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Whether you are in the mood to swim laps or simply lay out and soak up the sun, Philadelphia’s public pools are an ideal summer destination for all.
They’re free, available in neighborhoods all across the city and offer an abundance of fun. Not to mention, they’re a great place to go to stay cool. This summer, 50 of the city’s 70 locations are open and ready for swimmers.
“With well over one million pool visits in a typical summer, in a city of 1.6 million, Philadelphia free public swimming pools are a huge part of city life,” said Maita Soukup from the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation department.
She’s right — the pool is a gathering place for Philadelphians.
While every location has its own distinct character — some have chairs and umbrellas, others have spraygrounds and shady grassy areas — you can usually find a range of visitors at each site, from kids who are learning how to swim, teens enjoying their summer break with friends, and adults exercising and lounging in the sun on their days off from work.
A pool with a ‘nice little vibe’
That’s what brought Laura Macenka to the O’Connor Pool on a hot Tuesday afternoon. She had the week off from work and was enjoying the soft outdoor breeze.
“I think it’s a great outdoor activity in the city,” said the 33-year-old, who was hanging in the pool and reading a book. “Obviously, we’re close to the Jersey Shore and you can take a drive down there, but it’s nice to be able to just pop over here, take a walk over.”
The pool offers Macenka a break from everyday life.
“It allows me to disconnect and relax. Not think about work or anything else,” she said.
Troi Denkins was also enjoying her day off at the Fitler Square pool. She was splashing around in the water with her nephew, Nasai, who’s a little over 1 year old.
“I used to actually go to this pool when I was a little girl,” said Denkins. “I grew up kind of in this pool.” Denkins would spend her summers swimming with her mom and sister when she was little. It had been over 10 years since she had returned to the pool and those many childhood swimming memories. As she got reacclimated to the pool and how it’s changed, she was also introducing it to the next generation in her family.
“This is his first time here,” said the 24-year-old Cobbs Creek native. “It’s nice. They got chairs out here, places for you to sit … it’s a nice little vibe.”
Those nice vibes are shaped by the community that uses the pool and the people who work there.
Donna DeShazo is a retired teacher from the Overbrook School for the Blind. She’s been working at the O’Connor pool for 15 years as a pool equipment operator. Up until two years ago when she retired, she would work during her summer break.
She looks forward to it every year.
“I love to see the kids enjoy themselves,” she said. “We want to make sure we provide a safe environment for them … anything to keep them off the streets and keep them safe.”
DeShazo greets everyone with a smile as they walk through the gate at 2601 South Street. As the pool equipment operator, she works on keeping everybody safe, before they get into the pool. That means ensuring the water is clean and properly chlorinated and that everyone is following the rules, like wearing proper swimwear. When people don’t have the appropriate attire, the site has community-donated items for kids and adults that she can pass along so that nothing prevents anyone from enjoying the water.
She also has a routine she goes through every morning before anyone even arrives to create a protective atmosphere for pool-goers.
“I come in, I have my prayer time. I pray for the pool. I pray for everyone who’s gonna come in here … then we have a blessed day,” said DeShazo.
Staying cool on a hot day
Over at the Marian Anderson Rec Center Pool in South Philadelphia, the Mena family has been going swimming to stay cool.
“We’re here enjoying the hot day,” said Angeles Mena, who was enjoying time with her two kids, 5-year-old Valentina and 14-year-old Roberto.
Mena’s local pool is the Ridgway site on 13th and Carpenter streets, but that site has been closed since 2020, so, she’s been frequenting the Marian Anderson one instead. She hopes that the city is able to reopen the Ridgway location in the future. The pool is one of many that the city of Philadelphia wasn’t able to open this year — the reasons vary from location to location, but staffing issues regarding lifeguards have been widespread. Despite that, 80% of Philly pools are open and 70% of locations are in neighborhoods where the average household income is less than $45,000 a year.
To Valentina and Roberto, all that matters is that they have a place to play.
“My kids love the water, they’d like to be in it all day long if they could,” said the mom of two. Roberto likes to “chill and relax” while his sister likes to jump in the water as she learns how to swim with floaties.
Every public pool offers swim lessons Monday through Friday.
Some locations that also have hours carved out for adult swimming and teen-only swimming as well — with free snacks, giveaways, and opportunities to learn more about how to become a lifeguard for next year’s pool season.
Pools will begin to close on a rolling basis starting mid-August. You can find a sprayground or pool in your neighborhood online.
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.
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