By Jim McCloskey

Is watershaping well served by the way things are going?

My roundabout discussion of this question, its origins and implications has occupied several of my blogs through the past half year and more.  I’ve enjoyed this process of stepping back and taking a long view of this subject:  My historian father would have been pleased by my interest in tracing cultural and sociological phenomena that shape who we are and where we’re heading.

One of my pleasures in the midst of this process was rereading Jeff Wiltze’s landmark book, Contested Waters:  A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.  It was originally published in 2007, but I didn’t read it until 2010 – at which time I must confess that I didn’t fully appreciate it.

I know, however, that this book’s ideas have been bouncing around in the back of my mind ever since that first reading – percolating and fussing at the edges of my thoughts and helping shape them over time.  In my own observations on trends I’ve witnessed, I know I have oversimplified the historical processes Wiltze so artfully described as I’ve arrived at my own observations.  Just the same, I feel deep resonances between his perspectives and mine.

Wiltze followed intricate currents and counter-currents in cultural, racial, gender and class relationships and distinctions through the past 150 years and showed how they played out in the devising, the placement, the use of and, ultimately, the widespread abandonment of public pools.  In my blogs, I’ve focused more intimately on my childhood experience of learning to swim and the social and personal importance of gaining what I consider an invaluable life skill while fooling around in the water with family, friends and countless other swimmers.

As I have asserted more than once in these blogs, people who do swim capably are far likelier than those who don’t swim to be comfortable in and around water and are therefore more likely to be among those who, given the chance, will choose to make water part of their own environments.  And this isn’t just about their own homes:  Backyard swimmers are, I believe, also among those most  likely to appreciate and value the presence of water in their civic environments in the form of municipal pools, fountains, ponds and various other waterfeatures.

Wiltze has a more dignified mission in mind, recording the process by which public bathing became public swimming before pools began evolving into contentious environments that served as flash points in the social, racial and cultural tumult that defined a sequence of transitions from the Progressive Era to the years between the World Wars, then on to the postwar years and into modern times.

It’s a remarkable story, difficult to read at times because of the fact that public pools, after fairly egalitarian origins, became caught up in prejudices and conflicts among classes, genders, ethnicities and races – aquatic arenas for pressurized encounters that tell unseemly stories about humans’ ability to hurt other humans in all sorts of ways, some overt, others neatly hidden.

But setting aside his far greater scholarship, I think Wiltze and I started from much the same place:  As I learned from his book, he and I have both seen the unusual value public pools have had in our own lives – he growing up swimming in the municipal pools of Seattle and I doing the same in Los Angeles – and we’re both more than a little worried that the accelerating disappearance of public swimming pools will cramp our society in ways that can’t easily be either measured or predicted.


This sequence of articles sprang from the blog I wrote for the July 22, 2015, edition of the WaterShapes newsletter.  Titled “Righting a Hurtful Wrong” (click here), it discussed an incident in Kansas that started me thinking about the Aquatic Big Picture in tangible ways.

I’d written three more blogs – “Priced Out,” August 5 (click here), “The Way-Back Machine,” September 23 (here) and Community Imperatives,” October 21 (here) – before I remembered Jeff Wiltze’s book, Contested Waters:  A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, and pulled it down off the shelf for a second reading.

His work shaped my next blog, “The Big Aquatic Picture” (January 20, 2016 – click here).  I was on my own again with “Swimming Past Barriers” (February 17 – here) and found final resonance with him in the concluding text that surrounds this sidebar.

— J.M.

On my side, however, it’s not a purely academic pursuit:  As one who has directly participated in the watershaping industry for more than 30 years now, I have my own vested interest in doing what I can to ensure the acceptance of watershapes of all types on the kind of mass, category-bending scale that perpetuates their use, popularity and ready accessibility across a broad band of prospective clients, users and observers.

Please permit me one last time to return to the question I asked above – one I’ve asked often in the course of the six other blogs linked in the “Origins” sidebar above:  My honest answer is no, I don’t think watershaping is being well served by the way things are going.  I see a risk that swimming education and aquatic recreation are being marginalized in ways that will hurt our prospects in years to come – particularly if powerful external forces (such as watershape-related drought restrictions) become serious factors in future water policy.

Just the same, I’m an optimist at heart:  In Contested Waters, Wiltze raised a figurative eyebrow at the fact that a publication called Swimming Pool Age emerged in the late 1920s to serve what was then a fledgling industry.  That magazine lasted a good eighty years, and I have every confidence that the industry I’ve served has the momentum, cultural value and practical staying power to keep WaterShapes and going for at least that long.

We all need to pay attention, of course, and keep an eye on regulators and rules that may limit opportunities to keep watershapes in consideration.  But as I learned in childhood, being capable in the water is immensely fun and valuable — a vital skill you carry through life and, familiar with the benefits, do what you can to pass on to future generations.  My grown daughters know this, for example, and my nearly three-year-old granddaughter is already at ease playing in and around water under her mother’s watchful eye.

This is enough to sustain me, keep me hopeful.

See you in the pool!

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