Waters of Community, Waters of Hostility: The Messy History of Urban America and the Municipal Pool


[Editor’s Note: Just in time for summer heat waves, this is the first in a series of posts in the upcoming weeks on the swimming pool in American life.  For those interested in cultural history of the backyard pool, check out ToM’s RR via @KCETDepartures – “A Dive into the Deep End: The Importance of the Swimming Pool in Southern California”]

“Caddy Day,” read the Bushwood Country Club Swimming Pool sign in the 1980 comedy Caddyshack, “Caddies welcome 1:00 – 1:15.”    In the roughly five minute scene, the Bushwood Country Club grudgingly hosts its lowest rung of employee: the caddies.  As the motley crew of lower middle and working class white kids, the group’s ethnic population represented by overtly (stereotypically) Italian American character Tony D’Annunzio (Scott Colomby), descend upon the club’s pool and chaos ensues. Rough housing runs rampant and shorts are removed.  When Manhattan bad girl Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan), exiled to Nebraska for the summer, arrives, climbs the high dive platform and executes a perfect dive, all the boys turn and stare at the paragon of 1980 beauty in what today might be considered a prudish one piece swimming suit.  Lifeguards are ignored (tossed into the pool even), rules flouted as the caddies use their fifteen minutes to reek havoc, exert their own presence, and even perform water ballet reminiscent of 1950s musicals. When Lacey’s grandmother Mrs. Smails (Lois Kibbee) happens upon the anarchy, she expresses horror at both Lacey’s interaction with ruffians like hero Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) and the aforementioned D’Annuzio, and the roughhousing/nudity practiced by the caddies. Whatever Mrs. Smails’s outrage, she goes ignored despite her demands that the caddies vacate the pool.  In fact, the scene only ends when a young girl mistakes a Baby Ruth chocolate bar for “Doodie!”  which of course leads to a rapid mass exodus and Bill Murray’s famous moment at the end.

“It’s the snobs versus the slobs,” read one promotional ad for the movie. While Caddyshack may have played class issues into a debate more about taste or aesthetics than rigid ideas about economic status, it undoubtedly engaged ideas about social mobility.  Though only a five-minute portion of the film, the pool scene encapsulates not only many of the underlying themes of Caddyshack, it also captured the long arc of the swimming pool in American life.


“After racial desegregation, millions of Americans consciously chose to stop swimming at municipal pools and chose instead to organize and join private swim clubs,” notes Jeff Wiltse in his 2009 work, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.[1]  Country clubs and private pools, like Bushwood’s, enjoyed greater attendance in the post war period due in part to suburbanization, a process that seems forever intertwined with issues of race, class, and gender. The explosion of private backyard pools, a dominant aspect of midcentury Southern California, in the 1950s and struggles over integration at municipal pools in places like Pittsburgh and St. Louis led white swimmers to suburban locations devoid of other ethnic and racial groups. By the 1970s and 80s, public pools tended to be largely black and Latino while private or suburban pools were often predominantly white.

Segregation’s roots anchored pool culture for much of the 20th century.  However, in their first decade or two of existence municipal pools utilized segregation but not always based on race. Instead, class and gender served as the primary dividing lines. Unlike the “cheap amusements” frequented by working class women and men in early the decades of the 20th century where the two sexes mingled free of supervision, pools remained rigidly segregated by class and gender, but not so much by race.  Built near urban slums rather than in the proximity of middle class residential areas, municipal pools self-selected.  No one cared that the urban poor, be they black or white, swam together just so long as they did not do so with their middle class counterparts.  Exceptions to the rule, which hinted at changes in coming years, demonstrate conditions had not always been so.  In a city known for ethnic and racial segregation, in 1895 West Side Chicago residents petitioned the city for the Douglas Park Pool and Gymnasium.  Accessible to both middle and working class families, in its early years it lived up to its originators’ democratic hopes as one newspaper headline underlined the diversity of its patrons: “Where All May Dip.” In Philadelphia’s early pools white and black boys roughhoused together, but did so away from middle class eyes and sensibilities.

