ENGLEWOOD — When Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced unaccompanied minors would be banned from Millennium Park on weekend nights after a teen was killed, she and city officials encouraged young people to take advantage of the thousands of city-run activities in their neighborhoods.
But it’s uncertain whether one of Chicago’s most popular summer hangouts — public Park District pools — will be open this summer with the season fast approaching.
A nationwide lifeguard shortage forced Chicago’s indoor pools to close last year. It’s continuing to plague parks across the United States. 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.
But at least one indoor pool on the Far South Side will not be open this summer, an official told Block Club, while urban historian Shermann “Dilla” Thomas learned an indoor pool in Auburn Gresham also might be closed. Several other park officials who oversee outdoor and indoor pools on the South Side said they aren’t yet sure if the pools will open. Existing lifeguards are expected to be transferred to beaches when they open Memorial Day weekend.
Despite repeated questions, Park District officials declined to say if the agency’s 77 pools will be open this summer or how many lifeguards they have hired, instead advertising its lifeguard recruitment push.
Lightfoot’s office also did not answer questions about how the mayor’s promise that kids would have plenty of recreation options could conflict with closing pools. Instead, Lightfoot on Wednesday promoted an app to connect young people with city-run programs in their area.
South Side community leaders and parents say local pools are a pillar in communities of color. If they are not available, that undermines the mayor’s claims of robust activities, they said.
For years, community leaders have worked with the resources they have to create a fun, safe environment for local youth. Now, it’s time for the city to work with them and local youth to add more activities, not take them away before the summer begins, they said.
“We really need park districts to show up,” said Cecile DeMello, executive director at Teamwork Englewood. “The need for young people to do things that are safe in their communities on Fridays and Saturday nights is important. It can’t always be a burden on community groups to organize things for young people.”
‘The Pool Is An Escape For People’
Thomas stopped by the Foster Park indoor pool early Tuesday morning to sign up to swim there. His doctor has encouraged him to swim for pain relief.
When Thomas tried to pay for pool access, the Park District representative was hesitant to take the fee, he said. They weren’t sure how much longer the pool would be open, let alone if it’d be open for the summer, he said.
The Park District employee said the agency is short a couple hundred lifeguards for the season, Thomas said. If it is understaffed for the season, priority will go to staffing the beaches, and some indoor pools might have to close or outdoor pools remain shuttered.
Thomas was shocked, he said.
“During the summer, the pools keep so much stuff down,” Thomas said. “The pool is an escape for people, not just because it’s hot, but because on the South and West sides, places that don’t have a lot of extracurriculars, the pool is always a free, fun place to be. We’re already trying to keep our kids out of the streets. Closing the pools is not going to solve that problem.”
Officials at Ridge Park in Beverly said its indoor pool is expected to close for the summer. Officials at Grand Crossing Park and Abbott Park outdoor pools said they were unsure if they’d be open.
The Park District is hiring for 2,100 summer positions, including lifeguards, recreation leaders, junior laborers and attendants, according to a news release. Spokesperson Michele Lemons did not answer a question about how many lifeguards would be needed to open pools and beaches on schedule. The target date for opening outdoor pools is June 24.
“The Chicago Park District is optimistic that the $500 bonus will help incentivize applicants who have qualified for Seasonal Lifeguard to complete the onboarding process and attract new applicants in order to properly staff our beaches and pools,” Lemons said. “To date, the District has received 686 applications for Seasonal Lifeguard.”
For some, only having the local beaches to hang out at this summer might not seem like a loss, Thomas said. But for South Side youth, closed pools means another community resource is being stripped away.
“The North Side kids still get to go to the beaches, and it’s a little easier for them to get there geographically,” Thomas said. “That is why we’re so dependent on our pools.”
Swimming at the public pool once was part of the “Englewood experience,” DeMello said. In its heyday, teenagers would rush to the now-closed Englewood High School pool, she said.
Most of Englewood’s closed schools had pools once upon a time, DeMello said.
“The experience of swimming, which used to be more saturated through the public school experience, has dwindled down to just the Park District,” DeMello said.
Kristian King, director of programs at Imagine Englewood If, an organization that aims to improve the quality of life for the community, said the neighborhood pool gives Black youth “an opportunity to gain an interest in more activities they might not normally be exposed to.”
More needs to be done to give youth across the city equal footing, King said.
“Being in the city and not having the same opportunities is heartbreaking,” King said. “Closing the pools due to a shortage of lifeguards I get as a safety precaution, but overall, you have to look at the other side of things. That’s one less activity that our kids can’t partake in because we don’t have access.”
Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers Against Senseless Killings, said if the youth felt “equally safe and secure” in their own communities and had viable resources, there wouldn’t be a need to travel to places like Downtown.
Closing the pools snatches away another resource for local kids, Manasseh said.
“I think our kids should get as many resources in their neighborhood as they can possibly get,” Manasseh said. “They’ve made Chicago a world-class city Downtown for tourists, but they don’t do that for the people in our neighborhoods.”
‘The Work Actually Happens After 5 And 6’
Teamwork Englewood, a nonprofit that works to improve the quality of life for neighbors through economic, educational and social opportunities, has been doing the work to keep local youth engaged, DeMello said.
In January, the group received funding to provide after-school programs and post-secondary activities at the closed Harper High School. Last summer, it offered programs every Friday night through Lightfoot’s Summer Kickback Series.
But at the end of the day, Teamwork Englewood is still a “small community group trying to make it happen,” DeMello said.
The Park District should work with local youth groups to offer more resources so groups, including Teamwork Englewood, to extend programs to weekends and nights, DeMello said. Even if the public pool is off-limits this summer, organizers should be partnering to best understand how they can activate public spaces.
“I think now is the time that we should think differently about the public spaces in our community and how they show up for some of the most traumatized youth that we’ve seen in generations coming off a pandemic and civil unrest,” DeMello said. “The community groups have been trying to figure this out, but how can the Park District show up in more innovative places?”
One solution could be more late-night activities, DeMello said.
Lightfoot announced the My CHI My Future app Wednesday. The initiative puts summer activities, job opportunities and events for teens “at their fingertips” that can be narrowed down by ZIP code, Lightfoot said.
But South Side teens often don’t have fun, group activities they can do in their own communities after the normal “9-5,” DeMello said.
They travel to spaces like Downtown because “there are no safe spaces in their community for them to post up on a Friday or Saturday night,” DeMello said.
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The Park District can partner with local organizers to offer activities like skating classes, late-night basketball games and safe, supervised kickbacks.
“I know people like the 9-to-5, but it looks like the work actually happens after 5 and 6,” DeMello said.
“Teens want to be together and have fun and have music and have something to do, and even they’re trying to figure out how to do it safer.”
King said teens turned to Downtown hangouts because they wanted to hang out with their friends “without feeling like their lives are on the line.” There aren’t enough safe spaces for students after hours that allow them to have fun and just be kids, she said.
The Millennium Park ban takes away that space. If the pools don’t open, that’s another space gone. But Imagine Englewood If and Teamwork Englewood hope to change that, King said.
“The age group that we’re seeing on the news that’s being affected want to be able to have fun and hang out with their friends,” King said. “We want to make sure we have something in place where kids can feel safe and don’t have to live always thinking that they don’t have somewhere to go.”
Apply to be a Chicago Park District lifeguard here.
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