At their neighborhood pool in West Philadelphia, Markyda Anderson’s little boys could not wait to get back in. They had grown tired of playing in a nearby splash pad as lifeguards conducted a periodic check of chlorine levels. So once the break was over and swimmers were welcome again, they dashed back and — plunk, plunk — into the water they went.
“It gives the kids something to do — something positive,” said Ms. Anderson, a 38-year-old nursing assistant cooling off with Isaiah, 7, and Elijah, 3, at the Tiffany Fletcher Recreation Center in the city’s Mill Creek section. Without the pool, Isaiah piped up, “I’d stay inside and play Fortnite on Xbox.”
It was scenes like this, at dozens of city-run pools, that sent 71-year-old Joy Watson into a fit of anger for her own Overbrook Park neighborhood, roughly a mile away. Next to her rowhouse, the one with the Barack Obama mural on the side, the Charles Baker Playground pool has not been open since July 2019.
“They say it’s a lifeguard shortage,” Ms. Watson said Friday. “My question is, you’ve got all these other pools open, and you can’t swap the lifeguards around?”
In that sense, Philadelphia is no different from other cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston, where a shortage of lifeguards has led to curtailed swimming hours or pools completely closing. That scarcity stemmed from the pandemic, which led staff members to find jobs elsewhere and disrupted training of future potential hires. About one-third of the nation’s roughly 300,000 public pools were affected last year, and 2023 is as bad or worse, according to the American Lifeguard Association, which runs training and certification programs.
With July on pace to become Earth’s hottest month on record, the lifeguard shortages and pool closings are particularly painful to many of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents who need safe, cool spots and who live in pockets of the city that are disproportionately experiencing the effects of poverty, poor health and gun violence.
Mill Creek, where 97 percent of the residents are nonwhite, has broad challenges, with residents’ health especially at risk during temperature spikes, according to the Philadelphia Heat Vulnerability Index, an interactive map produced by the city that outlines danger zones during extreme weather. According to city statistics, almost half the people in the neighborhood live below the federal poverty line, and one-quarter of adults lack a high school diploma. One in five has diabetes, and hypertension, obesity and asthma are rampant.
This year, the city’s parks and recreations department embarked on a major campaign to ready its public pools, spending millions more than it has in the past and promising to open 61 of its 70 pools for all or part of the season. For the first time, the city is requiring and providing swim lessons for all 6,000 summer campers. Most of the campers are Black, and fewer opportunities for swimming instruction in low-income communities have put Black children at greater risk of drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the Fletcher playground, two dozen day care campers splashed in the pool, jumped rope and played on monkey bars. The facility, formerly called Mill Creek, was among the first to open this year, on June 14, the first day of summer break. It also had a new name, in honor of Tiffany Fletcher, a 41-year-old parks employee and mother of three, who was struck and killed by a stray bullet in September just outside the playground.
“This isn’t just an essential service; it’s a renaissance in the use of public spaces,” Bill Salvatore, a parks and recreation deputy commissioner, said of the push to open the pools.
Still, thousands of residents await that renaissance where it is needed most. The city has worked to spread the lifeguards around but is still several dozen short to open more pools. And at least four other pools that have yet to open as a result of staffing issues or long-term repair needs are in areas where residents’ health is at high or very high risk, according to the heat index. Temperatures in the city dipped to the 80s this weekend but were forecast to reach the upper 90s toward the end of this week.
On Friday, at the Hank Gathers Recreation Center in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, day campers and visitors played on swings, played basketball and rocketed through the splash pad, an array of three- and four-foot water fountains spouting from the concrete. Steps away was the freshly painted but waterless pool, behind a locked chain-link fence.
Wannetta Williams, 56, escorting children from a day care center, recalled her own youthful summers at other Philadelphia pools, where, she said, she and her friends stayed out of trouble, learned to look after little ones and socialized as teenagers.
“They rely on the outdoors,” Ms. Williams said the children. “They need this activity and fresh air.”
A planned pool opening date of July 5 had come and gone, the result of the lifeguard shortage, but Mr. Salvatore said more staff was in the pipeline. A February “Philly Phreeze” winter pool plunge, the city’s first of its kind, raised funding for $500 and $1,000 lifeguard bonuses and helped lead more than 730 people to apply for guarding and other work. The Gathers pool, when it opens, may be among those with hours extended for a few weeks beyond the typical Labor Day closing.
In Overbrook Park, that is no consolation for those who live near the Baker playground. Ms. Watson, whose home with the Obama mural overlooks the park, and a fellow neighborhood activist, the 43-year-old Aaliyah Small, pointed to a corner where just four hours earlier a 22-year-old man had been shot in the head.
To Ms. Small, president of the Baker Playground Advisory Council, lifeguards are only part of the problem. While acknowledging that gun violence is an issue in the neighborhood, she also said that opening more pools could help address that by creating needed diversions for residents. People, she said, need to flip their negative thinking.
“They look at these shootings and they say, ‘What if the children playing are affected by it?’” Ms. Small said. “What they should be saying is, ‘If we open the playground, then they won’t be affected by it.’”
Jaevon Williams contributed reporting.