"Contested Waters," by Jeff Wiltse examines the social history of swimming pools in America, starting with one of the nation's first, in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood.

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Growing up in Normandy Park in the mid-’70s, Jeff Wiltse spent summers at the pool. All day. Every day. And it wasn’t just about swimming. There was Wiffle ball, showing off for pretty girls, trading baseball cards on the pool deck. The pool was where he had his first meaningful conversations with adults (during intergenerational games of pickleball), and Wiltse vaguely understood, even then, that the pool was more than chlorine and concrete; it was a uniquely intimate community space, “effective for overcoming the social distance that keeps people separate in most spheres of life.”

Decades after his suburban summers and years after becoming a history professor at the University of Montana, Wiltse dreamed about the pool of his childhood. He dreamed he was writing about it. When he woke up, the historian realized he’d waded into a provocative topic for research. The resulting book, “Contested Waters,” examines the social history of swimming pools in America, starting with one of the nation’s first, in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood, in 1884. Designed to be a “swimming bath” for immigrant workers who had no washing facilities at home, the pool was so popular that 50 young men waiting in line were turned away. They rioted.

On the surface, overcrowding precipitated the fights. But cultural conflict was at the core, Wiltse says. Swimming pools of that era were built by a Victorian middle class that had come to see dirtiness as a sign of disease and disorder. A good wash, they thought, could help wipe out immorality, ignorance, pauperism. Of course, the working stiffs had different ideas. They wanted to roughhouse in the water, just as they did in nearby rivers.

Violence. Clashes of values. Shifting social norms. Over the next century, swimming pools would reflect the country’s flash points: schisms of class and race, evolving gender roles, the sexualization of fashion, the growth of cities, the migration to suburbs, the privatization of recreation.

Swimming pool as social Petri dish. Who knew?

Wiltse chronicles the impact of germ theory at the end of the 19th century (showers required before swimming); the use of graduated admission fees to separate rich from poor; the shrinking of women’s swimsuits (it took 10 yards of fabric in the 1900s, only one yard by the 1940s); the popularity, from the 1920s to 1950s, of municipal pool palaces with sandy beaches, sunning promenades and swimming areas so large that lifeguards patrolled in rowboats.

Early on, blacks and whites swam together, but pool sessions were segregated by gender. Then in the 1920s and ’30s, cities began allowing men and women to swim together to promote family togetherness. “Swimming pools became social melting pots into which males and females, young and old, and working class and middle class all plunged together,” Wiltse writes.

Unless you were black.

The iconic photographs show African-American children staring longingly through a chain-link fence at white children splashing in a pool. It gets uglier. Angry mobs with baseball bats; bloodied bodies prone.

“Historically, people perceived being in the same enclosed body of water as tantamount to physical contact,” Wiltse says. “The sexual security of women was at the heart of the conflict.” Naturally, there were lawsuits, often as vehement as the legal battles over school desegregation. Eventually, when black Americans gained equal access to public pools, Wiltse says, white swimmers generally abandoned them for private swim clubs, backyard pools, the suburbs. By the 1970s and ’80s, many of the nation’s municipal pools crumbled into disrepair.

SEATTLE, OF course, is different from the rest of the country. Compared to the Northeast and Midwest, where Wiltse did his research, our city has more Asian Americans and relatively few African Americans; summers aren’t hot enough to drive you crazy if you don’t get in the water; people aren’t so dependent on man-made, in-city recreation because they can head for the lakes or the mountains. Plus, our city matured as a major metropolis decades after the nation’s great pool-building era in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.

In the 1970s, when other cities’ pools were shutting down, Seattle built seven of its 10 currently operating pools with money from a Forward Thrust capital-improvement campaign that voters overwhelming approved in 1968. “It was an extraordinarily euphoric time,” recalls Jim Ellis, who chaired the Forward Thrust Committee. “We had just cleaned up Lake Washington, completed a successful world fair, the economic climate was as good as it’s ever been. Boeing was thriving. Two years later, it was in a tank. In 1970, 50,000 people left the city.”

In swimming pools, race was not an overt issue, Ellis recalls, because of how the city and county were settled — different races, for the most part, living in separate neighborhoods. “I don’t mean there wasn’t prejudice,” Ellis says, “but there weren’t these outright forms. Not like the South.”

Mark Sears, a second-generation caretaker of Seattle’s oldest pool, Colman Pool in Lincoln Park, lived above the pool as a kid and still does.

“I can’t say I remember a lot of minorities in the old days,” Sears says. “For what reason, I couldn’t tell you. Swimming is one of those sports that’s not real big. It’s tiny compared to soccer or Little League Baseball. Kind of elite, upper crust, like tennis.”

But if you were black, de facto segregation wasn’t hidden below the surface. Shirley Releford remembers it well. Growing up in Holly Park in the 1950s, she recalls hardly any kids of color in the wading pool or sandbox at nearby Van Asselt Park, even though so many African Americans lived so close.

