The Deep End
America's racial history can be read in the chlorinated waters of its pools.

Reviewed by John L. Jackson Jr.
Sunday, May 6, 2007


A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

By Jeff Wiltse

Univ. of North Carolina. 276 pp. $29.95

Most of us use swimming pools to get away from the toils and tensions of life. Purposeful breast strokes in a local YMCA clear our heads and strengthen our bodies. During the summer, people don skimpy bathing suits and bask in the sun's rays, floating and splashing around in these chlorine-filled symbols of leisure and carefree recreation. But there's also a politics to sitting poolside. In Contested Waters, historian Jeff Wiltse argues that the nation's contentious history of racism, class conflict and gender inequality can be captured by chronicling the rise and fall of municipal pools in northern American cities. And he makes a compelling case.

Contested Waters begins in the 19th century, when poor immigrants (many living in homes without running water) bathed naked in local rivers and lakes. The first public pools were a calculated response to this exhibitionism. Policymakers -- believing, as most people did, that dirt caused diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis -- aimed to promote cleanliness and good health in America's teeming cities while catering to the sensibilities of middle-class urbanites not interested in glimpsing nude bodies in public.

Wiltse emphasizes that the earliest public pools were racially mixed places. Blacks and whites swam together with few clashes and little popular disapproval. Instead, other social lines were stringently policed, specifically the ones drawn around gender and class. Men and women swam on separate days of the week, and a tiered fee structure meant that the wealthiest swimmers didn't have to share their pool time with the raucous, uncontrollable masses.

But pools couldn't stave off diseases the way previous public planners had imagined, so later pools were designed less to promote public health than to discipline rowdy public bathers, teaching them Victorian values of self-control and moral uplift by forbidding the rambunctious activities (screaming, running, fighting) that had previously characterized public swimming. When it became increasingly clear that the rowdy male swimmers weren't internalizing the lessons (and wouldn't abide by the newly posted rules), public pools mutated yet again into a form of recreation that more civilized families could enjoy together. This new mandate encouraged public funding of massive indoor and outdoor facilities replete with shipped-in sand and vast swaths of land for people-watching and picnicking. According to Wiltse, it also spelled the beginning of the end for multiracial swimming in public pools.

Once men and women (as parents and children) started swimming together, African American swimmers (now saddled with the accusations of bio-pathology and disease-carrying earlier attributed to all poor urbanites) were perceived as a threat. A predilection of black men for raping white women was assumed by some of the most enlightened and celebrated urban thinkers, including Nobel Peace Prize-winning settlement house activist Jane Addams. Most opponents of miscegenation considered pools even more dangerous than schools, Wiltse argues, because they provided a kind of close and intimate contact that classrooms hardly allowed.

Wiltse claims that it was America's mid-20th century defeat of legalized segregation that rang the death knell for public pools in major American cities. Though whites had once swum alongside African Americans without comment or concern, they were no longer willing to do so. Several cities even tried to avoid race riots by reverting to gender-segregated pools, but it didn't work. Whites continued their retreat to private clubs and residential pools safely tucked away behind picket fences. Once they stopped frequenting urban public pools, it became much harder to justify spending tax dollars on maintenance. In such a context, Wiltse argues, everyone ended up losing: the suburban middle-class that had cordoned itself off from supposedly unsavory aspects of urban life and the urban poor that had been relegated to barb-wired and dilapidated mini-pools -- when there's enough money for any pool at all.

As this extremely readable narrative makes clear, empty and discarded public swimming pools exemplify the decay and decimation of post-Civil Rights urban America and the squandering of communal possibilities. In the end, Wiltse persuasively shows that there are some very serious consequences to how Americans play together -- and to when and why they decide that they won't. *

John L. Jackson Jr., teaches communication and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is "Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity."

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