Philly’s public pools make waves

The South of South Anderson pool is one of City aquatic director LIsa Whittle’s favorites.

Photo by Tina Garceau

On June 22, Vare, 2600 Morris St., opened. The next day, the crown jewel of 19146 opened, O’Connor at 2601 South St. Ridgway, 1301 Carpenter St., welcomed its first users Friday. Anderson, 740 S. 17th St., was full by Saturday. Barry, 1800 Johnston St., and Murphy, 300 W. Shunk St., were cooling off kids by Tuesday. Yesterday saw the opening of Chew, 1800 Washington Ave., and Sacks, 400 Washington Ave., two lovely Washington Ave. bookend oases. Today and tomorrow, Ford, 609 Snyder Ave., and Stinger Square, 3200 Dickinson St., swing the gates open.

It’s pool season!

“One of our city’s most cherished traditions,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “Our public pools are great amenities that provide fun, safe, healthy opportunities for Philadelphians of all ages to stay cool and enjoy in their neighborhoods.” There are more than 70 public pools and, by tomorrow, all of them will be officially open.

Some say they’re criminally underused. Others think they’re dirty. There’s little convincing to be done, though, for sweaty children (and their parents) who can walk to a nearby pool and swim for free. They’re cool with chlorine.

Last year Lisa Whittle, the city’s aquatics coordinator, said overseers switched from powder to liquid chlorine, “there’s no room for error – we’ve never been closed due to low or no chlorine.” She and her peers take pool safety very seriously.

“We’re hoping to be a safe, cool place for people to cool off, hang out, have a little physical activity – some people will go there to swim laps or do water aerobics,” Whittle said. “Older people might just want to sit and use it for arthritis. Some neighborhood kids are there from the time the pool opens to the time the pool closes. Every pool offers swim lessons.”

The free attractions are, for the most part, open with regular hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Prospective users will want to contact their local pool to determine when swim lessons take place or, perhaps more importantly to kid-free South Philadelphians, when adult swim takes place (typically the last hour the pool is open, 6 to 7 p.m. on weekdays).

It’s all funded by taxpayers – nearly 800 citizens get temporary employment either as lifeguards or maintenance staff.

“These jobs are a great way for some young people and adults to earn some additional income during the summer months while keeping our pools safe, clean and ready to use,” Parks & Rec managing director Michael DiBerardinis said.

For Mica Root, a city employee who was raised in New York City but calls Passyunk Square home for the foreseeable future, it was the O’Connor pool that won her heart.

“We have more outdoor public pools than any city. The city can be brutal in the summer – it’s hot, it’s sticky, it’s sweaty,” she said. “It’s hard to find any relief.”

She found O’Connor in 2002.

“My favorite, I think, will always be O’Connor pool. It’s my first and I worked there and it’s enlightened me to the existence of these pools,” she said. “It’s a particularly nice pool with the high, brick walls and setting. O’Connor will always be the one I have the most allegiance to, but there isn’t a single pool that I wouldn’t want to visit.”

Ben Bryant, who studied urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, is another South Philadelphian who stumbled upon O’Connor on his sweltering walks across the South Street Bridge.

“I was walking down South Street one day in grad school on a typical hot Philly day,” he explained.

The question became ‘Where do these pools come from?’ He was keenly aware of it as a public space asset.

“I kind of feel like the public pool system is the best-kept secret for ways to spend your summers in Philadelphia, completely open to the public and free,” he offered. “A lot of people think the only options are to take a vacation or go to the Jersey Shore or join an expensive pool club.”

South Philly definitely has a few gems, but you may also want to take a trip to some of Lisa Whittle’s favorites. West Philly and North Philly are home to the densest collections of pools, but the biggies are outside of Center City: Kelly Pool, the largest in the system, is near the Please Touch Museum; Hunting Park in North Philly could be a close second for size; Cobbs Creek in West Philly is walkable from the 63rd St. Market-Frankford line station; and Vogt Pool, in Northeast Philly, is another big one.

Down here, though, Whittle’s partial to the [Marian] Anderson pool.

“Everybody thinks their own pool is the best pool, their community pool or their gem in their neighborhood, [but] Anderson is a hidden gem – it’s a very large pool, and I think that’s one where you have everyone swimming together,” she explained. “Whether it’s old, young, African-American, white, you have different people using it, and it just looks like a great place to be.”

Bryant helped secure a Knight Foundation grant for the Francisville pool in Fairmount, converting the space for two summers (including this summer) into an even more desirable hangout with furniture and programming. Open late on Mondays with the Pop-Up Pool Project, Francisville brought in aqua zumba and yoga, encouraging some exercise followed by a dip.

Bryant, in his research and implementation with the Fairmount Park Conservancy regarding Francisville, found the obvious – private versus public pools aren’t so different, other than the pricetag. You can wait on a list for years for a swim club like the Lombard Swim Club, or shell out $300 for a full membership to the North Shore Beach Club in Northern Liberties, but the public pool system’s free nature is a wonderful equalizer. No one is turned away.

“It’s weird because it’s the only type of public space where there’s this huge perception divide between private pools and public pools,” he explained. “Smith Playground, for example, is a very nice playground, but no one assumes that it’s a membership-only playground.”

Oh, and on the premise of catching something or getting sick from a swim, Root says “to get sick from any sort of body of water, most of the time, you have to drink it – I don’t know why you’d want to drink chlorinated water.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.

Swimmers at Ridgway in Hawthorne are already beating the heat, and a few more pools set to open in the coming days.

Photo by Tina Garceau