Pennsylvania Legacies #163: Beautiful Disaster

Last summer, the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia was all set to launch its first, much-anticipated, multimedia arts exhibition, which explored how water has shaped the city’s history, with a special focus on its role in the lives of Black Philadelphians. Just ahead of the scheduled opening, Hurricane Ida hit, forcing the event’s cancellation. POOL is now set to re-open on March 22 — World Water Day — with a new emphasis on environmental justice and resiliency in the face of climate change. We get a preview of the exhibit with Dionne Watts Williams, Communications Manager for Fairmount Waterworks.

Last summer, the Fairmount Water Works was prepared to open “POOL,” its much-anticipated, multimedia arts exhibition about water, race, and public space. It was to be held in the facility’s historic Kelly Pool, a haven for Black Philadelphians learning to swim during a time of racially segregated public pools. But Hurricane Ida had other plans.

Schuylkill River flooding 2021
The Schuylkill River rose to record levels following Hurricane Ida in September 2021 (photo: Patrick Starr)

The day before the public opening on September 3, 2021, the Schuylkill River rose to historic levels, inundating the exhibition space and forcing the event’s cancellation. POOL is now set to re-open on March 22 — World Water Day — with a new emphasis on environmental justice and resiliency in the face of climate change.

“The exhibit dispels a lot of myths that, you know, Black people in particular just never took to swimming, which is just so far from the truth,” said Dionne Watts-Williams, Communications Manager for Fairmount Waterworks. “We want to… really address those disparities. We know that swimming is a life saving skill.”  

POOL features pieces exploring the history of segregated swimming in the United States and the role of public pools today. The exhibit includes stories from Philadelphia-area athletes and activists about how they got started swimming,  including Cullen Jones, the first Black American to hold a world record in swimming, and Jim Ellis, famed Philadelphia swim coach and founder of PDR swim team.

“Somebody would discover a great African-American swimmer, and next thing you know they were recruited and ended up swimming in the suburbs, so they weren’t role models in their own communities. People really didn’t know anything about them unless somebody actually followed them and their success. So that was one of the reasons I said ‘I want to have a program that can take you from learn-to-swim to being a world class athlete. You won’t have to leave your neighborhood to go somewhere else: if this is your desire, your objective and goal, we will provide it for you,’” Ellis said in his video for the POOL exhibit.

We’ve learned to be resilient.

POOL highlights the importance of public pools as gathering spaces that provide a unique recreation and educational experience for communities. It also highlights the lasting impact of racial segregation at public pools. In Pennsylvania, Black children are 50% more likely to drown than white children. But when it comes to conversations about access to outdoor recreation, public pools can be overlooked.

‘POOL’ opens March 22, 2022 (photo courtesy of Fairmount Water Works)

“[Water] needs to be part of the conversation. It think a lot of the time we tend to, when it comes to social inequities, we tend to compartmentalize things. But water is a social justice issue,” said Watts-Williams.

“When you think about the role that public pools play today for people that don’t have access or just need a place to enjoy recreation. It really represents a level of access and equity for people in the city of Philadelphia.”

Since September, POOL organizers have been working to prepare the exhibit for reopening. Luckily, the staff at Fairmount Water Works, which is situated right the banks of the Schuylkill River, have adapted to the possibility of climate change impacting their work. Watts-Williams said they have started placing exhibits higher up on the walls, making them removable, or even putting them on wheels for easy transport in the event of flooding.

“This has been just something, when it comes to the interpretive center, that we have been prepared for,” said Watts-Williams. “We’ve learned to be resilient.”

POOL opens March 22nd and is on display through August. Admission is free.