When the doors of Mount Hope Baptist Church opened at the end of a rejuvenating Sunday service in the 1960s, Eric Silvers’ friends and family walked east to Washington Park at South Eighth and East Race streets.
At that intersection today is Martin Luther King Jr. Park, where neighbors see a carpet of green grass, towering sycamore trees and a lively play area. The park, brightened by renovations in recent years, is still a central part of the neighborhood. With new playground equipment, benches, a picnic shelter and lighting installed by community members and the Rotary Club under Silvers’ leadership, it serves as the location for daily play and community events like Juneteenth. But what’s missing is a community pool.
Community swimming pools, especially those in Yakima’s eastside neighborhoods, have had a ch…
The edge of the park is capped by a concrete splash pad, where paint chips off the gold and red arches and spikes of grass grow near the water drain. Around the dull concrete pad are faded depth notations: 3 feet at one end and 5 ½ feet at the other. The painted blocks are remnants of the glittering L-shaped pool Silvers remembers from his youth.
“After church, the swimming pool was open, and we would just have some of the best times,” Silvers said. “It was just laughter.”
He remembers the smell of barbecue wafting through Washington Park. Young children splashed in the shallow end of the pool, while teenagers worked up the courage to leap from the diving board into the 10-foot deep end. Older folks sat around the pool deck or gathered at picnic tables to play dominoes.
“You know how hard they hit those dominoes on the table?” Silvers said. “Oh, gosh — it was just great.”
The southeast Yakima neighborhood around Washington Park was full of Black families until the latter half of the 1900s, Silvers said. His family called the neighborhood home for nearly a century, from 1890 until the 1980s, and four generations enjoyed the park, he said.
Washington Park, and later the pool, was a central piece to the neighborhood, along with several Black churches and a store called Shoppers Market. Community organizations, like the Yakima Valley Opportunities Industrialization Center and the Southeast Yakima Community Center, now named for former director Henry Beauchamp, supported the area’s residents — among them community leaders, well-known musicians and Loddie Bryant, who is honored as the first Black teacher in Yakima.
Black families began leaving the area in the 1970s, Silvers said, feeling forced out by a lack of opportunity. He said many people, including his adult children in more recent years, moved to the Seattle area.
“We’re such a close-knit culture, we still try to have community, even over two hours away,” Silvers said.
But it is different from the time he could drive along South Sixth Street shouting “hello” and waving to neighbors.
“You drove down this street and it felt like you were in a parade,” he said. “There was so much of a community spirit.”
As Black families left, Latino families populated the area and make up the majority in the neighborhood today. The Henry Beauchamp Community Center remains a central piece of the neighborhood, as do other community organizations like La Casa Hogar, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic and Yakima Neighborhood Health Services.
Community leader Ester Huey said the promise for a new pool in east Yakima was made by city officials in 2005, around the same time the city decided to close three pools across the city, including two in east Yakima. Since then, she and others have been vocal about following through on the project.
It’s been frustrating seeing little progress over the past 17 years, she said, but the project is finally gaining ground. City and state officials committed $4 million to the project this year.
“We’ve kept it alive enough that we have new momentum and enthusiasm,” Huey said. “We’re closer than we’ve ever been to seeing a new pool in east Yakima.”
A history of community pools
Gilbert Chandler, a Yakima resident and historian who grew up steps from Washington Park, helped piece together the choppy history of pools in east Yakima.
Before Washington Pool was built in 1957, he would make the trek to Miller Pool on North Fourth Street or the outdoor Lions Pool at South Fifth Avenue.
“That’s what we did as kids,” he said, mentioning that the Lions Pool was heated.
The city closed the outdoor Lions Pool temporarily, reopening it as an indoor facility in 1973, according to Yakima Valley Libraries.
Chandler was a senior in high school by the time Washington Pool opened on May 29, 1957, but he jumped at the chance to swim in his own neighborhood that day.
“I just swam in the pool the same day it opened,” he said.
The pool was a popular spot for families for decades, but records show concerns from the city about maintenance and operating costs beginning in the early 1980s. The city first considered closing Washington Pool in 1980 and again in 1982 to right budget deficits, according to archived newspaper articles and city documents.
