Tacoma community leader Fletcher Jenkins calls the new $8.1 million swimming pool in his Hilltop neighborhood “bringing home the gold.”
Athletes will tell you swimming is a difficult endurance sport; Jenkins will tell you reopening a pool at the People’s Community Center took endurance as well.
Jenkins was head of the community steering committee that drove the vision, collected the public’s input and made the pool, opening this month, possible.
It also took the kind of synchronization that would make Esther Williams proud.
The city owns the building and provided $5.3 million; Metro Parks will operate the pool and threw in $1.7 million; and the Washington State Department of Commerce gave $485,000. It’s a triumph of public collaboration.
Tacoma historians might tell you the reborn Hilltop pool is a case of historical replay with a nonviolent twist.
The last pool, the one that closed eight years ago because of decay and dry rot, was put in the People’s Community Center in 1979. It was born from a wave of mass protest known as the 1969 Mother’s Day Riot.
The arrest of a 19-year old African-American woman in the Hilltop neighborhood triggered an uproar over issues of systemic inequality and injustice. Rioters got out of control, stores were looted, fires set and a policeman lost his life. A state of emergency and curfew were declared.
But thanks to strong community leaders including Willie Hadley, Tom Dixon, Harold Moss and Jim Walton, the Hilltop violence caused a political pivot.
These leaders harnessed the swell of energy to advocate for alternatives, to put pressure on the city’s power-holding elites to help make Hilltop a more desirable place to live.
They began with a recreation center and a pool, calling it the People’s Community Center. Activists knew then what we know now: Upgrades like community centers and pools enhance the neighborhood and culture.
The recreation center was also an attempt to reverse an ugly American truth: People of color of all ages had long been denied access to clean pools.
Even after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional, pools in our country stayed segregated.
Federal judge Roszel Thompson once said “pools were more sensitive than schools,” Thus, when stars like Dorothy Dandridge or Sammy Davis Jr. so much as dipped their toes in a pool, the water was drained.
While pools have been symbolic of a shameful past, the future looks bright indeed.
This summer in Rio, the world tuned in to watch Michael Phelps swim to Olympic glory, but it was Simone Manuel who captured hearts in exactly 52:70 seconds when she became the first African-American female swimmer to take home the gold.
Maybe it was Manuel who Jenkins was thinking of when he predicted someday “we may have a gold medal winner right from our pool.”
On the racial inequality front, there may be many laps to go, but for now, kids in Hilltop will no longer have to catch buses just to swim. They can walk.
The new Hilltop pool has potential to open the floodgates of a new generation made up of all colors, creeds and incomes who will splash, swim and dream big.