From Jeff Wiltse’s “Contested Waters” pg. 33

By the end of the nineteeth century, two distinct pool cultures had come into existence.  Working class boys and young men had established a leisure/ play and pleasure centric culture at municipal pools while “elite middle class men” embraced a more somber and organized culture at private pools.  In this context the pool remained an artifact of Victorian society reflecting a culture that saw physical exertion and sports as a means of shaping character.  Both pool cultures remained fundamentally homosocial expressions of masculinity, but class more or less determined how the activity was viewed by society.  “Resorting on the beach,” Wiltse points out, “was for the rich, swimming was for the middle class men, and public bathing was for the urban poor.”[2]  The aforementioned Douglas Park pool gained notoriety not only for its initial class mixing, but also because it was one of the first municipal pools in the nation to function as a sports complex rather than a bath, demonstrating that middle class interests also shaped pools’ function and meaning.[3]

As documented by Wiltse, under progressive era reformers the pool first surfaced as a means to keep the unwashed masses clean.  In the absence of germ theory, reformers believed that disease spread through smells so the stench of the unwashed poor threatened public health. Pools (or when used by working class peoples, public baths) sought to remedy this imagined transmission of disease.  Regardless of reformers’ intentions, “public baths” featured behavior much like that in Caddyshack, minus the presence of any women.

The idea of the pool as leisure took a great deal of time to develop and did so as a result of the influence of working class pool goers who repeatedly bucked the expectations of middle class urban reformers.  Germ theory simultaneously debunked the idea of municipal pools as a means to improve hygiene and recast them as bacteria laden danger. Nonetheless the middle class craze for pools as a source of athletic competition and exercise, illustrated by the aforementioned Douglas Park, transformed pools into a tool for resisting man’s “feminization”; with the rise of more sedentary careers in law, academics, or business, physical exertion improved character and revitalized masculinity and held the potential to reform anti-social working class habits. A worker who swam in a municipal pool, pointed out reformers, burned away the energy to pursue more prurient or illegal interests.[4] In the late 1890s, Brookline, MA’s appointed “bath committee” imposed fees on pool usage in an attempt to better control patron behavior.  However, by doing so, they unwittingly forced many working class youth to abdicate the public pool, loosening reformers’ influence on the city’s wayward youth, which of course had been the entire point of municipal pools in the first place. Frustrated but pragmatic, the committee removed the fee, arguing better to have “roughhousing in the pool than betting craps, hanging around saloons and gambling dens, playing stickball in the street, fighting, and vandalizing property.”[5] In this and in other ways, Progressives that followed in the Brookline committee’s footsteps varied in their exact opinions but generally saw pools as the “antidote to many of the problems that plagued cities at the time,” notes Wiltse. “Public bathhouse swimming pools are undoubtedly a good investment in health, character, and citizenship,” one Philadelphia inspector asserted, “as they stand for body and character building, and produce better boys and girls, homes, morals, as well as greater love for their home city.”[6]

Whatever reformers’ hopes, pool decorum and atmosphere leaned toward the leisurely playful nature exhibited by working class youth, but devoid of much of the roughhousing and rebelliousness.  By the 1920s, cities began constructing larger resort style pools, much like St. Louis did at Fairgrounds Pool in 1913. Resort pools became common sites in smaller towns and industrial cities. The New Deal also contributed to their growth.  Between the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties and the deficit spending of FDR’s depression era government, pools became pervasive: between 1920 and 1940 2,000 municipal pools were constructed.  Queen’s Astoria Pool near the Hell Gate Bridge, today an active and iconic reminder of the city’s past, came to fruition as result of New Deal funding.


