With high temperatures in Baltimore flirting with or exceeding 90 degrees, and humidity often topping 90 percent, July has been a challenging time to stay cool. So what’s a kid to do?
Apparently, if you live near Patterson Park, you and your friends find a breach in the fence, or scale it, and take a surreptitious dip despite the fact the water color is a questionable shade of green and the pool officially closed for the summer. The clandestine, aquatic missions finally got attention from up high.
On Wednesday, after a Baltimore radio station posted aerial footage of kids swimming without permission in a city pool with green water and the video went viral, important adults took notice. They included Mayor Brandon Scott, who addressed the closure of Patterson and other pools as part of his Wednesday morning press conference.
“I know there’s been a lot of conversation in the media and otherwise around pools and recreation and parks,” he said, “and I want to be very clear about this. I have made investment in Baltimore’s young people one of, if not my top priority.”
He reminded reporters that the city earmarked $120 million a year ago for improvements to park facilities, citing renovations to playgrounds and recreation centers. The pool in Patterson Park, the city’s oldest park, was identified as a recipient of funds and renovation, Scott said, but he and City Council disagreed on the immediate course of action ― whether to close the pool for a full renovation or make less extensive repairs and keep the pool open this summer.
“As I announced in my State of the City address three months ago,” Scott said, “we were scheduled to break ground on a new Patterson Park pool, but the councilmember [Zeke Cohen] and community asked that we make stopgap repairs in an attempt to keep the pool open this summer, instead of just closing it for renovation despite my concerns that we would end up where we are today.”
Indeed, in a letter dated April 17, Cohen implored Parks Director Reginald Moore to keep Patterson pool open this summer by making only critical repairs and then doing a full renovation afterward. It appears the request was answered by nature and the pool itself. Heavy rainfall resulted in flooding that overwhelmed the old pool’s mechanical systems, which the mayor said were about 70 years old.
“That’s why I’ve prioritized investing in these new world-class facilities,” Scott said, “instead of continuing to kick the can down the road with temporary fixes to antiquated and outdated infrastructure.”
In a message posted on a Facebook neighborhood group Wednesday, Cohen conceded, “the damage is too deep … Bottom line: I thought that Rec and Park would be able to get it opened this summer. They couldn’t. That’s on me. As someone whose kids love the pool, I’m disappointed and I’m sorry it didn’t happen.”
The pool’s water had been drained by Wednesday.
Although the chain of events seemed to vindicate Scott’s renovate-don’t-repair strategy, Cohen pointed out that $3.5 million in state funds were made available for renovations on July 1, 2021.
“These repairs should have taken place at the end of last summer, if not before,” Cohen wrote in an email to The Baltimore Banner. “There is no good reason why those repairs have not yet happened in the summer of 2023.”
In his Facebook post, Cohen confirmed the full renovation is in motion, with the city collecting bids from contractors. In the meantime, Cohen said, he will discuss alternatives with park officials, such as a sprinkler system or shuttles to other city pools. He also said he is talking to the operator of a private pool to provide discounts for kids and families.
Scott confirmed that, of the city’s 23 pools, 15 are open. Six are closed and are receiving or will receive full renovations, and two (Cherry Hill and Clifton Park) are closed for smaller repairs. Scott said he hopes to have the Lake Clifton pool open by Friday.
Improvised use of the Patterson pool goes back beyond this summer, when swimmers would enter the pool after hours, and underscores pervasive angst in the city over a lack of public recreational facilities, especially for children.
The video by WBAL News Radio also set off a firestorm. Some criticized the station for a tweet that included the video and seemed to blame the young Black kids who were filmed for breaking in and “setting up ‘camp.’” As The Huffington Post reported, the news station seemed to backpedal later Tuesday, tweeting, “We are upset that kids have to go through such lengths to go for a swim.” The video had been viewed more than 21.6 million times as of Wednesday night.
Journalist Joanna Sullivan has lived across from the park since 2006. Her son grew up swimming in the pool, and she used to swim laps in it. She said she noticed children entering the pool “every day” this month, either by squeezing through a gap in the fence or climbing over it. Occasionally, she said, an adult jumps the fence. She has lost faith in the city’s ability to operate the pool safely.
“I don’t think the city is up to doing the repairs on the pools, let alone maintain them,” she said.
The potential danger of unauthorized swimming was made clear in June when a 16-year-old boy nearly drowned in Roosevelt Park Pool in Hampden when it was closed and did not have a lifeguard present. He died of his injuries a few weeks later, Baltimore Police said Wednesday.
Nearby resident Samantha Seese, 34, showed up at Patterson Park’s pool Wednesday with her two kids and several of their friends. They brought drinks, ice and a cooler, intending to make a day of it. She was unaware the pool, now drained of water, was closed.
“I’m highly upset,” she said, standing outside the gate. “I would never have imagined that we were going to be walking up to this.”
Nine-year-old Oscar Rosales also showed up with his mother to go swimming, unaware the pool was closed. He sat on the ground, “mad” he said, under the shade of a tree next to useless pink pool noodles and towels.
“I wanted to swim in the pool,” he said. “I love swimming.”