Tacoma's Hilltop dreaming of Olympic Gold
Fletcher Jenkins remembers when the old pool at the People’s Community Center closed in 2008. In its place, residents of the Hilltop neighborhood thought they might be getting another basketball court.
What they wanted was a new pool, Jenkins said.
“They were leaning pretty much toward another basketball court,” Jenkins said. At the time, members of the community and a group of local kids who were regulars at the community center met with city leaders and with Metro Parks officials, he said. “And one of the young children in the group spoke out and said, ‘We don’t need another basketball court, we need a swimming pool so that when we fall in the water we learn how to swim and get out.’”
That, Jenkins recalled, was the spark that ignited the movement behind what would become a $8.1 million swimming pool in the heart of the Hilltop, which will open to the public Sept. 24 for a day of free swimming and celebrating.
“When a child falls into the water, and they don’t know how to swim, color does not make a difference,” Jenkins said, adding that the kids also offered to hold bake sales, car washes and rummage sales to raise funds for the pool. “They have to have these types of things in their community to help them grow.”
When a child falls into the water and they don’t know how to swim, color does not make a difference. They have to have these types of things in their community to help them grow
Fletcher Jenkins, president of the People’s Center steering committee
At the community center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the blue-green depths of the new L-shaped pool have been ready for weeks, and sit shimmering, undisturbed. The pool features three lanes of lap swim, a spraypad especially for toddlers, a current channel and vortex, floating lily pads to play on, two poolside basketball hoops, and two party rooms. Natural light filters into the pool room from floor-to-ceiling windows, and the locker rooms have been remodeled.
According to the city’s website for the project, Tacoma spent $5.3 million on the pool, and Metro Parks spent $2.3 million. The state Department of Commerce kicked in another $485,000.
Councilwoman Victoria Woodards, who was on the Metro Parks board when the community began to rally around the idea of a new pool in 2008, said the community — and its children — were dogged in their efforts, and it’s important to prove that persistence pays off.
“Too often we as adults can decide what kids want and need, but when kids tell you what they want and need it can be extremely powerful,” Woodards said. “That community deserves the same quality as everywhere else in the city. Their voice matters. It takes a long time, no doubt about that, but your voice matters. You’ve just got to be diligent and stick with it and follow through.”
The pool was a unifying point for the whole community, Jenkins said, and that push has resonated in other positive changes around Hilltop.
“We drew together in a oneness when we started fighting for the pool,” he said. “I mean it was a dream that came true. ... We felt like a pool in this area was important, where they didn’t have to catch the bus and go to other parts of the city and a program right here where they could walk and be a part of it.”
What’s now known as the People’s Community Center began when Metro Parks Tacoma acquired the property from the Tacoma school district in 1966, with a provision that the property transfer was valid “as long as used for park and recreation purposes,” according to Metro Parks.
$5,340,000 City of Tacoma contributions to new pool
$2,320,000 Metro Parks Tacoma contributions
$485,000 State Department of Commerce contributions
A small community building, first called the “youth activity center,” was built. The name was later changed to the Malcolm X Center, operated by volunteers and through local fundraising. In the early 1970s, the Hilltop community petitioned the city of Tacoma, saying the center didn’t meet residents’ needs. As a result, the city pursued a community development block grant and a $400,000 bond to put a larger building on the site.
The groundbreaking for the new center happened in May 1977. Metro Parks transferred ownership of the center to the city that year, but remained its operator.
That August, the city announced that Hilltop-area residents would be able to vote on a name for the new community center, and People’s Center garnered 127 votes, making it the winner by more than 100 ballots (the runner-up was Hilltop Community Center).
From there, the gym opened in August 1978, and the pool opened in February 1979.
The old pool was closed permanently in 2008 because of structural problems. Lauren Walker was a new member of the Tacoma City Council then, and said she wrote a letter to Metro Parks about needed improvements months before she found out about the sudden and permanent closing. Walker, who lives in Hilltop and represented the City Council’s third district for two terms, swam laps there and taught her children to swim there.
“It was a long process,” she said of securing approval, and funding, for the new pool. “One thing that was integral to raising the funds and getting interest was finding an article from 1969 in The News Tribune that said that the black community, one of the things they asked for after the Mother’s Day riot was a pool for the kids in Hilltop.”
It takes a long time to raise money for things that are important. And the fact that there were so many people from the grass-roots level up to government involved in making this happen — it’s been worth the wait.
Lauren Walker, former City Council member representing the Hilltop neighborhood
That promise — stemming from Mother’s Day 1969, when Hilltop residents and police clashed after officers tried to arrest a black woman, resulting in the vandalizing of businesses and the shooting of a police officer — helped ensure that Hilltop would get a public pool again, Walker said.
The grand opening this month is expected to be a huge community event with possibly hundreds of people. Swimming will be free all day starting when the pool opens at 2 p.m., but people will only be able to swim for a half hour before getting out to let others dip in the new pool. Metro Parks said the pool will stay open as long as it needs to that day to give everyone a chance to experience it. There also will be a dedication ceremony at 2 p.m. for a new mural, on the south side of the center, which was painted by Hilltop artists to celebrate the neighborhood’s identity, according to Metro Parks.
Some of the kids who accompanied Jenkins to meet with Metro Parks officials and city leaders in 2008 might even be there for the grand opening, he said. Most of them are college-age or older now.
Things that are important, Walker said, take time.
“It took 30 years to get Ruston Way to where it is and it took 20 years to get the Thea Foss to where it is, but that’s worthy of waiting to get things right,” she said. “It takes a long time to raise money for things that are important. And the fact that there were so many people from the grass-roots level up to government involved in making this happen — it’s been worth the wait.”