NORTH LAWNDALE — With just weeks until summer, it remains uncertain if many of Chicago’s public Park District pools will open because of a lifeguard shortage.
Park District officials say they will prioritize sending lifeguards to the beaches, where most of Chicago heads for the summer. But without easy access to the lakefront, West Side residents worry the Park District’s plan may leave them high and dry.
On the West Side, pools are one of the most popular summer hangouts for teens, said Claude Robinson, head of the North Lawndale Athletic and Recreation Association. Yet some indoor West Side pools won’t be open this summer, staffers said.
“There’s not a lake that people can just walk to or get to easily. There are transportation barriers there, As many opportunities that are close for young people in North Lawndale, we need to make sure that’s a priority,” Robinson said.
The indoor pool at Austin Town Hall Park, 5610 W. Lake St., has been closed for at least the past two years, and there are no plans for the pool to reopen this season, park staffers said.
Homan Square Community Center’s indoor pool at 3559 W. Arthington St. has been open for the spring, but the pool is scheduled to close June 18 for the summer, staff at the center said.
After the lifeguard shortage kept Chicago’s indoor pools closed last year, the fate of the district’s 77 pools is in limbo. Park District officials have offered little certainty as to which of its pools will open by June 24, the target date for the start of the outdoor pool season.
Plans are being made to open the outdoor pools at Columbus Park, 500 S. Central Avenue, Garfield Park, 100 N. Central Park Ave., Douglass Park, 1401 S. Sacramento Drive, and the Franklin Park pool, 4320 W. 15th St., staff members said.
Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareno said the agency is prioritizing sending lifeguards to busy lakefront beaches.
“All of our beaches will be covered — importantly because that’s where most people will actually go,” Escareno said. “But we will have a plan to begin to open pools depending on how many [lifeguard] applicants we have. But we’re hopeful.”
Robinson said free neighborhood pools, like the indoor Homan Square Community Center’s pool, offer West Side kids a safe and health activity while schools are out.
Having access to many recreational activities is “emphatically important… not only from a health perspective, but also just for having fun in life,” Robinson said.
“There’s so much going on in these communities and young people need that outlet,” he said.
The outdoor Franklin Park pool, which is slated to reopen, is an important part of the summer for young people in the K-Town neighborhood so they “don’t have to travel or worry about being afraid of leaving the neighborhood to go swimming or enjoy a pool,” said Rochelle Jackson, a member of the Franklin Park Advisory Council.
The lack of lifeguards could also be an opportunity for West Side youth to find summer jobs, Jackson said.
The district offered lifeguard training classes for $80 in the spring at parks around the city including La Follette Park in Austin and the Homan Square Community Center in Lawndale. The city should increase outreach and recruitment efforts in neighborhoods with the most need and “up the hourly wage they pay them” to make the job more attractive, Jackson said.
Park District officials recently announced $500 cash bonuses for prospective lifeguards to ensure there are enough to cover beaches and pools within the next few weeks.
At an unrelated press conference Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot reiterated the cash stipend program and said the city still needs dozens more lifeguards.
“It’s still a challenge and I encourage anyone who wants to sign up either as a full-time lifeguard or a junior lifeguard to apply,” Lightfoot said of recruiting staff for indoor and outdoor pools.
“Our beaches obviously are open … but we want to make sure our pools all across the city are open. We need to get about 100 more lifeguards. We’re providing $500 stipends. If you want a summer job, not only will you get a really nice salary but we’re gonna give you $500 in addition to that to be a lifeguard with the Chicago Park District. We need you. If you can swim, we can train you.”
Douglass Park is home to several summer swimming programs run by local organizations including St. Agatha’s Parish, Blessed Sacrament Church and Men Making a Difference. The St. Agatha program takes young people on field trips to the Douglass Park pool each week where they get swimming lessons, said Rev. Larry Dowling, the church’s pastor.
“It’s a place for the kids to cool down,” Dowling said. “It’s a good opportunity walk through the neighborhood and get a sense of playing together.”
Black and Latino neighborhoods with limited program options are typically “impacted by these shortages first and foremost,” so Park District leaders should make sure to allocate enough lifeguards to keep the pools open in areas with the greatest need, Dowling said. Young people need safe and trusted places in their own neighborhood so they don’t have to travel across town to enjoy themselves in the summer, he said.
“There is an absolute necessity to have the pools open. Even though the lake is popular, with the issues they’ve had with youth downtown and on the beaches, neighborhood pools could actually be a safer space for youth in the community than at the lake,” Dowling said.
Men Making A Difference cofounder Charlie Wilson was worried his group’s swim program might have to be relocated or canceled due to the lifeguard shortage, but the program will move forward if the Douglass Park pool does open, he said.
“We want to put people in a safe environment so they can be children and be themselves during the summer,” Wilson said.
Wilson worries that with several pools closed and challenges getting from the West Side to the lake, the pools that are open may “be so crowded that tensions can flare up,” he said.
Even before the lifeguard shortage, there has long been a persistent lack of access to water and other quality recreational facilities and programs on the West Side, Wilson said. Many young people don’t know how to swim, so it’s critical to make sure people have exposure to water from a young age, he said.
Summer activities are precious opportunities for young people to express themselves and potentially discover lifelong passions, he said.
“We don’t have access to the lakefront that easily. There could be a Michael Phelps on the West Side… but if we don’t have the proper facilities to nourish that, then those gems are lost.”
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