Kansas Citians Still Don't Have Equal Access To Public Pools: 'We Deserve Nice Things Too'
Everyone deserves a safe place to swim, but we live in a region of pool haves and have-nots: This summer there are zero public pools open in Kansas City, Kansas, while Lenexa has three pools for a third of the population.
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Kansas City, Kansas, only has one public pool. It's closed this year — but not empty.
With temperatures hovering at or above 90 degrees for weeks, Parkwood Pool at North 10th Street and Quindaro Boulevard shimmers like a blue jewel at the edge of the road. Filled with water, and nothing but a chain link fence keeping wishful swimmers from the promise of the other side.
The lifeguard chair, perched right above the water, sits unoccupied.
Earlier this month, a 13-year-old boy from the neighborhood climbed this fence, went for a swim and, as the Star later reported, couldn't make it out of the deep end. His friends hurried to the nearby fire station. The boy — Emmanuel Solomon, a son of Ugandan immigrants — arrived at the hospital in critical condition. He later died.
One of his teachers, Courtney Richardson, gets choked up acknowledging that Solomon was one of her "babies." She says an entire community grieves his loss.
"This was not a troublemaker child," Richardson says. "It wouldn't have mattered if he was, but what I'm saying is: It was hot. He wanted to play because kids like to play."
"Why is there water in a pool that we know is not going to be opened up, in a community where there is literally nothing else to do?" Richardson continues. "When of course they're going to go jump in the pool."
I drove to the Parkwood Pool a few weeks after the accident, and found it in the same condition. Still closed. Still filled with water.
Ashley Hand at the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, explained that the pool had been filled for maintenance just one week before the accident.
They'd planned to drain the pool, but in a last-ditch attempt to open this season, they postponed those plans to host a lifeguard recruiting fair. After the event last weekend, Hand says only four potential lifeguards confirmed their interest—not enough to open Parkwood for the summer.
No Parkwood means no public pool for the 150,000 residents of KCK.
Pools all over the country are facing lifeguard shortages right now, but the community at Parkwood has spent multiple years pressuring the Unified Government to get their pool open. In 2019, Parkwood didn't welcome swimmers until late June, for the same reason.
"It's mind boggling to me that a publicly-funded thing for summer recreation is on the chopping block every year, as if there is another option," Richardson says. "If I lived in Johnson County and one pool closed, I could go to another aquatic resort. We got a little shoebox—Parkwood's like a shoebox in comparison."
Parkwood is small. But one county over, in Johnson County, pools are far more plentiful.
About 18 miles southwest, the city of Lenexa enjoys three public pools—decked out with water slides and diving boards, reclining chairs shaded by umbrellas, a carpet of astro-turf for bare feet in hot sun, splash pads and play areas for babies and toddlers.
Lenexa's population is just shy of 50,000—one-third the size of KCK.
Last week, the Lenexa City Council convened to discuss a plan to close one of these pools. But public testimony in defense of Ad Astra Pool — built in the 1980s and needing some TLC — was so compelling that the council ended up voting against the very recommendations they'd commissioned. The decision surprised everyone.
In public testimony, Lenexa residents made the case that access to a safe, comfortable place to swim is closer to a basic utility than it is a luxury. Even more so now, as our climates change and cities get hotter, and A/C pushes the limits of the electric grid.
Speakers worried that reducing the number of pools in Lenexa would lead to crowding, which could infringe on the availability of swimming lessons. They expressed concern about kids crossing a dangerous intersection to reach the pool.
One teacher even spoke of her exhaustion after one of the hardest school years of her life; she looked forward to reconnecting with her community over something "normal" like swimming.
Regardless of where people live within the metro, everyone needs a place to cool off, spend free time, and connect with their neighbors. Everyone wants access to survival skills like swimming. And everyone wants those places to be safe for their children.
Richardson knows Parkwood Pool well. When her mom was growing up in KCK, she would sell cans outside the pool; if she could make $2, that would cover admission and a cheeseburger. Richardson herself spent summers just down the street at her grandma's house.
"It's my childhood," Richardson says. "I can see me and my little sister and our matching swimming suits."
It's been much more complicated to find a place to swim now, with Richardson's own small children: "If you go to the parks and rec website and you click on pools, it'll take you to Parkwood and it'll say, 'Our pools are closed, but enjoy one of the splash parks!'"
The spray park isn't much of a replacement for a real pool, though.
"The kids can't submerge, and it's on top of hot concrete, so the kids burn their feet off," Richardson says. "And if you wear shoes, you're going to slip and fall and scrape yourself up on the concrete."
Richardson points out that kids age out of this activity pretty quickly — her middle school students certainly aren't running through the little jets of water with toddlers.
Meanwhile, she's commuting to another county and paying a lot of money for swimming lessons, to make sure her kids grow up safe around water.
"We deserve nice things, too," Richardson says. "Our kids deserve nice things. We want them to have a good life because we are people. We are all people. We are all deserving."