be buried after 9 AM.
I didn't think a lack of swimming pool access would ever be on the list of "rich" people. After all, who else besides them pay to swim at the exclusive hotel pools? Did they suddenly decide that paying to swim at the [insert swanky hotel name here]was ludicrous or were they not included on
The List?

Posted by: YourStrawberry23 | August 21, 2007 9:37 PM

Uh, Ward 3 resident:

"If you doubt me, come walk a circle around the block between 34th and 35th/Prospect and N and have a gander at the slum-lording and general crumminess"

That's Ward 2

Posted by: Ward 2 resident


LOL Ward 2 Resident, you are correct, that's Ward 2, not in Ward 3. It amazes me how many people don't know what Ward or Ward Councilmember or At-Large members represent them on the D.C. Council. Ward 2 is represented by Jack Evans.

Posted by: Ward 4 Resident | August 22, 2007 2:32 AM

C-Dog,

Why are you looking inside people's underwear, anyway? You're a sick puppy, C-Dog.

Posted by: KK


KK, I concur with your comment. I hope C dog isn't a pedophile. LOL Who want to look at someone's dirty drawers? LOL LOL LOL

Posted by: Ward 4 Resident | August 22, 2007 2:35 AM

Swimming pools (public or private) are disgusting and I would never set foot in one. A lot of people take that "public bathing" concept literally and jump right in the water without showering first. If you saw the insides of their underwear when they hang them up in the lockerroom, you wouldn't get in the water either!

Posted by: C-dog

C-Dog, I was only joking with you. LOL You are correct, I don't go swimming in any public pools are beaches. You don't know what people have these days. Many citizens are dirty and don't take baths. Plus, with all the illegal aliens in the country and riding Metro, movies, parks, apartment buildings, etc., I am afraid of catching an illness from these third world citizens.

Posted by: Ward 4 Resident | August 22, 2007 2:40 AM

correction: C-Dog, I was only joking with you. LOL You are correct, I don't go swimming in any public pools or beaches. You don't know what people have these days. Many citizens are dirty and don't take baths. Plus, with all the illegal aliens in the country and riding Metro, movies, parks, apartment buildings, etc., I am afraid of catching an illness from these third world citizens.

Posted by: Ward 4 Resident | August 22, 2007 2:41 AM

Mystery guest writes: >>Did they change the name of the place back to natatorium? . . . they had changed it to swimming pool ostensibly because people didn't know what a natatorium was.<<

They call it an Aquatic Center now. I just hope people don't get confused and start showing up at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens with swimsuits and flippers.

Posted by: Mike Licht | August 22, 2007 7:50 AM

Why we can't have no pool in Ward 420, Mayor Feeny?

Posted by: Ward 420 Resident | August 22, 2007 1:45 PM

We have a new one in our neighborhood at Turkey Thicket, but I will never use it. It permantently absorbed part of the field we used to play football (not soccor!) on as kids, so the place will never be the same.

Anyway, the poor people pee in the pool and use it as a bath tub. Yuk!

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Posted by: easmvnhvic | November 23, 2007 5:55 AM

The Takoma Recreation Center is another poorly managed government property example. What was considered a successful city's achievement to build a multi million dollar swimming pool is being turned into a decay building to benefit others rather than the original intended beneficiaries, DC residents. Because of the poor management--lack of experience and knowledge--the city has failed to develop an agenda that truly benefits the residents of Ward 4 to use the pool and surrenders neighbors. Instead the government is using now the pool to make a profit regardless of the fact that the District of Columbia receives a large budget from Congress to sponsor those recreational facilities. For instance, there is a DC public school in the same vicinity of the building however the students feel unwelcome into the facility because after school hours DC government rented the pool to a private school Gonzaga High School from Monday to Friday from 3:30 pm to 5:00pm. Also the Department of Recreation has entered into several rental agreements with private organizations to have several swimming events during the year that mostly benefit Maryland and Virginia with the exception of the Black History Swim Meet in which you see more residents participating. I have attended most of the events to witness thousands of people from Maryland and Virginia and almost none DC residents in the building or participating in the event. And during those events the pool is closed to general public sometimes for one, two or three days while out state visitors are in the building enjoying the multi million facility. Some of those events can be easily accommodated in a half days or at least one day. But DC government gives the exclusive used of the facilities to those organizations restricting the possibility to accommodate the public at all. In other words, the general public's interest has any value to the DC government aquatic department. Maryland and Virginia are doing an excellent job safeguarding their resources and here in DC we need to learn from them. A large number of residents are infuriated about the lack of leadership to the point that a community petition will be submitted to the Mayor requesting to evaluate the number of activities approved by the department such as swim meets when those activities clearly do not benefit the residents of the District of Columbia creating parking congestion to the community and closing the pool to benefit out state residents; to conduct those activities in the morning and allow the public to use the pool in the afternoon; to foment cultural integration among the District of Columbia residents; to develop after-school programs benefiting DC Public School students; to enforce payment of out state residents to use DC recreational facilities; to evaluate all policies and procedures regulating its program with the intention of benefiting the District of Columbia; to restrict the renting of any recreational facility when the activity restricts its use to the general public. Also the DC Department of Parks and Recreation needs to implement accountability procedure to ensure that all money collected is payable to DC Treasury. Furthermore, the building is rapidly deteriorating because the government has failed to keep up with its maintenance; soap containers are missing, shower heads are broken; looker rooms are damaged, and toilets frequently are not running, pipes leaking, etc., etc. These issues have been previously reported to the government but no actions have been taken to correct those problems. On one occasion I walked over feces to get into the locker room. In two or three years Takoma Park will be another round down building similar to some of the DC public schools buildings.

Posted by: Roberto Chambers | December 2, 2007 10:46 AM

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