words by Charlee Harris and Noor Hindi, photos by Shane Wynn
It’s the summer of 1968. “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells is the song of the summer, playing on every radio. The days are long and the weather is great. Some Akron residents are elated because they have been waiting for a year for two community pools to open: One at Perkins Park in West Akron and the other at the Reservoir Park in Goodyear Heights.
“We lived in the pool. Every day, all summer long,” says Antoinette Harris, who goes by Toni, as she recounts growing up near Reservoir Park. “And it was right up the street. We all usually went together, as a group of us, and some of the neighborhood kids. We all walked together.”
Following Reservoir Park Pool’s opening in 1968, thousands of kids flocked to the park each year, with Akron Beacon Journal articles reporting “overcrowding.” There were “31,337 swimmers at the pools during July,” according to an ABJ story on Aug. 14, 1968. Newspaper articles also speak of swimming classes provided by the Red Cross, young swimmers waiting hours to access the pools, festivals with hundreds of kids participating in softball, checkers and tennis exhibitions, programs for senior citizens and more.
Reservoir Park Pool was the place to be in the summer. It’s where you learned to swim and where you went with your family during a hot summer day for baseball, basketball and concerts.
“I met my husband at the pool. He was 12 years old,” Harris says. “He was born here, but his parents came back from L.A. when he was 12. And he came back here saying, ‘You guys don’t have pretty girls here, coming from L.A.,’ and his cousin was like, ‘Oh, I know one for you.’ And that’s how it all began. At the age of 12. After that, we met at the pool. I wasn’t even interested. Who’s got time for that, right? I was a tomboy, a horrible tomboy.”
Alesia Stevens met a lifelong friend at the Reservoir Park Pool.
“I was 10 and she was 11, and she approached me. I didn’t know her, and (she) wanted to fight, and I said, ‘I don’t fight. Why do you want to fight me? I don’t even know you.’ And it’s because her boyfriend told her he was breaking up with her because he liked me,” Stevens says. “But I said, ‘I am 10 years old. I am not allowed to have a boyfriend. So your boyfriend is lying.’ And we’re still friends to this day.”
Reservoir Park reflects the way Akron sees its recreational assets
In July 1968, days after Reservoir Park Pool opened, a week of civil unrest began a few miles away on Wooster Avenue. After what became known as the Wooster Avenue Riots, the City of Akron convened a citizen’s commission meant to assess the causes of “civil disorder” in Akron and make recommendations “to reduce or eliminate the alienation and division which exists in the city.”
The report, released in 1969, identified parks and recreation as keys to healthy communities. The first four points of the report read:
1. The lack of good recreation and park facilities in the City of Akron has been recognized but comprehensive action to remedy this failure has not been undertaken.
2. There has been little creative thinking with respect to programs of municipal recreation.
3. There has been a steady deterioration of virtually all parks throughout the City. Especially noticeable is the deterioration of parks in black neighborhoods.
4. Both the scope of programmed activities and the quality of park facilities within black areas are inadequate to meet the needs of the citizens for whom they are intended.
By the time Mac Love launched @PLAY, which sought to create innovative art projects in every Akron neighborhood in 2017, many Goodyear Heights residents called the pool a “point of pain.” Mac says that when his team first went into Goodyear Heights, they found that the park and the pool had been ignored for years. There was graffiti and failed art projects all over the park. They found skateboard skid marks, syringes under the trees and broken benches.
After meeting with residents in Goodyear Heights, Mac says 92% of people surveyed said they wanted the pool and community center to be “a more colorful, comfortable and family-friendly place.”
So what happened in the nearly five decades between? Residents and current and former city officials describe “decline” at Reservoir Park — but for each person, this “decline” means something a little different. Some pointed out that a private pool opened nearby, serving almost exclusively white residents. Some describe fights among teenage pool-goers. Others say the city cut back on pool maintenance and programming. One former City of Akron recreation staffer suggested that residents simply didn’t appreciate the pool enough. And all this happened as kids began spending less time roaming their neighborhoods and more time in homes amid fears about “stranger danger.”
“I don’t think the city disinvested because there were fights,” says James Hardy, Akron’s current Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development. “I would argue that people probably stopped coming, which obviously has an impact, because they felt unsafe. But again, I think [the City has] a responsibility to provide a safe environment.
“We have to own, at the City, that we have neglected our parks. I’m not going to argue that fact. And I think the city has started to own that,” Hardy adds. “Nobody wants to move into a city where the neighborhood park sends a clear message that we don’t care whether you stay or go. And unfortunately, through our deferred maintenance at our community centers and at our parks, we are sending that message that we don’t care. It’s not true, but it’s totally understandable that that’s what people are getting.”
Today, the City of Akron is touting reinvestment in its parks, pools and recreational opportunities. Pool hours have been extended and splash pads have been added at Joy Park in East Akron and Patterson Park in North Hill.
