Photo caption: Washington Park Pool
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.
The birds are chirping, flowers are blooming and Memorial Day weekend is in three weeks. The unofficial start of summer kicks off this month with picnics, backyard barbeques and trips to Chicago’s beaches and public pools.
Last year, summer was not so great for thousands of residents in Chicago’s Black wards. Facing a lifeguard shortage, the Chicago Park District abruptly announced at the beginning of summer the closure of 57 public pools in Chicago.
Approximately 28, or half, of those pools were located in 15 Black wards on Chicago’s South and West sides, according to a Crusader analysis of data from last summer’s pool closures.
After emailing Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons, the Crusader is waiting for a status update on the availability of Chicago’s public pools this summer.
With another year to step up its recruitment of lifeguards, the Park District is under pressure to show some progress by having more open public pools this summer than last year.
There is concern the number of pool closures throughout Chicago will be the same or even worse because of a national shortage of lifeguards patrolling beaches and public pools at local park districts in cities across America.
With over 600 parks, 27 beaches and 93 indoor and outdoor pools, Chicago has one of the largest park districts in the country. But last year, the Park District closed a total of 56 pools in Chicago during the summer, citing a severe shortage of lifeguards. That left only 36 public pools open for a city of over 2.7 million residents.
The most public pools in Chicago are located in Black wards. A Crusader analysis of Park District data reveals a total of 45 indoor and outdoor pools in Black wards on the South and West sides.
However, last summer, the Park District closed eight indoor pools and a staggering 19 outdoor pools in Black wards.
That is 60 percent of the pools in Black wards. But in fairness, the Park District also closed at an equal rate 60 percent of the pools in the white wards and 60 percent in the Latino wards.
Park District data show that last summer, there were two Black wards where all public pools were closed. In Alderman Jeanette Taylor’s 20th Ward, all six Park District pools were closed. And four of those pools were closed year-round, including the popular outdoor Washington Park pool, which Time Out Magazine once named the best public park in the city. That pool hasn’t opened since 2019, and there’s no explanation on the Park District’s website.
The closest outdoor pool for residents to visit was the Taylor Park pool in Alderman Pat Dowell’s 3rd Ward, where pools at Fuller Park and Wentworth Gardens were closed because of the lifeguard shortage.
In Alderman Anthony Beale’s 9th Ward, all three Park District pools were closed last summer. They included the outdoor pools at Palmer Park and Abbott Park. The indoor pool at West Pullman Park School was also closed.
In the 24th Ward, Alderman Monique Scott, who once worked for the Park District along with her brother, former Alderman Michael Scott, saw in her first month in office last June, two out of three pools remained open for the summer.
A total of six pools are closed year-round in Black wards. In addition to the four in the 20th Ward, the indoor pool at Hirsch Metropolitan High School in Alderman Michelle Harris’ 8th Ward remains closed, as well as the indoor pool at Bogan Computer Technical High School in Alderman Derrick Curtis’ 18th Ward.
The pool at Hirsch Metropolitan High School sat empty for 10 years before it received significant repairs and reopened in 2016.
In Woodlawn in the 20th Ward, the Harris Park pool was closed February 6 for maintenance, for an indefinite period of time. Meanwhile, the seniors who take water exercise classes there are taking similar classes at the already crowded Don Nash Community Center pool in Alderman Greg Mitchell’s 7th Ward.
Last year, when Park District officials abruptly announced the closures of many public pools in Chicago, it drew criticism from aldermen Raymond Lopez of the 15th Ward and Nicholas Sposato of the 38th Ward.
Alderman Beale was quoted in the Sun-Times as saying, “They should have foreseen this months ago. They should have started the hiring process [of lifeguards] months ago to make sure that we didn’t have a shortage for the summer. I could understand if we were short a couple hundred. But 1,600 openings is (sic) totally unacceptable.”
During a City Council hearing, Alderman Taylor didn’t buy the argument that a local shortage of lifeguards is the primary factor hampering efforts to open those pools.
In many instances, white wards are affluent districts where residents have an abundance of pools located in fitness gyms, private clubs, luxury apartment high rises, condominiums and homes. Many high rises have outdoor pools on rooftop decks that are open during the summer. These pools usually operate without the presence of a lifeguard but cautions patrons to swim at their own risk.
In Black and Latino wards, there are few alternatives or places to go for residents when a public pool in their neighborhood closes. There are only three LA Fitness facilities with indoor pools on the South Side. These gyms are primarily for adult members.
There’s the South Side YMCA in Woodlawn, but a family membership could be too pricey for a family of four, while Park District pools are free for all Chicago residents.
There is concern that widespread pool closures will impact Black neighborhoods, where many residents do not have transportation to get to beaches located miles away.