Dipping public pool access in Detroit area raises 'barrier' to learning how to swim
Summer and swimming are synonymous. But if you want to hit a pool in Metro Detroit, prepare to drive for miles or shell out serious cash.
Once a mainstay of cities nationwide, public swimming pools are becoming relics, waylaid by budget cuts, changing tastes and perception issues that touch on race and class. In the past few years alone, public pools have closed from Westland and Dearborn to Detroit and Royal Oak Township.
That's not to say there's nowhere to swim. There are 1,200 outdoor pools in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties that Michigan regulators define as "public." More than 90 percent are anything but, tucked behind gates of subdivisions, marinas or swim clubs where membership fees of $2,000 aren't uncommon.
"There's just not a lot of accessibility to public pools in Metro Detroit," said Elena Crowley, who runs the Detroit Swims program through the Boll Family YMCA that wants to teach all city children to swim by fifth grade.
"It's definitely a big issue. If you can't get to a pool, it's a big barrier to learning how to swim."
The issue became part of a national dialogue this month after a cellphone video went viral of a Texas police officer manhandling a black teenager during an altercation at a pool party in a private subdivision.
In Detroit, two outdoor public pools and three splash parks remain. The largest, the Chandler Park Family Aquatic Center on the east side, is a 15-minute drive from Patricia Davis' home near Eastern Market.
She wouldn't dream of taking her three grandchildren there, she acknowledged last week while watching them on a Belle Isle playground.
"Chandler Park is just too rowdy," Davis said. "It's really too bad. There used to be so many pools in Detroit. There just aren't enough places now for kids to play safely."
Davis could drive farther east, where six municipally owned pools and splash parks dot Lake St. Clair along a 9-mile stretch from Grosse Pointe Park to St. Clair Shores.
But she couldn't get in.
The facilities are for residents only. They are among the nine of 47 government-owned pools and splash pads in the Tri-Counties that have such policies. Others include Pleasant Ridge and Huntington Woods. All are predominantly white.
So Davis doesn't take her grandchildren swimming when they visit. And she's not alone.
In Detroit, 100,000 of the city's 120,000 youths don't know how to swim, in large part because of accessibility, Crowley said.
Distance to public pools is the worst in both poorer and well-to-do areas, according to a Detroit News analysis of Department of Environmental Quality records of pools that fall under the agency's oversight. Those include pools in condo complexes and country clubs, but not homes.
About 200 schools in the Tri-Counties also have indoor pools, but their use is typically restricted, so The News didn't include them in its analysis.
In many affluent suburbs of Oakland County, public pools simply were never built: There are 52 in private clubs, compared to 11 owned by cities, Oakland County or the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority, records show. It's a similar phenomenon in Macomb County, which has seven publicly owned pools and splash parks.
In financially struggling cities with predominantly African-American populations, such as Royal Oak Township and Pontiac, pools were among the first casualties of budget cuts.
In Pontiac, the city sold the closed Hayes Jones Community Center and its pool to private developers during the city's financial emergency. It was reopened last year as the private Wessen Lawn Tennis Club.
The club costs $5,000 to join and has annual dues of $1,000.
Farther south in Melvindale, the city's pool will remain closed for the second consecutive summer this year.
"We don't have the money to pay for it," said city administrator Richard Ortiz. "It's all related to the economy. When cities are looking at cuts, they are going to pay for police and fire before pools."
"I know everyone wants it open," he continued. "I'm getting calls about it already."
While public pools are declining in popularity nationwide, Thomas Yack, a former supervisor of Canton Township, said much of the hand-wringing about their demise comes from nostalgic parents swam daily as youths.
Their children could often care less, Yack said.
He would know.
Like few other elected officials, Yack made recreation a top priority during his 20 years of running the fast-growing Wayne County community.
He oversaw construction of the township's Summit on the Park community center in 1996. It has multiple pools and is a testament to a richer era in southeast Michigan in the late 1990s and early 2000s when suburbs competed for residents by building fancy community centers.
A simple swimming pool doesn't cut it anymore, Yack said.
"If you don't have a pool with lots of gadgets, gizmos and slides, chances are it's going to be under-utilized and the cost of maintaining it will be difficult," said Yack, who retired as supervisor in 2008 and is now serving as a township trustee.
Other hurdles facing public pools are the weather in Michigan and their maintenance and payroll costs. Instead, some cities are going the way of Westland, which closed its pool and opened the H2O Zone splash park.
The advantages for communities are obvious: They cost about $150,000 to build and don't require a slew of lifeguards, Yack said.
The disadvantage: They lose their appeal to children after about age 8 and don't teach anyone to swim.
For better or worse, that's an endeavor that government increasingly has ceded to private enterprise, Yack said.
About Detroit Swims
African-American youths drown at three times the rate of other children because 70 percent can't swim. To combat that, the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit launched Detroit Swims in 2010. The program aims to teach 1,500 youths to swim each year.
Founded in Detroit, it has expanded to YMCAs throughout southeast Michigan and focuses on underserved communities. It has an open enrollment from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Belle Isle on Saturday and Wednesday. For information, log on to ymcadetroit.org/detroitswim