Hardy says he and his team believe that the maintenance, safety and upkeep of recreational assets are the city’s responsibility, not the residents’ — not unlike the approach reflected in the 1969 Citizen’s Commission report.
But that wasn’t always the case among city officials, particularly in the years in which residents felt Reservoir Park was in decline. Pattie Urdzik, who worked with the City of Akron Recreation Department from 1970 until 2001, blames technology, fighting and a lack of appreciation for the park. She says the city maintained the pool, but that kids “didn’t really swim” and predominately used the pool after playing basketball to cool off, demonstrating a lack of appreciation for the resource. It became “just a pool of water… not a swimming pool,” she says.
“I think everything looked OK,” she adds. “I look back on it and most of the recreation was free. And I do have a philosophy that if you get it free, there’s a lack of respect for it.”
One resident, Charlotte Holling, recalls the pool’s condition declining and blames this for the pool’s decrease in popularity and attendance. Other residents added that the lack of seating areas by the pool made the pool feel inaccessible for parents attempting to watch their children. The pool continues to have a lack of seating.
“I don’t think it was the neighborhood, I think it was the maintenance,” Charlotte Holling says. “The neighborhood around there, it seemed like the parents were really into the reservoir because it was a place for their kids to go, and you didn’t have to worry about it. But as they started to do a lot more fighting, you seen a lot of parents go ‘No. You can’t go to the reservoir because all you do is get in fights up there.’ And they would run kids home. It just seemed it lost interest from the community. And no one wanted to take responsibility for making sure that, first of all, these gang mentalities didn’t come in there and then the maintenance of it. It just seemed like nobody wanted to pay for anything.”
At the same time, Holling remembers fights, too. “It started to be a lot of fights,” she says. “A lot of fights. And it seemed to me like there was a gang mentality. I couldn’t tell you if there were gangs or not, but I could tell you that was the mentality.”
Urdzik mentions the fights too. Additionally, she says, “Moms used to drop off a whole carload [of kids]. And they’d splash around, get bored, get in some trouble,” making other families less likely to bring their kids to the pool.
Councilmembers Jeff Fusco and Sharon Connor, the latter of whom represents Goodyear Heights today, suggested the same, arguing that fighting between the kids pushed people away from the pool.
Mark Schweitzer, who grew up in Goodyear Heights, remembers spending summer days with Councilmember Jeff Fusco playing baseball at Reservoir Park and swimming at the pool during the early days of its opening. In the years before and after Reservoir Park Pool opened, their families also attended Eastwood Swim Park on Eastwood Avenue, which was invitation-only and only accepted white residents.
“You would get an invitation every year to sign up for a family pass,” Schweitzer says. “They picked who could come there. Not everybody agreed with it. I mean, I remember my dad just shaking his head, but you know… your friends were going up there. But everybody knew it. I think my dad told me one day… he saw them turn away a group of Black people. The kids wanted to come in. But it was one of those things, it was common knowledge.”
Fusco says even though the U.S. was engaged in the civil rights movement, and locally, Akron was only a few years removed from the 1968 race riots, there was a lack of conversation surrounding the discomfort of Eastwood Pool among white residents.
“I think we were aware, but it wasn’t on our radar and it was never really discussed,” he says. “We had options that those who went to Reservoir from the Black community did not have. They didn’t have options, and we did, and we were privileged and we didn’t even know it. And I think that’s a big part of privilege. And I don’t think we can have true discussion until the white community understands what privilege is.”
Alesia Stevens, who describes herself as a “fair-skinned Black person,” says her white friends sometimes invited her to Eastwood.
“I had different friends that were white and they’re like, ‘You could go with us. Nobody would never know you was Black,’ and I said I would never go anywhere and pretend I wasn’t Black,” she says.
On top of changes in Goodyear Heights and Akron, Reservoir Park was battling national trends. Messaging around “stranger danger,” which began in the 1960s, was in full swing in the 1980s, scaring parents and encouraging more supervised play. Additionally, Toni remembers the release of Atari 2600 in 1977, which created additional incentive to stay indoors.
“Video games,” says Alesia Stevens. “Kids do not go outside. I mean I have to, like, really make it something fantastic for my grandchildren. And I have eight grandchildren. And even then they want to bring their phone. And I’m like, ‘No, no. We’re going outside. We’re not on our phones, we’re not playing a video game.’”
And as recently as a decade ago, recreation funding was cut, the city’s James Hardy says. During the 2008-2010 recession, the City of Akron did not fill two vacant full-time positions and 43 seasonal positions were cut back, Hardy says. Twenty-nine programs, including nine for youth, were suspended.
In recent years, renewed interest in Akron’s pools
Three years ago, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan declared recreation an essential city service for the growth of economic and community development. Afterward, the city o reallocated funds to better focus on recreation. That included bringing back some of those cut programs, like late-night basketball for adult men, youth volleyball and a preschool program.