In fact, no city took advantage of government largesse more than NYC.  In the summer of 1936, Robert Moses, then Parks Commissioner, presided over the opening of eleven enormous pool complexes – including pools in Harlem, Greenpoint, Red Hook, the Lower East Side, and of course Astoria –  paid completely by New Deal programs, notably the WPA.  Even places like Warren, Ohio benefitted.  Local Reverend C.L. Rush acknowledged the importance of such public spaces in a time of great want: “When we look back some years hence we will look upon the swimming pool as one of the blessings that came to the people of Warren during the times of stress and it will remind us of the crisis we faced.”[7]

In the interwar period, gender and class boundaries fell, but new race-based segregation took their place. Fairgrounds Pool emerged several years ahead of these developments, but its policy of racial segregation predicted the future of pre and post-WWII swimming culture.

White swimmers used violence and other forms of intimidation to prevent municipal pool integration

Why the turn to Jim Crow? Several factors play into this development, but two—the Great Migration and fears of interracial sexuality—proved the most important in driving the segregation of pools.   At the same time that municipal pool construction exploded, so too did hundreds of thousands of African Americans retreat from the South to the North in search of employment and to escape the totalitarian regimes under which they lived. The North proved to be a mixed bag; racism in places like Pittsburgh operated differently, but even if marginally better than Southern metropolises, northern cities also circumscribed opportunity and visited violence on black populations.

Increasingly, pools gained cultural resonance. Again Southern California played a role as movie stars equipped their estates with lavish back yard pools while movies, like The Kid from Spain (1932), Birds of Paradise (1932) and Dancing Lady (1933) featured ever shrinking swimsuits and luxurious scenes of pool side repose.

EW (7)
Hollywood starlets normalized and popularized ever more “risque” swim wear

Public officials recast pools in this period as “social melting pots” in which the young and old, rich and working class, man and women all swam together. Officials saw pools as a tool for community building and sociability, no longer located in slums, municipal pools were constructed in accessible public spaces like parks. “Let’s build bigger, better finer pools …. That’s real democracy,” one Allegheny County official contended. “Take away the sham and hypocrisy of clothes, don a swim suit and we’re all the same.”[8] One might argue, that this new conception of pools may have helped bridge differences between Anglo native born Americans and their more ethnic and sometimes immigrant counterparts who previously had fallen out of the boundaries of whiteness.  In this way, pools, like public schools, accelerated the alleged process of Americanization for newcomers. Tolerance for ethnicity created a more inclusive pool culture on one hand, but racial intolerance toward expanding urban black populations during the Great Migration hastened the redefinition of whiteness, which brought so many white ethnics into fold, but left other groups out in the cold or heat in this case.

If movies highlighted the role of the swimming pool in public culture, the undercurrent of sexuality meant that white public officials chafed at the thought of interracial swimming.  Black men, the stereotype argued, were sexually aggressive and subjecting white women to their advances threatened society.  Additionally, with masculinity increasingly based on physique and athletic skill, should white and black men share the same pool, undoubtedly some African Americans might have challenged ideas about whites’ physical superiority.[9] Black leaders grasped this conflict and in several moments appealed to white officials to reinstate gender segregation, thus removing the stigma of interracial sexuality. In Pittsburgh, the NAACP asked Highland Park Pool administrators to do just that, which the organization argued, “would take the sex and social features out of the issue.”[10] Officials resisted and instead imposed racial segregation on the pool, assigning one to two days a week for the city’s black population.  Black leaders rightly rejected such offers as inherently unfair.  African American youth instead began frequenting the pool only to be subjected to violence and intimidation, which predictably city officials and police did little to stop.  The agency of African American young people in this period remains one of the most impressive aspects of Wiltse’s account.  Black swimmers braved truly hostile waters, trying time and time again, in the case of the Highland Park pool, to integrate local municipal pools.

