Blog by Mica Root, Senior Projects Coordinator, Get Healthy Philly
For swimming outside in the summer, Philly’s the place to be. Philadelphia has the largest network of outdoor public pools in the United States and, among the 50 largest cities, the most outdoor public pools per person!
Our pool history runs deep.
Philly got into the public pool scene early on, building 20 before New York had built even one. Our first pools, back in the 1860s, were closed-off sections of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. In 1884, the Wharton Street Bath, on 12th Street between Wharton and Reed, was the first to open on land. The incorrect belief that public pools are unclean dates to this time; early public pools were built as baths at a time when many people did not have a way to bathe at home. In the years that followed, the City’s purpose for pools shifted from places to take a bath to places to prevent kids from getting into trouble.
To learn more about the fascinating race, class and gender history of our public pools, check out Jeff Wiltse’s “Contested Waters.”
True to form, though, Philly’s children saw the pools’ highest purpose: oases of pure joy. The most chaotic pool in the city today has nothing on the scene back then; in the late 1890s, each Philly pool saw about 1,500 swimmers — per day.
In 2016, the average daily pool attendance at each location was closer to 200.
In addition to making possible almost one million sessions of relief, refreshment, fun and frolicking, last year’s pools provided nearly 800 summer jobs and 13,000 swim lessons, and over 60 adult fitness classes!
“It’d be like a desert,” Chuckie said. “Right now, the kids, they can be free-spirited; they can relax; they can identify with themselves – you know, that little precious time, for the few weeks of summer. And you know, they could be somewhere getting in trouble.
“Water relaxes you,” he continued. “You be around water, and it relaxes you. You know, every time we have a crisis, like with the President or something, they say: ‘Why’s he fishing, when he should be here or there.’ And you know, he’s thinking. He’s near water.”
This summer, let’s see if we can top one million swims. It can be done: Philadelphians went to the pools 4.3 million times in the summer of 1937!
Go for the exercise. Go for the heat relief. Take Chuckie Mills’ advice and go to relax!
Swim Philly pools have lounge chairs; Kelly Pool next to the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park has comfy grass surrounding it; and, for those over 18, adult swim sessions provide relative quiet. Go to chat with your neighbors. Feel free to thank the hard-working staff people — for whom pool season is definitely not the most relaxing time on Philadelphia’s calendar — and find out ways to stay involved in your neighborhood’s recreation programming throughout the year.
Philadelphia’s public pools belong to you. Enjoy them!
Mica Root has swum in 74 out of 75 of Philadelphia’s public pools and is a former Philadelphia lifeguard.