Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Gerome Sutton looked forward all week for his chance to swim at Algonquin Park pool on the weekend.
“It was like Christmas in the summer time,” said Sutton, now 66 and a local minister. “It was the best time of the week.”
Louisville’s public parks were desegregated in 1955, a year before Sutton was born. This included the newly built Algonquin outdoor swimming pool on the West Side of Louisville.
It cost 35 cents to swim at Algonquin at the time, Sutton said. He and his seven siblings took turns going on alternating weekends because the family could not afford to send all eight children at the same time.
“We would go swimming. That makes a big statement” against segregation, he said. “There was an organized effort on the part of government to keep children engaged with an activity.”
Public pools have played a critical role in American culture over the past century. But as climate change and extreme heat worsen, they are taking on an urgent public health role. Heat kills more Americans than any other weather-related disaster, according to data tracked by the National Weather Service.
Yet just as public pools become more important than ever, they’re disappearing from sight.
Pools have become harder to find for Americans who lack a pool in their backyard, can’t afford a country club, or don’t have a local YMCA. A legacy of segregation, the privatization of pools, and starved public recreation budgets have led to the decline of public places to swim in many cities.
“If the public pool isn’t available and open, you don’t swim,” Sutton said.
In the early 2000s, Louisville had 10 public pools for a population of around 550,000.
Today, the city has five public pools for