Even on 95-degree days, Aika Robles and her six children walk several blocks to the City of Chester Memorial Park Pool. The children, between the ages of 1 and 15, aren't allowed to play outside at the public-housing complex where they live. Mom says it is too dangerous. The pool is their summertime oasis.
"The kids have been having a ball," said Robles. "Every time they come, it's something different for them."
Standing chest-deep in water at the edge of the pool, city recreation manager Duane Lee said this was exactly his vision when he began running the pool five years ago.
"This is the safe haven for everybody in Chester," Lee said. "All these kids know in the summertime is they want to go swimming."
In many suburban communities, residents take for granted access to pools in the warmer months. Some belong to private swim clubs or country clubs. Others get their pool fix on vacations, or — better yet — at pools in their backyards.
But in less affluent communities, a pool is a luxury. Public pools are expensive for municipalities to maintain and can be difficult to keep safe. Some towns have made it work. Others are still figuring out how.
By all appearances, the Memorial Park Pool has struck the perfect balance in Chester, a Delaware County city where kids need an outlet from poverty and violence. Nearly half of the children in Chester live below the poverty line, according to U.S. census data, and an Inquirer analysis found that the city's homicide rate per capita was higher than that of any other city in the United States over a 14-year period.
Across the river in Camden, folks have places to cool off, too. There are pools in both North and South Camden, as well as a water-play area in the Cramer Hill neighborhood. According to a city spokesperson, the pools and "sprayground" are free to the city's 75,000 residents, 38 percent of whom live below the poverty line.
But farther west, in Chester County, one suburban city still struggles without a public pool. Three years ago, Coatesville's Ash Park Pool closed, leaving residents without an outdoor respite from the summer heat.
"In these summer months, our kids have nothing to do," city activist Alphonso Newsuan said.
Last June, Newsuan started a GoFundMe page in an attempt to raise the $275,000 officials have said they need to repair and reopen the pool. But, that effort failed to get off the ground in a community where the median household income is less than $35,000, according to U.S census data.
Now, Newsuan said, he is taking a different approach. He started Movement Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to reopening the pool. On the group's website, people can buy sweatshirts, T-shirts, and mugs, or just make a donation to the pool fund.
Newsuan also has held events, including a July block party, that drew thousands of people and raised some money, he said. But the group has a long way to go. His realistic goal for getting the pool reopened? 2020, he said.
"As far as opening the pool, if we make it a place of destination" with safety, good lighting, even swim classes, Newsuan said, "I believe it can sustain itself."
Some of Jermaine Johnson's fondest childhood memories were flipping over the couch cushions in his Coatesville home, searching for 25 cents so he could spend the day at one of Coatesville's two public pools. Both pools — at Ash Park and Palmer Park — are shuttered now, and Johnson, 29, worries about the future of summer days for his own children, ages 2 and 3.
"I want them to have the same opportunities as me," Johnson said, not be "trapped inside the house, running up the AC bill, scrolling through social media."
On a recent day, as temperatures climbed above 90 degrees, Ash Park was quiet. A single teenager shot hoops on a basketball court next to the covered pool. The playground was empty.
More than 30 miles away in Chester, children splashed around in Memorial Park Pool, jumping onto colorful floats and playing games. Lee, the recreation manager, stood in the middle of the action. The pool is his "baby," he said with a laugh.
The pool has been open since 1999, but until five years ago, an outside vendor ran it. Folks could enter the pool for free, but the city paid about $150,000.
Lee thought Chester could benefit from running the pool in-house, he said. When he took over, he decided to charge families $50 for the summer (a day pass is $5 for one person). The decision received pushback at first, he said, but it paid off. The cost has dissuaded troublemakers from frequenting the pool, keeping it free of the fighting and bullying that used to go on there, he said.
Today, the city pays about $80,000 to maintain the pool and to pay its lifeguards and other staff, Lee said. The pool also provides free meals to children who come through its gates.
The pool has been such a success that Lee would like to open another within the next few years. But he knows, he said, that would require a robust fund-raising effort.
Coatesville, meanwhile, is still searching for solutions to its pool problem.
"Us maintaining and running the pool isn't the issue," said City Council President Linda Lavender-Norris. "The problem is the [Ash Park] Pool needs repairs and we don't have money for repairs."
At the site of the long-closed Palmer Park Pool, Coatesville will open a "playground with water features" on Aug. 16, she said.
"While we can't afford the pool, we can afford this," Lavender-Norris said. "We'll do the best we can with what we have, until we can do better."
If the community were to be able to raise $275,000, or if the city were able to find another solution, then the Ash Park Pool would reopen, Lavender-Norris said.