#SwimmingSoWhite: Belmont Pool Project is a Racial Justice Issue

Aug. 14, 2016 / By

Op-Ed By Anna Christensen. Cartoon by Jarrett Ramones.

Ed. Note: U.S. swimmer Simone Manuel became the first African American woman in history to claim gold in an individual swim competition at this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio. But Manuel’s victory also points to the glaring disparity when it comes to knowing how to swim separating African Americans and Latinos from whites. A proposed project to build two new swimming pools in the more affluent part of Long Beach threatens to exacerbate that divide.

It’s summertime. Long Beach youth are on vacation and many head to the water to cool off. But too often for minority youth, a swim can be deadly.

Nearly 70 percent of African American children and nearly 60 percent of Hispanic children have low or no swimming ability, compared to 42 percent of white children, according to a 2010 University of Memphis study.

Noting that “swimming skills can be lifesaving,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2014 that black youths ages 11-12 are 10 times more likely to drown in pools than their white peers. American Indian, Asian American, and Hispanic youth are also more at risk.

The City of Long Beach has the chance to act as a leader to reverse this inequity in its decision to build two new Olympic-size pools. However, the city is positioned to lose this opportunity as it plans to build both pools on the former site of the 3rd District’s Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool, once called the “Taj Mahal” of swim stadiums.

Keeping the city’s best and largest pools in one of the city’s whitest and wealthiest areas continues a long history of denying minority youth access to life-saving skills.

The Healthy Communities Policy of the City of Long Beach acknowledges that “where a person lives has the greatest impact on their long-term health.” But does the $103.7 million Belmont Plaza Pool Revitalization Project prioritize health equity? Short answer – no.

Currently there are only two other public swimming pools in Long Beach, neither of which is Olympic-sized. The city has failed to build public pools in six of its nine city council districts, including the 9th District, which has a high poverty rate and the city’s largest African American population.

While Long Beach may consider itself the Aquatics Capital of America, the priority should be to become a healthy city where every resident can acquire life-saving skills. Instead of merely serving the current aquatics community, we must identify and reverse inequities by building swimming pools, parks, and playgrounds where they are most needed.

A 2010 article from the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education stated that evidence supports a relationship between fewer opportunities to take swimming lessons and higher drowning rates for minorities. In addition to the safety value of learning to swim, there are also obvious health, fitness, and self-esteem benefits associated with access to public pools.

The racist legacy of segregated beaches, pools and recreation areas in Southern California has created today’s reality.

“Past discrimination casts a long shadow,” wrote Dr. Jeff Wiltse in a 2014 Journal of Sport and Social Issues. Due to limited access to swimming facilities and lessons, Wiltse further stated, “swimming never became integral to black Americans’ recreation and sports culture and was not passed down from generation to generation as commonly occurred with whites.”

Clearly, the current Belmont Pool Project violates the city’s own Healthy Communities Policy which recommends “prioritizing health equity,” especially in neighborhoods with historic barriers to “health, wellness, and safety.”

In fact, there is no mention of the Healthy Communities Policy in the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report, or any consideration of the city’s demographics regarding population density, racial disparities in drowning, or equal access to public pools and recreation. From the project’s conception, and continuing through the review process, certain constituencies have been valued over others.

Both the site choice and the focus on competitive swim programs now appear to have been foregone conclusions, with validation provided by a Stakeholders Advisory Committee dominated by local aquatics professionals and only three community meetings, all held in the 3rd District.

Public comments from these meetings and an online survey included numerous objections to the project, noting bias and lack of public input, and demands that the pools be built elsewhere in locations more accessible to the wider community.

The good news is that there is time to change the design and location of this project, which still hinges on a Final Environmental Impact Report and approval from the California Coastal Commission to proceed.

Although the use of Tidelands Operating Fund monies requires that the project be built in a coastal location, one or both of the proposed Olympic-sized pools could be built downtown, providing the 2nd District with a much needed facility while also reducing the travel time for residents in other underserved districts.

A downtown site would be more suitable for large competitions and more profitable, which would be helpful considering falling oil revenues have reduced available Tidelands Operating Funds, leaving more than a $40 million shortfall for the project.

Why not let the public vote on the project, which is how the Belmont pool center was built in the first place?

In November 1961, the Long Beach City Council moved to let voters decide whether to use $908,760 in Tidelands funds for construction of the “Belmont Plaza Beach Center.” The item, Proposition 7, was approved by the voters two months after. Should we now be expected to spend more than 10 times as much money, without a vote?

This can be a moment to fix old inequities and ensure that all of Long Beach’s children have access to pools.

The real future of aquatics includes growing champions in those communities denied an equal opportunity to compete and gain a life-saving skill – one that ensures that an increasingly diverse public will survive their dip in the Pacific.

This article has been edited for VoiceWaves.

Anna Christensen was born in 1945 in Long Beach where she also raised her children. She taught art at Lynwood High School for 19 years before retiring. She encourages residents to contact their city council representatives on this issue and offer public comments. To join the campaign for more accessible pools, contact Anna at: [email protected]

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Community Guest pieces are written by local leaders and/or residents and may not reflect the views of VoiceWaves or its reporters.