The white children “would kinda look at you and then look at their parents for direction and their parents were kinda cold to you,” Releford says. “Sometimes if you stayed and tried to play, the parents would pick up their kids and leave.”

In those days, Madrona Beach was predominantly white. Releford, then about 8 years old, was a mother’s helper to a progressive Hungarian artist who taught her how to swim at the segregated beach — despite frequent altercations with Caucasian neighbors who didn’t want an African-American girl swimming on “their” beach. The artist would pointedly inform them: “This is a human being, and you don’t have the right to tell people they can’t use the public beach.”

Releford learned to swim, proudly practicing her new strokes at every chance. One summer, Releford’s pastor took the church’s campers to swim at Silver Lake, which was then segregated by a net. Releford somehow floated into disputed waters. Taunting kids surrounded her, and when she tried to raise her head, “they stepped on the small of my back, my feet and hands and tried to drown me.” Laughing kids, the N-word, her pastor to the rescue, other grown-ups denying any wrongdoing. Traumatized, Releford never swam again.

TODAY, OF course, the racial landscape has dramatically changed. The King County executive is African American; we’ve had an Asian-American governor, an African-American Seattle mayor.

Talking about race and swimming might seem irrelevant in a region where nearly 1 in 10 children is of mixed race.


Consider these startling numbers: Nearly 60 percent of African-American children between the ages of 6 and 16 can’t swim, and they drown at three times the overall rate, according to a recent study by the University of Memphis. In Washington state, Asian-American children and adolescents have the highest rate of drowning — 18 percent of the deaths even though they are 7 percent of the state population. (Nationally, African Americans have the highest drowning rate.) And this: Families, in general, hand down recreation through the generations.

Historically, black Americans haven’t had easy access to pools, so a disproportionate number don’t know how to swim, may not have insisted their children learn how and, in fact, may have encouraged the kids to stay away from the water, says Mickey Fearn, manager of Community Connections for Seattle Parks and Recreation. He grew up on the East Coast in the ’50s and ’60s.

In Tennessee, “Black people could swim on Thursdays, and then they’d drain the pool and change the water.” In Maryland, there were separate beaches for blacks and whites. His parents insisted he learn how to swim, but he doesn’t particularly enjoy it. “With water,” Fearn says, “it’s all about confidence. Having the confidence you’re going to be safe. And if that confidence around the water didn’t develop for historical reasons or segregation, just because they build a facility in proximity to you doesn’t mean it’s going to change.”

In Seattle, Fearn says, you look at all the water and if you can’t swim, “you don’t go kayaking, canoeing, water skiing or sailing, nor do you think of creating businesses in those areas because you have no rapport with the water. Marine sciences, running a charter boat, the fishing industry — all that is cut off.

Not knowing how to swim is also dangerous. While reviewing three years of child deaths in the state, Dr. Linda Quan, a pediatric physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, noted the high drowning rate among young Asian Americans, particularly teens. Anecdotally, doctors noticed a lot of the kids were Vietnamese American, mostly teens who drowned while hanging out with friends at the lake, even though they didn’t swim well.

Last year, Quan led a Vietnamese drowning-prevention project that did focus groups with Vietnamese families, who attributed the open-water drownings to fate rather than lack of water-safety skills.

Pools? Many families stayed away because of admission fees ($2.75 for youths; $3.75 for adults) and lobby vending machines filled with costly treats their children would nag them to buy. Quan’s group printed bilingual brochures about water safety, proffered learn-to-swim vouchers and hosted pool sessions with Vietnamese-American lifeguards. No impact assessment yet, but Quan has already realized this: Swimming lessons should be marketed to the immigrant community as a safety issue. Not sports, not fitness, not fun. Survival.

LAST YEAR, the parks department taught 261,787 swimming lessons. Of those, 14,000 were free, part of a voucher program for third- and fourth-graders; 66 percent of those kids said they’d never swum before. . The city doesn’t track the ethnicity of general pool users or of children in swim lessons, but they do know 40 percent of the 800 swimmers in the summer youth swim league are children of color; a third of the beach lifeguards are people of color; three of the 18 pool coordinators are nonwhite.

Still, there are hurdles. Parents have to figure out how to enroll and transport the children — a challenge for new immigrants, dysfunctional families, parents working double shifts. Schools within walking distance of pools offer during-school instruction (that’s why they built the pools adjacent to schools 30 years ago), but over the years, the programs have shrunk because of budget woes, class size, a dearth of certified teachers.

If you don’t learn to swim by the time you’re a teen, what’s the likelihood you will? City aquatics director Kathy Whitman sighs. “The population we have to work hard to bring in is those teenagers,” she says. At pools, “there’s no video screen. There’s not as much excitement there. Maybe it’s also related to what their friends are doing, body-image issues, teenagers being more self-conscious.”

Teens, she says, prefer the beaches. Perhaps that’s because it’s not so much fun to hang out in hourlong shifts at an indoor rectangular pool (eight of Seattle’s 10 pools). Why not build another outdoor pool? That’s the clamor of Project Seattle Pools, a neighborhood group that wants the city to build an outdoor pool east of the Interstate 5 corridor. (Colman and Mounger, outdoor pools extremely popular during the summer months, are both on the west side of the city.)

