Washington, D.C. maintains 19 outdoor and 11 indoor public pools, somewhat unevenly distributed around the city.
Of the 30 facilities, 12 are located in D.C.’s two poorest Wards, 7 and 8, together referred to as Anacostia because they are east of the Anacostia River. These are persistently DC’s poorest neighborhoods, with double digit youth unemployment among the mainly African American population who often have at best a D.C. public high school education that has left them unprepared for any employment opportunity that might arise. So perhaps they need free public swimming pools, since the city really has little else to offer residents to occupy their time.
The other 18 facilities east of the Anacostia — in the wealthy or gentrifying neighborhoods where unemployment is almost nonexistent among the mainly imported, increasingly non-black lawyers and grad school credentialed bureaucrats who have moved to D.C. at the rate of over 1,000 a month for two decades – are not very evenly distributed. In far upper NW, Ward 3, near wealthy Montgomery County, Maryland, there are NO outdoor pools and only one indoor one. Adjacent Wards 1 and 4, the former gentrifying and multicultural and the latter long the home to the city’s black upper middle class, each have only one indoor and one outdoor facility. Wards 2 (downtown, Georgetown and Dupont Circle), 5 (Brookland-Catholic University), and 6 (Capitol Hill) each have 3-5. But what’s most interesting about the pools is not their unequal distribution – probably a matter of historical happenstance – but their operation.
Most of these public outdoor pools shut down when the school year begins.
It’s a curious schedule, and its not the only aspect that is curious. Even when open most of these pools are closed one day a week. And many don’t open until noon or 1 pm in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, all around them, expensive gyms and health clubs have (mainly indoor) pools that open every weekday at 5 am and every weekend at 7 am, usually not closing until 11 pm.
In the West End neighborhood for example, a tiny urban slice between the better known Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and Foggy Bottom, there sits an Olympic size public pool at 25th and M Streets, perched along and looking into a woods along Rock Creek Park, adjacent to a public soccer field and less than a block from public tennis courts. If you have any kind of D,C, ID the pool is free, otherwise it’s $7 per visit. The many nearby hotels and the transient (often foreign) residents (West End has many embassies, including that of the European Union) are happy to pay it. I made it to this, my neighborhood, pool three times this summer (having lived two blocks away for 15 years).
It closed in early September, along with all outdoor public pools; and while open for a few months this summer, it was never open in the morning. Nearby, upscale gyms like Vida or Equinox and health clubs in upscale hotels like the Fairmont or the Ritz Carlton charge $80-$170 a month, and while they do also have other equipment, as well as classes, trainers, saunas and steam rooms, they are not outdoors, and often have much smaller pools including one person size resistance pools where swimmers swim in place against a mechanically generated current, the aquatic version of a treadmill.
It’s difficult to see why the D.C. government isn’t selling memberships to many of its public pools at $40 or $60 a month, for example to yuppies who want to swim laps in the morning, before the pools even open to their normal “clientele.” There is definitely a demand. If you go to the Equinox gym’s pool in the Ritz-Carlton hotel, or the Balance gym pool in the Fairmont, or even spy through the window at the downtown YMCA pool nearby the lanes are all full most of the morning.
It seems D.C. isn’t aiming for maximizing profits. Or maximizing the number of people who can use and enjoy its pool. The schedule seems to be structured around the fact that D.C. hires its own high school students to be front desk attendants and lifeguards, as a summer jobs program. So the pool schedule coincides with the school schedule. And capital goods – plant, property and equipment – sit idle for much of the year as well as for much of the day even in the part of the year when pools are open.
This is totally unnecessary and is an example of the failure of socialism to produce what consumers want. Outdoor pools may be seasonal work. Private pools at condominiums like Georgetown’s Papermill Court, or Arlington, Virginia’s River Place Co-op, seem to hire mainly twenty-something Eastern Europeans (as do many businesses at the nearby Delaware beaches) as lifeguards, who are here on temporary work Visas. D.C.’s public pools could hire Eastern Europeans to handle the morning 5 am to 1 pm shift for paying customers — or it could hire the tens of thousands of unemployed D.C. residents in Anacostia, many of whom could no doubt learn to swim if they don’t know how, and could get certified as lifeguards and in CPR. It really doesn’t matter that these jobs might only exist from April or May to September or October – they’d still be jobs in a city with a huge unemployment rate among those with no college degree.
What this indicates is that we need to return the operation of the pools and other pieces of public property to market forces. We need charter pools just like we need charter schools, and for all the same reasons. The pools need to be turned over to neighborhood groups and nonprofits for their management, since the Department of Parks and Recreation is happy to spend money keeping them locked up behind fences where we can see but not touch them.