“I would say up until probably two or three years ago, parks and recreation was seen as a good if-you-can-afford-it service the city would provide,” Hardy says. “I would say that two State of the Cities ago, when Mayor Horrigan declared that recreation was an essential city service, and we’re going to do the first new plan since the ‘68 plan, that was the first time in a long time that we had focused intently on it as part of economic development and community development.”
Akron firefighter Aireka Wright, who worked at Reservoir Park Community Center from 2017 until 2019, says renewed interest in the pool inspired many residents to return to the park and begin utilizing it. She says the bottom of the pool was repainted every year, but there were cracks in the infrastructure.
“The maintenance of it wasn’t a focal point until Mayor Horrigan came in and started talking about the value of the pools and the splash pads and that recreation was a value to the community,” she says. “If we continue to invest in it the way we have been, then it could be a great place for the community.”
Additionally, the pool hours created a barrier for residents trying to access the pool. Before 2018, the pool was open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and attendance was averaging just 15 to 35 visitors on peak days, according to Connor and Love.
Love’s team power-washed the park, created art murals alongside the community center and painted the walls and concrete, which were previously gray. Further, in 2019, the pool was open six days a week from 1-7 pm to encourage more flexibility for residents who work. The concession stands also opened in summer 2019.
Before Love’s project, Love says “many residents didn’t even know the pool was open.” After the project, attendance sometimes doubled or tripled, often exceeding 100 people, Love and Connor say.
Further, in 2018, Reservoir Park won the Akron Parks Challenge, receiving $100,000 to spend on improvements to the park. As a result, a team led by Connor installed a walking trail, an updated playground and a plaza space.
Additionally, Connor recently applied for and won a $30,000 Gulf Charities Grant to install ADA equipment for the pool, which will allow senior citizens and people with disabilities to better participate in pool activities next year.
“It’s so cool to go to the park now,” says Connor. “It’s so fun to watch the kids play on a brand new playground.”
As for the future, the City of Akron is planning to update the reservoir at the pool due to its declining infrastructure. The update would happen after 2025 since the city has budgeted over $3 million in the capital budget for both Reservoir Park and Perkins Park.
When asked if the pool at Reservoir Park would ever be removed, Hardy said, “Not in this administration.” He assures residents that the city’s goal “is to renovate or replace the existing assets at both pools according to what the neighborhoods want.”
Residents say they’re pleased with the recent updates and hope the improvements can continue. When asked what she would like to see happen at the pool now, Alesia Stevens says, “A lot more structured activities. My grandchildren still go there after school. And even the 11-year-old told me, ‘I can’t wait until the summer program opens.’”
Antoinette Harris suggests more family nights. “You have to also get the parents involved in their children’s entertainment.”
“Good supervision that cares. People that care. People that aren’t just in it for a paycheck,” Charlotte Hollings says. “If you’re not in it because you care, then forget it.”
What’s next? Ask the kids
It’s the summer of 2020. “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd is the song of the summer, playing on every phone. The days are long and the weather is unusually hot. And some Akron residents are elated because, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been waiting for months for the community’s pools to open.
On July 1, Reservoir Park Pool opened its doors, and the excitement felt just like it might have 58 years ago. However, this summer will definitely stand out. Pandemic regulations brought on extra safety precautions for swimmers. These regulations include a 40-person maximum, advance registration to use the pool, and a one-way entrance and exit. Signage around the pool encourages 6-foot social distancing and no swimming in groups of 10 or more. When not swimming, a mask must be worn at all times.
How is the “new normal” affecting the mood at the pool? We decided to stop by and ask the people in charge — the head honchos — the kids.
“I like to go under the water and I like jumping in the deep end,” says Marlia during the summer camp’s pool session. (The park’s summer camp is still able to operate, but the class size is limited to just nine students.)
Watching the kids swim and explore the pool, you can’t help but think about the wonderful stories from the past residents. No matter what decisions adults are making about the pool, the reason pools are necessary is because they serve our youth. Reservoir Park Pool, in its heyday, provided the area’s young ones with a safe place to build lifelong relationships, and it is providing today’s youth with an escape from quarantine.
As we look to the future of the pool, it’s important that consideration is given to how decisions will affect not only today’s community, but also the next generation.
So, when asked what should be added to the pool for next year, a young Marcel says he would like to see more floaties and toys. Niairre hopes for a diving board.
Charlee Harris was born and raised in Akron. She loves her family, her community and has a passion for creative expression. As an avid arts advocate, she is the creative director for the East Ave. Flea Market and an AmeriCorps VISTA at the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance.
Noor Hindi covers equity and inclusion for The Devil Strip. Reach her at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: This story is part of a project organized by Shane Wynn, which seeks to engage residents of Goodyear Heights to elevate an unheard community perspective in regard to the importance of safety and representation at Reservoir Park Pool and access more generally to recreation opportunities. The project was made possible by the Community Information Needs Collaborative, which was organized by the Cleveland Foundation in partnership with the Akron Community Foundation, The Center for Community Solutions, The George Gund Foundation and the Knight Foundation.