Philly pools open amid hopes of improvement

Children play at Kelly Pool in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Children play at Kelly Pool in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

This weekend, over 70 outdoor public pools and splash pads in Philadelphia opened for the season. Philly is home to the oldest and one of the largest public pool systems in the US, and many say it’s due for an upgrade. Officials are hoping that Rebuild Philadelphia, a $500 million infrastructure program, might help to improve city pools, parks and libraries.

In South Philly, Councilman Mark Squilla began the Philly pool season with a splash by jumping in Murphy Recreation Center’s pool with all his clothes on.

He had just cut the ribbon for a new playground that is part of the Philadelphia Rebuild initiative, a massive public infrastructure program, paid for by the city’s sweetened beverage tax and a $100 million grant from the William Penn Foundation.

City Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis wants Rebuild to bring improvements poolside.

“Most of our pools were built in the 50s, so they have kind of this stark quality to them – so [we need] shade, tables, you know? Chairs. Just more welcoming for adults. Because I think right now we’re good for kids, we’re not too good for adults,” he said.

At Howard pool in West Kensington, opening day was more subdued. Kids sat on swing sets waiting for the health department to check the water and give everyone the OK.

Yvette and Kayla Serrano brought their own chairs.

“I learned that from the first time I was here and when I visit other parks. I have to have somewhere to sit in the shade,” said Yvette as she watched two younger nieces swimming from behind the fence.

Yvette has lived in North Philly her entire life, but she just learned something new:

“I’m 48 years old and I never knew that they gave free swimming lessons,” she said.

In addition to free admission and adult swim times, every pool in Philly has swimming lessons. But DiBerardinis admits that accessing information about pools hasn’t been easy.

“We’re a little behind the curve there, getting all this information online—what our facilities, where they are, what’s available and when it’s available- we want to do better with that in the future,” he said.

This year, all pools are open at the same time – from 11am-7pm weekdays and 12-5pm on weekends and holidays. And most pool schedules are now available on Parks and Recreation’s website.

There are high hopes for the Rebuild initiative and the improvements it could bring to parks and libraries across the city.

Yet, a big question mark hangs over the program. The city can’t issue bonds to fund the projects until a lawsuit challenging the legality of the soda tax is resolved. The city hopes the State Supreme Court will give the tax its approval soon.

Both Yvette and Kayla have seen the neighborhood surrounding Howard park change over the years. These days it’s surrounded by new development, and the Serranos don’t want the park to be left behind. Kayla says she hopes Rebuild’s improvements will be as far-reaching, and impactful as the city’s beverage tax.

“Sometimes they repaint stuff and that’s sort of presented as an improvement, but they didn’t add any more activities,” said Serrano. “They introduced the beverage tax and want to make it seem like it’s a health initiative. But what about the activities, the other part? Diet’s a big part but what about the activities- you want to keep the kids engaged,” she said.

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