“Our city has built only one pool in 30 years,” the group says. “We provide only 1.7 pools per 100,000 citizens, far below the national average of 3 pools per 100,000 residents.” The city recently completed a study that found significant demand for outdoor pools and outdoor pool recreation. Mounger Pool in Magnolia, for example, turned away 58 youngsters who wanted to be in Summer Swim League and 80 3-year-olds who wanted lessons. Mounger had almost as many pool visits last year as Evans Pool at Green Lake and more than Rainier Beach Pool, which are open all year.

Even more startling: the wait lists to join private swim clubs on the east side of the city, even though they charge between $2,000 and $25,000 in membership fees. There’s a 12-year wait list at Wedgwood Swim Club, five years at Sand Point Country Club.

If the city does consider building another swimming facility, the study says, note the obvious gap in pools in the Beacon Hill/North Rainier Valley neighborhoods; the lack of outdoor pools on the city’s eastern corridor; the possibility of partnering with the University of Washington on a 50-meter competitive pool in northeast Seattle or the Central Area.

Talk about new pools with Whitman or Tim Gallagher, the new superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation, and the conversation quickly turns to money — and society’s priorities. Pools, bottom line, are money-losers. Mounger, the most profitable of Seattle’s pools, recovers 87 percent of its day-to-day costs; Rainier Beach, which subsidizes many programs for low-income swimmers, recovers 36 percent. Registration programs such as swimming lessons and party rentals charge enough to cover their costs. Drop-in programs such as lap swim, water exercise and public swim are less profitable because attendance varies.

Drop-in swimmers complain when pools are rented out for birthday parties in prime time on weekends. Whitman says those rentals help offset free swim lessons and other programs.

How to figure out which programs to offer when, what aquatic philosophy makes sense for a city surrounded by water?

And then there is the question of the pools themselves. Seattle’s pools are old-fashioned. The trend, these days, is toward aquatic centers like the newly renovated one in Mountlake Terrace. It has a shallow-water leisure pool with beach-like entry, a warm-water teaching pool, wheelchair access, a large main pool, sprays, a slide, a river pool with moving current and a hot tub.

Do we spend $20 million to build one aquatic center, Gallagher asks, or to “renovate all the wading pools that are out of code compliance and put in zero-depth features (like spray mushrooms) that kids could use 365 days a year?”

Recreation, Gallagher says, “is the most important public service there is because we’re touching everyone . . . family, fitness, education, law enforcement, social values. We’re bringing people together. But it’s always a question of priorities.

“One way government operates is, those who show up rule the world. The problem is you don’t get to the real reason recreation is there.” Every program should have some tangible benefit, Gallagher says, whether it’s for the community, say, keeping teens busy; or individually based, like a terrific morning on the links.

Because golfers benefit as individuals, they should pay their full costs, Gallagher says. The community should support teen programs because the community benefits.

“Right now, because of problems with gangs and teens, we’re looking at expanding late-night basketball, teen clubs, environmental outreach,” he says.

Pools? Late-night basketball? And what about off-leash dog parks? These are among the “10,000 things that keep popping up as I learn the new system,” says Gallagher, who started on the job in the fall as the parks department gathered public input on a draft strategic plan. Six hundred people attended 32 meetings; 1,800 responded to an online survey. Eighty-two percent said they used parks for walking/running and sports, 70 percent picnicked, relaxed; 53 percent did water activities.

“Seattle’s a little more passionate about having a public process than other places I’ve worked,” he says. “That’s good because the public will help protect and maintain (the parks), a sense of ownership. It’s also bad . . . because here I have the sense people are a little more dug in with their beliefs, less willing to compromise.”

Pools still function for social good, but it’s unclear how they’ll evolve here, given the huge costs and competing priorities.

ON MONDAY afternoons at Southwest Pool, the children say they like torpedoes best. That’s when they raise their arms over their heads, Superman style, and zoom through the water, flipping from tummy to back if they want to get fancy. Three weeks into her first swimming lessons, 8-year-old Lena Le has already conquered nose bubbles, dunks and flipping torpedoes. But sometimes, when she’s underwater and can’t breathe, she feels scared. “The teacher says just lift your head up,” Le says, “but I can’t always do that well.”

Le’s dad grew up by a river in Vietnam, learned to swim as a boy and also knew a lot of people who drowned. Her mother never learned to swim. They knew they wanted their children to swim, but working so much, it was hard to make time. Lena began to worry. On class field trips to Lincoln Park and family visits to Alki Beach, she’d play with the rocks at water’s edge but feared slipping, drowning. Her good friends Malika and Jasmine took swimming lessons. She bugged her parents. An aunt signed her up. She’s not ready for deep water yet, but she’s no longer afraid of the water. Sometimes, Lena confides, she even dreams she’s swimming with dolphins.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.