Public swimming pools and the “mindscape” of Los Angeles

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Simone Manuel’s Olympic win highlights the politics of access to public swimming pools. DnA visited a newly-restored pool in South LA by Lehrer Architects and finds how what the City of Los Angeles is doing to create “access and opportunity” for all.

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 in the inner city 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 Latino teenagers can’t swim. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children age 11-12 years drown at rates ten times those of white kids.

But things are looking up in the City of Los Angeles. We found out just how when we visited Central Recreation Center Pool in South LA.

Central Pool was designed by Lehrer Architects, with the Bureau of Engineering’s Architecture Division that is in charge of the Pool Reconstruction Program. It replaces one damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and opened this summer after being closed for 12 years. It is on E. 22nd St., between Washington and Adams 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, on a budget: concrete benches for sunbathing, white metal canopies and follies that cast dappled light on the water, a protective concrete block wall picked out in blocks of green and white, and cheerful green and yellow fountains.

The design, says Michael Lehrer, draws on Southern California artists Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud — “both dead serious artists” who “also have beautiful coloration”; “the way they think about the last two inches of a paint canvas could be like the deck of a pool.”

And of course David Hockney, who gave to Angelenos the “gift,” adds Lehrer, of “not being shy about bright colors and occasional blinding light and its shadows” and of course, “the ebullient turquoise water.”

Mindscape of Community

Having a public swimming pool makes a huge contribution to what 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.

Michael Lehrer at the opening of Central Pool
Michael Lehrer at the opening of Central Pool. Photo courtesy Michael Lehrer Architects. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“I grew up in East Hollywood in Los Feliz and I remember, as a child in the ’50s, our neighborhood public swimming pool across from the Mulholland fountain and it was just like, oh, this is my community. There is a pool that belongs to me and my community and that’s imbedded in my brain.”

“And I think when you grow up with something like that you think not only more affectionately about [your neighborhood] but it’s the beginning of this virtuous cycle of improvement. When your neighborhood has things that you value and you think my neighborhood is good, it becomes better.”

Central Pool is just one of several new public pool projects completed or under construction by the City of Los Angeles, which runs 60 pools. Another replacement pool at 109th Street pool south of Watts also opened this summer.

Downey Pool
Downey Pool adds a sense of place and joy to the “mindscape” of the community (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This ends a dry spell for a period of decades in which many pools in the inner city fell into disrepair or were barely open.

But then along came help: funds for upgrading facilities from Props 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.

Moving forward says, Michael Shull,  General Manager for the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, the past “disparity won’t exist anymore.”

“In the next three or four years in the South L.A. area every swimming pool will be brand new. We did two this year. We’ve got another two in design. About five years ago we opened a really nice new complex over at Harvard in South Los Angeles. We’re building a new indoor swimming pool facility [replacing the Celes King III pool] at Rancho Cienega Park near Baldwin Hills. That facility is going to be amazing.”

The challenge, Schull says, is always funding. “It can take ten different funding sources to build a pool,” he says. But in the future, he says, Los Angeles will doubtless produce more Simone Manuels. It’s all about “access and opportunity.”