The Crusader Newspaper Group

Park District transparency lacking as summer pool closures loom in Black wards

This article is part of a broader, ongoing collaborative investigation into disparities in public pool access across various wards of Chicago. The investigation has unveiled a pattern of pool closures predominantly affecting Chicago’s Black wards, sparking concerns over the potential disproportionate impact on these communities.

Last year, the Chicago Park District closed 28 pools in the city’s 17 Black wards during the busy summer season. Those facilities were nearly half of the 57 indoor and outdoor pools the Park District closed, citing a severe lifeguard shortage, a personnel deficit they knew about for at least a year.

Another year has gone by and with the unofficial start of summer this Memorial Day weekend, Park District officials once again are experiencing a lifeguard shortage that may hit Black wards the hardest for the second consecutive year.

The Park District this week announced it will close all of Chicago’s indoor pools until June 23. That’s when the District will announce which indoor and outdoor pools it will close during the summer season.

In Black wards, the potential closures will be felt the hardest. While North Side residents may be able to enjoy pools at private clubs, gyms, luxury apartments and condominiums, residents on the South and West sides have few such facilities.

Many residents and families frequent the District’s free public pools during the summer. But last year, as 28 pools in Black wards were closed during the lifeguard shortage, teenagers, families, and taxpayers who fund the District’s public pools were left without a facility in their neighborhoods where they could cool off.

Last summer, the most popular outdoor pools in Black wards, at Washington Park, Palmer Park and Tuley Park, were among the 28 swimming facilities closed on the South and West sides. To date, Park District officials have not said whether they will be closed again this summer. Nor have officials been transparent as questions linger as to how much progress or what efforts have been made to step up the recruitment of lifeguards to avoid a repeat of last summer’s pool closures.

In Alderman Jeanette Taylor’s 20th Ward, six indoor and outdoor pools were closed last summer. Four had been closed all year for an unknown amount of time. Can the Park District blame this on the lifeguard shortage when beaches are closed during the fall, winter and spring?

The Park District has been aware of the lifeguard shortage for at least two years now, but the real question is whether Park District officials are doing enough to address the problem to keep pools open at a critical time of the year.

So far, lifeguard applicants have been offered a $600 signing bonus, free Chicago Fire soccer tickets and Divvy memberships. The lifeguard shortage continues despite the perks.

Last year, Alderman Anthony Beale (9th) questioned the District’s efforts after knowing about the lifeguard shortage for a year. After another year and many lifeguard training classes throughout the city, the Park District won’t disclose how many lifeguards have been recruited or how many have returned.

There are also questions of how many lifeguards are needed to patrol the city’s 27 beaches and how Park District officials determine which pools to close and which pools to keep open.

On May 8, the Crusader sent these questions to Irene Tostado, the Park District’s Deputy Director of Communications. When Tostado did not respond to the questions for two weeks, the Crusader re-sent the email on May 22. Again, Tostado did not respond.

Earlier this month, the Crusader also sent a status update request on pool closures this summer with a list of the pools by wards.

There are also questions about Washington Park’s extremely popular outdoor pool that Timeout magazine ranked No. 1 in the entire city. That pool was closed last year, and some residents who contacted the Crusader said it had been closed for as long as three years.

After a Freedom of Information request turned up few answers, the Crusader on May 23 sent that question to the Park District, which did not respond by press time, Wednesday, May 24, for the Crusader print edition.

Lack of transparency has always been a problem with the Park District. Under Superintendent Michael Kelly, the Park District deceived Chicago and South Side residents, saying Marquette Drive in Jackson Park would close as part of a plan to create a $30 million championship golf course designed by Tiger Woods. The Crusader later learned the plan was part of the Obama Presidential Center, which also plans to close Cornell Drive for the $700 million facility that will open in 2025.

For Black residents, the Chicago Park District has for decades sown distrust, avoiding questions and transparency in addressing crumbling facilities in underserved neighborhoods.

Decades after entering into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, the Park District recently drew heavy criticism for its handling of a pool closure at the Don Nash Community Center last year. The indoor pool at the South Shore facility had been closed for three months until the Crusader published a story that reported the motor pump forced the cancellation of dozens of aquatics classes and the shutdown at the pool in August 2022.

Despite letters and calls to Park District officials, patrons and staff members were never given any status updates on the situation, but when the Crusader submitted a FOIA request asking for repair and maintenance records, Park District officials took action, and the pool was reopened two weeks later.

The Crusader recently learned of a new development regarding the pool at Don Nash. According to a recording of the December 8, 2022, PAC meeting, Art Richardson, who said he was the community engagement officer for the Park District, told the PAC members that while the pool was closed, he continued to stay on the phone and “tried to push the manufacturer to get us the part as quickly as possible.”

But every member of the PAC said they never heard of Richardson during the shutdown. They also said they were never informed by the Park District about efforts Richardson claimed to have made during the urgent situation.

During that meeting, Richardson appeared defensive and, at times, appeared to justify the Park District’s decision not to give status updates on the closed pool, saying he did not want to disappoint patrons if a new pump failed to arrive for installation. At one point, one PAC member, Bettye Odom, pushed back and told Richardson, “We heard nothing. And when I called down there, ‘they’re not making the part anymore,’ and they told me to tell it to the group of people who use the facilities. That’s all I’m saying.”

The Crusader has never heard of Richardson, either. While researching the story, Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons never mentioned Richardson and the claims he made during the December 8 PAC meeting. When the Crusader emailed Lemons and Tostado about Richardson, Tostado responded with an email talking about recruiting lifeguards during the summer.

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