In some cities, pools were built in primarily black communities to prevent integration: Cleveland, Cincinnati, and New York serve as three examples of this trend. Robert Moses, as previously noted, used WPA money to build pools in white neighborhoods in Greenpoint, Red Hook, and the Lower East Side. “This ensured that if black New Yorkers attempted to swim in a pool intended or whites,” relates Witse, “they would have to trek through a white neighborhood to get to the pool and would be far outnumbered and more easily intimidated in the water.”[11] Pools in Harlem required more finesse because the local black and Puerto Rican communities were bordered by white neighborhoods thereby forcing Moses to adopt techniques such as hiring all white staff at Thomas Jefferson Pool (between 111th and 114th) while building a second pool “in the heart Black Harlem” the Colonial Park Pool (today the Jackie Robinson Pool) at 146th street.[12] Whites did sometimes patronize black pools; this happened on occasion in Chicago and Detroit, but obviously the reverse remained impossible.

Jackie Robinson Pool circa today via photographer Andrew Moore

Wiltse correctly highlights Robert Moses’s apparent prejudices in regard to pool location and segregation. However, it is useful to note that while their original placement reflected racist impulses, the persistence of Betsy Head Pool (Brownsville, Brooklyn, 1936), Crotona (Crotona Park, Bronx, 1936) Sunset Pool (Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 1936), and those already mentioned has enabled New York’s Latino and black populations to enjoy these public spaces. The long arc of time, to paraphrase MLK, bends toward justice; likewise, Moses’s pools might have been dictated by racism but neighborhood succession and New York’s ever changing demographics have meant New Yorkers of all colors and ethnicities have enjoyed summer dips. “Anti-democratic practices from the 1930s should not blind us to the considerable achievements of the New Deal pool building projects,” Marta Gutman pointed out in 2007.  “Today, most of the WPA pools remain open for public use and, despite signs of wear, are full of all sorts of New Yorkers: families with children; summer campers; African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and many others who have arrived in the city on the successive waves of migration that continue to enrich the social and cultural fabric of the city.”[13]

When pools finally did integrate, white patrons stopped attending them. For example, after a bruising battle to integrate Fairgrounds and Marquette Pools in St. Louis that included a 1949 riot that resulted in the pools’ temporary closure, white swimmers refused to use the newly integrated spaces.  During the summer of 1948, Fairground recorded 313,000 swims by patrons. In 1950, reopened and integrated, the pool witnessed only 60,000.  The same pattern repeated itself in other venues across the nation, leading many city governments to close their municipal pools, as St. Louis did at Fairgrounds in 1956. “What is going to happen to the whites who do not want to mix,” one letter writer to the St. Louis Dispatch queried.  “They will go to a pool where they have to pay a fee.”[14]

With the unrest of the 1960s and the Great Society’s attention to social issues, pools emerged again but in different form. Unlike the resort pools built during the 1920s and 30s, these new “mini-pools” were much smaller and austere. Moreover, the impetus for building them stemmed from efforts to blunt urban discontent fueled by de facto segregation and municipal decline. When 1966’s hot summer visited Chicago along with MLK’s fair housing Freedom Movement, Mayor Daley adopted a double barreled approach: physical repression and water based leisure. On one hand, Daley had long let the CPD run wild, but in the Summer of ’66, he ordered fire hydrants opened and moved portable mini-pools across the city into its black neighborhoods.  Chicago writer Mike Royko famously quipped Daley had made Chicago’s African American community the “wettest in the nation,” but the reality was that Daley had conceded very little to King and had used swimming pools as a means to undercut protest. As Royko pointed out, it was not entirely successful, particularly when King marched in places like Gage Park where Daley was forced to have police intervene when white protesters became violent. “The white neighborhoods were furious, and much of their anger was directed at Daley,” Royko noted. “He had given rioting blacks swimming pools, now the police were beating home-owning whites.” Still, Daley survived and convinced MLK to sign a toothless summit agreement that enabled both to save face but enacted very little social change, though he did add 32 new pools to Chicago neighborhoods, 12 of which were located near predominantly African American public housing complexes.

