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“Pool” project aims to encourage social justice dialogue in historic Kelly Pool

Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center Announces 2021 Exhibition Developed by Habithéque, Inc. and Supported by The  Pew Center for Arts & Heritage

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage recently announced the Fairmount Water Work’s POOL project as one of 39 project grants and fellowships for 2019 in support of Philadelphia’s cultural organizations and artists.

“Pool: A Social History of Segregation” (POOL) is a 4,700 square-foot, multi-disciplinary museum exhibition exploring the history and contemporary implications of segregated swimming in America. Set in a vacant portion of the historic Fairmount Water Works, POOL will create an unexpected platform for the investigation of the role of public pools in our communities with the goal of deepening understanding of the connection between water, social justice and public health.

Set in the historic Kelly Pool, a former practice venue for competitive swimmers and Philadelphia students from 1961 to 1972, and one of the last remaining historic pools in central Philadelphia, the public will be immersed in a curated collection of original site-specific art installations and experiences, including stories collected from the public at pools throughout Philadelphia, and rarely seen archival film footage and photographs.

Victoria Prizzia, designer, educator and founder of Habitheque Inc., who previously developed the Fairmount Water Work’s innovative freshwater mussel hatchery, will serve as co-artistic director of the project with Philadelphia playwright, James Ijames. Ijames, a Pew Fellow and 2019 Barrymore winner, will create a new play that will activate the exhibition, delving further into the social history and present-day implications of segregated swimming pools in America.

The pool was funded by the John B. Kelly Foundation, and was in operation until it flooded as a result of Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and never reopened. Newspaper clippings reveal immense public support for the pool at a time when there was a lack of access to swimming lessons for children. This deficiency, a systematic public health failure, has yet to be resolved.

Evidence indicates that Philadelphians care about their pools and are willing to fight for them. In 2004, 20 pools were slated to be closed but remained open due to community advocacy. Philadelphia has recently begun progressive efforts such as the 2019 $3.7 million Bridesburg pool renovation (originally built in 1954), Swim Philly, PowerCorpsPHL and We Can Swim! programs. These initiatives aim to enliven Philadelphia’s pools through beautification and activation. POOL seeks to support and strengthen these positive efforts and to increase momentum by providing a historical perspective through a contemporary lens that explains the importance of these institutions today.

Philadelphia opened the first outdoor municipal pool in the United States in 1883. The act of swimming (a love for it, how to do it, the cultural environment that surrounds it) is often shared between generations. Parents who can’t swim often have kids who don’t swim.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second leading cause of childhood death in the United States. African-American children and teenagers are almost six times as likely as white children to drown in a swimming pool. Over 70% of African-Americans and 60% of Latino youth are unable to swim proficiently.

As Dr. Jeff Wiltse, project consultant and author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America” research shows, this swimming and drowning disparity is partly a consequence of past discrimination and a general shift of resources from public to private swimming and recreational facilities since the 1970s.

 According to Karen Young, Executive Director of the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, “This project is a natural extension of our mission to educate the public about the important role of water in our daily lives. Visitors can contribute to a conversation about issues of equality and social justice – all central to global issues around water.”

For more than 200 years, the Fairmount Water Works has told the story of our connection with water. It operated as a pumping station from 1815 to 1909, an aquarium from 1911 to 1962, as the Kelly Pool until 1972, and today serves as Philadelphia Water’s public education destination, housing an award-winning urban environmental education center. The mission of Fairmount Water Works is to foster stewardship of our shared resources by encouraging informed decisions about the use of land and water. The center educates citizens about Philadelphia’s urban watershed, its past, present and future, and collaborate with partners to instill an appreciation for the connections between daily life and the natural environment. Located on the Schuylkill River at 640 Waterworks Drive, off scenic Kelly Drive in Philadelphia, the FWW is recognized as The Delaware River Basin’s Official Watershed Education Center and Gateway Center for the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area, featuring innovative, landmark exhibitions and serving as a living laboratory for urban watershed sustainability projects.

For more about the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, visit www.fairmountwaterworks.org.

For the official grant announcement, visit: https://www.pewcenterarts.org/grant/pool-social-history-segregation.