Opinion: A lament about the annual seasonal closure of the West Berkeley pool

The pool at King Middle School stays open year-round. Why can’t the pool at West Campus, which serves south Berkeley, do the same?

It’s late September, and every year at this time, a sadness comes over me. It’s a seasonal thing, which many share. However, for me, it’s not the chilly signs of winter or shorter days or end-of-vacation blues. It’s the annual closing of Berkeley’s West Campus pool. Friday, Sept. 28th is the last day of operation until May—three-quarters of a year from now. And with the sadness, I ask, along with my fellow swimmers, why? These next weeks are among the most pleasant (and sometimes hottest) days of the year. The pool’s temperature is deliciously warm, its showers solar-heated, and there is ample and convenient parking, especially important for disabled swimmers and the devoted group of seniors who attend morning aquacise class.

When the West Campus pool at 2100 Browing St. closes, I will reluctantly return to King pool, which for years has received the city’s blessing as pool-of-choice. All year round, King has daily lap swim (morning, noon, and evening) plus weekend lap, and for much of the year, Saturday and Sunday afternoons designated for family swim.

Its stepsister, West Campus, is the only pool in the “flats” and serves the city’s lower-income population. In the summertime, it too offers lap swim, youth classes, and weekday recreational swim to kids from west and south Berkeley. But West Campus has never had weekend or evening swim time—although it’s centrally located in an area of dense, low-income housing, and easily accessible by two major transportation corridors from the south, east, north, and west.

How likely is it that the kids or families who use West Campus during summer months will now travel from Ashby or Sacramento or Ninth streets to King pool in north Berkeley?

Once upon a time, Willard Middle School had a pool that served south Berkeley. When lap hour ended, the lane-lines were removed and the lifeguard stands wheeled out. Outside the entrance, kids stretched down the steps and onto the sidewalk, waiting for an afternoon of fun for a modest fee. I thought it was great that my city ensured that its youth, especially those whose families could not afford summer camp, or vacations, or private clubs, had a safe and supervised place to go. Then, there was a problem with the pool, and it was filled with dirt! Students who attend Willard don’t have swimming in their athletic schedule, and kids who live in south Berkeley don’t have easy access to a pool. West Campus pool has taken the spillover.

How is the allocation for funding for pools decided? Who makes the decisions? Why does the King pool get the lion’s share of resources?

For years, swimming advocates have worked to educate the public about the value of swimming. Judging from the diverse range of people in the pool, I would claim that it’s the most democratic of sports. Truly, almost anyone can swim. Its physical and mental benefits are nearly incalculable. It qualifies as a form of preventative medicine (most doctors would agree!). From the CDC: “Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the U.S. Every day, about ten people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger.”

Ideally, swimming is a life skill that you learn at a young age (once included in the curriculum for all Berkeley middle-schoolers, now only King students receive swim training). If you didn’t learn to swim when you were young, adult classes are available at West Campus and King.

Our hospitable climate lets us swim outdoors all year. While the city has found funding to create fields for team sports, West Campus (whose use is unrestricted by traditional seasons or number of games) languishes. How much does it cost to expand its hours of operation? To open it all year and on weekends? To make an equitable distribution of swim funds for all city residents?

In 2017, swim activist Rebecca Burke began requesting financial statements from the city’s aquatic program. We know the City Council and staff are burdened with tremendous problems; nonetheless, there is a budget for Parks and Rec. There are line items that should correspond to pool expenses (staff, maintenance, etc.). After a year of persistently organizing petitions, emails, phone calls, visits with staff and elected officials, and a PRA request for documents, she has received no information.

So where are we? Anxious about elections? Depressed about the state of the world? Come! Take a swim! I promise the water will give you a few moments of peace. And you too may join our campaign to expand swimming in Berkeley. Very sadly, you won’t be able to go to the West Campus pool.

Summer Brenner is the author of a dozen works of fiction and poetry.