Public swimming pools and the "mindscape" of Los Angeles

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American swimmer Simone Manuel broke the world record in the women's 100-meter freestyle at the Rio Olympics, tying for first place. But her win represented another barrier smashed: the "perception that black folks don't swim," in the words of DnA guest Conrad Cooper, a swimming teacher in View Park.

Swimming in America has a sorry history of exclusion -- from Jim Crow to the rise of private pools that benefited the affluent while public pools fell into disrepair and neglect.

And the disparity can mean death, literally.

A recent study sponsored by USA Swimming found that 70 percent of black teenagers and 60 percent of Hispanic teenagers can't swim. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black kids age 11-12 years drown at rates ten times those of white kids.

But the tide may be changing, at least in Los Angeles.

The City of LA runs 60 pools but for several decades many pools in the inner city fell into disrepair or were barely open.

But then along came help: funds for upgrading facilities from Propositions A and K, as well as grants for free swim lessons for adults and children from Kaiser Permanente and support from LA84, the foundation for youth sports that was established following LA's 1984 Olympics.

Mike Shull, General Manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks, told us that in the next three or four years in the South LA area every swimming pool will be brand new.

We visited one such pool: Central Recreation Center Pool in South LA.

Designed by Lehrer Architects, this pool replaces one damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and opened this summer after being closed for 12 years. It is in a neighborhood south of the 10 freeway that is now majority Latino and African-American.

The pool is quite delightful, with bright colors and bold details that make the pool pop, concrete benches for sunbathing, white metal follies that cast dappled light on the water, a protective concrete block wall painted green and white, and cheerful green and yellow fountains.

Having a public swimming pool makes a huge contribution to what architect Michael Lehrer calls the "mindscape" of a community, the "places that we feel special going to" including pools, churches and schools that form a sense of pride and belonging in a neighborhood.

Photo: Central Recreation Center Pool in South LA. (Michael Lehrer Architects)