A tale of two pools

September 03, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm

Equidistant from my home are two swimming pools, one in Roland Park and the other in Druid Hill Park. One is private and one is public, but that's just the start of this tale of two pools in Baltimore, summer 2006. The way it ends is by discovering a piece of Baltimore's racial past.

Going to the Druid Hill Park municipal pool a few times, I became bronzed as I swam laps, dangled my legs in the azure water and made new friends. I was often the only white person in the place, hands-down the city's most sparkling and lovely outdoor pool. The admission price for one adult is $1.50 at this facility near the zoo, conservatory and tennis courts.

Across the Jones Falls, the smaller pool in Roland Park is similar to a chintz sofa, a bit faded. Comfortable and familiar, it's buzzing with family life. As a guest, I was charged $4. If there are any African-American members, they are scarce - residency in this affluent, largely white neighborhood is required.

In Roland Park, the lifeguards are generally teenagers bound for college in the fall. In Druid Hill Park, they are adults in their 50s working a second job, such as Robert Drake, a post office employee for more than 30 years. The long-time pool manager, Carol Turner, is a schoolteacher who loves swimming so much, she can tell you when Frederick Douglass High School first won a championship - some 40 years ago.

"We call this the `Druid Hill Country Club,'" Ms. Turner said. A reassuring presence, she's known as "Ma" to most everybody.

In Roland Park, going to the pool on weekends is usually a family outing. Mom and Dad take turns reading the newspaper and watching over the moves their children make. The children over 7 swim like lithe fishes. Then it's off to a Ping-Pong game or picnic across the grass, or away to a soccer game in the SUV.

In Druid Hill Park, many - not all - children seem to walk unescorted to the pool from the streets where they live. Best girlfriends go together. So do brothers and sisters, sometimes with an aunt. Mothers and infants come to cool down on a hot summer day. There are youngsters of all ages teaching themselves how to swim by holding their noses, diving under or paddling like mad.

Reading about the Bush administration's intelligence doctrines one day under the sun, I suddenly found myself giving swimming lessons, urging some kids to kick with their legs straight - just as my mother, a swimming instructor in her youth, taught me in Lake Mendota in Wisconsin.

In Roland Park, the boys and girls remind an observer of well-tended flowers. In Druid Hill Park, they are no less sweet - yet they are clearly more eager for an adult's attention, even one they have not met before. "Can't you come back in and play with us?" two 9-year-old girls asked me as I was leaving to go run around the reservoir, lined with reeds that blow in the breeze.

They befriend you there, the men, women and children. They ask you if you are from Baltimore. They ask you, with a laugh, if you'd rather be dancing at the Stone Soul Picnic, the annual summer event at the park. They give you a rain check ticket, worth $1.50, if you don't get to swim long enough before closing time.

In Roland Park, if I didn't know anyone there to begin with, I suspect I wouldn't meet anyone new. Speaking broadly, social circles are pretty tight, established over time and often through school ties. People don't need to meet anyone new. They aren't looking for an extra to invite to a dinner party. And it's not that they're snobs; it's more a matter of initiative.

In Druid Hill Park, there are fewer amenities. The deep "tank," separate and with a diving board, often is empty because there's no guard on duty. The day I asked for kickboards, they were locked up in the equipment room because someone hadn't shown up for work. There are no deck chairs, as there are a few miles away. So close to home, worlds apart.

The tale of two pools begs: Why is segregation still so much with us? Why can't the races hang out together more in recreational spaces?

Some of the white folks who visit Druid Hill Park's pool are out-of-towners or foreigners, Ms. Turner, the pool manager, told me. Taking me for a short, winding drive to a distant corner of Baltimore's central park, Ms. Turner showed me the haunting "colored pool," now filled with dirt and brown grass, the ladders and the lifeguard chairs frozen in time. The large square is deserted and silent, resembling a sepia photograph. A plaque reveals what it once was - a happy place in the city's black community, she said. Yet it's also a major monument to the city's color lines.

Today, Roland Park and Druid Hill Park swimmers no doubt share this: wistfulness on the last day of the summer pool season. Said Ms. Turner: "I always get a little sad that day. I walk around the pool and shed a few tears."

Jamie Stiehm is a reporter for The Sun. Her e-mail is jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com.

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