Daley’s example sparked a new municipal pool construction boom. NYC built 84 new pools between 1966-1971.  While most resembled the newer mini-pools, occasionally cities produced larger ones, like Bedford Stuyvesant’s People’s Pool, which opened in 1971. Though it resembled the older resort pools in size, bathed in concrete and lacking any greenery or landscaping, “the People’s Pool might have passed for a prison recreation facility,” Wiltse notes.[15] Unsurprisingly, with the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the pool boom receded.

Bed-Stuy municipal pool 1974

Conversely, as whites moved to suburbs, pools provided a space for social cohesion. Lacking the social bonds or traditions of older communities, pools sutured relations between families and individuals. While many suburbs could have funded public pools, they chose not to instead organizing around private club pools.  Residency requirements and fees shaped membership by class and race.

With per capita incomes rising in the 1950s, private pools exploded. Americans built 30,500 backyard pools in 1957 alone. Symbols of middle class status, private pools enabled homeowners to completely control the environment even if it sacrificed community in the process. Sales slowed during the 1970s and picked up again with economic booms in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2000, Americans had built a total of 4,000,000 in ground residential pools. In movies, the private pool came to reflect a complicated American reality sometimes serving as a reservoir for alienation.

In the interest of space, coherency, and focus, municipal pools remain the real focal point throughout the book.  Moreover, in order to make the narrative manageable and avoid spending time explaining “regional variations”, northern cities in the East and Midwest draw Wiltse’s attention. As a result, Wiltse largely neglects Southern California, a region that perhaps more than any other came to define the image of the residential pool, but also has its own modest collection of municipal pools. For example, Los Angeles’s Watt’s 109th Street pool continues to provide relief and community to local residents.  While the pool has witnessed near tragedies and occasional violence, when one compares it to the long history of the municipal pool in Contested Waters, these problems seem to parallel those encountered by earlier incarnations elsewhere. In the late 1800s and early twentieth century, working class kids retained a boisterous playfulness that could tip into belligerence and sometimes resulted in pool staff being accosted or thrown into the water. In 2008, the Watts pool witnessed gang violence that nearly led to its closure.  Officials formed a task force to prevent future outbursts and the pool continues to operate. A comparison between sites like L.A.’s Watts and NYC’s recently reopened McCarren pool or any of the others still in operation might reveal some interesting differences and parallels.  To his credit, Wiltse touches on the contemporary municipal pool and its troubles, but one wonders what else might be out there.  Moreover, considering California’s multiracial history, one imagines that debates regarding integration might differ somewhat from Wiltse’s Eastern and Midwestern examples.

109th St. Pool Watts

“All levels of society participated in the redefinition of pools as leisure resorts and sexualized spaces during the interwar years,” notes Wiltse.  Direct contact and face to face interaction encouraged community and reduced the influence of cultural elites – television executives, editors, writers, and other gatekeepers of the media – in an age of Mad Men expansion. At times, even marginalized groups were able to shape public culture through public pools. Unfortunately, Wiltse suggests, for all the good they may have accomplished – fostering community, reducing social difference, and empowering average citizens – pools may not have ever reached their full potential.  Social segregation pervaded their reality as officials and others frequently employed them in ways that caused division and reified social stratifications.  How does the old saying go? You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Likewise, cities could bring pools to people, but getting everyone to dive in? Not even the grandest of municipal pools accomplished that.

[1] Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 2007, pg. 182.

[2] Ibid, pgs. 30, 22.

[3] Ibid., pg 33.

[4] Ibid, pg. 36.

[5] Ibid, pg. 45.

[6] Ibid, pg. 48.

[7] Ibid, pg. 95.

[8] Ibid, pg. 104.

[9] Ibid, pg. 124-125.

[10] Ibid. pg. 129.

[11] Ibid, pg. 140.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Marta Gutman, “Equipping the Public Realm: Rethinking Robert Moses and Recreation” in Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, Eds. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, (New York: WW Norton Co, 2007), pg. 83.

[14] Ibid, pg. 180.

[15] Ibid. 189.