Maintenance problems continued over the next several years. Washington Pool suffered a leak in the summer of 1986, which city officials struggled to locate. The pool lost about 15 inches of water a day, according to reporting by the Yakima Herald-Republic.
In 1987, the newspaper reported increasing costs and falling attendance for all four outdoor pools operational at the time, with Washington Pool having the highest costs and second-lowest attendance numbers in 1986.
Community members strongly opposed a recommendation by the parks commission in 1987 to close Washington and Franklin pools (Franklin had the second highest costs the previous year), but the city decided to keep the pools open after protests and comments from residents.
Chandler recalled how the city closed three outdoor pools in quick succession in the early 2000s: Miller and Eisenhower in 2005 and Washington in 2006.
“Other than that, I’d say it’d be nice to have a new pool in the southeast, it’s been gone (a long time),” Chandler said. “It’d be nice to have a new pool.”
In 2017, the City Council formed a committee to study options for a pool in east Yakima. Shortly after, the city selected Martin Luther King Jr. Park as the location to consider.
A study from 2019 produced three potential pool designs, including one design featuring a pool with three lap lanes, a vortex, water slides and a lounge area; a teen pool with a bowl slide and rope swing, a tot pool with a family slide, and the sprayground. This option — the most expensive, estimated in 2019 to cost $11.3 million — is the one being considered by the city.
Impact on community
Over the past 17 years, young people in east Yakima have not had the privilege of swimming in pools that are in their own neighborhood or are otherwise easily accessible, Huey said.
“The pools that are available in Yakima are not that accessible to people on the east side because of transportation problems,” Huey said. “It has not been as easy as the city predicted it would be for young people to get across town.”
Before the closure of Miller, Eisenhower and Washington pools, busing was the option suggested by city officials for east Yakima families who still wanted to swim. Community leaders, including then-City Council member Henry Beauchamp, opposed the idea, saying it wasn’t safe and wasn’t a solution, according to Yakima Herald-Republic reporting.
Many families today don’t want — or can’t afford — to bus their kids across the city to go swimming.
Family trips to the pool are made more difficult when the trip is a long one, Huey said. It adds monetary and scheduling barriers for eastside families who have to pay for transit, buy entry to the pool and coordinate around bus schedules, she said.
“If the pool was right there, within walking distance, with lifeguards and all of that, (parents) would feel safe to send their children swimming,” Huey said.
The city has tried to address the transportation issue, offering free bus rides on Yakima Transit in the summer for people who swim at Franklin Pool, Lions Pool or the YMCA and Yakima Rotary Aquatic Center.
But Black communities and other communities of color have historically not had equitable access to pools in America. Segregation policies prevented Black Americans from accessing public swimming pools in the South. Even after segregation policies were lifted, Black community members continued to be excluded or experienced violence while trying to use swimming pools. Many white families turned to private pools or clubs for swimming, continuing to exclude low-income people and communities of color.
These prejudices have had a lasting impact on the communities affected by them.
Swimming for leisure or learning how to swim may not be a priority for families who have experienced discrimination, especially if a pool isn’t easily accessible in their neighborhood, Silvers said.
Quality of life
Huey and Silvers both said community swimming pools can improve quality of life, offering something to do in the summer and opening kids up to new hobbies, interests or skills.
For example, a community swimming pool in east Yakima inspired retired firefighter Jaye Elmo to become an emergency responder.
Elmo grew up about two blocks from Washington Pool, and he and his four siblings were enrolled in swim lessons there from a young age. The family would start their day with swim lessons and return for morning and afternoon open swims, he said.
“Every summer, from the time I was probably 5 to when I actually left the house around 18 or 19 years old, we swam at that pool and played basketball at that court there,” Elmo said. “I spent a lot of time at Washington Pool.”
In his teen years, he joined the swim team and signed up for the lifeguard class. When it came time to decide on a career, he followed his desire to help others.
“I became a firefighter, but I wasn’t sure I really wanted to be a firefighter,” he said. “I wanted to help people, but you have to see a lot of death and things like that.”
After 30 years with the Yakima Fire Department, Elmo said he still feels the desire to help.
“I think a lot of my sense of helping other people came from me taking the lifeguard class (and) swimming at the pool,” he said.
Elmo said he never had a problem doing life-saving drills in the swimming pool as a firefighter, largely because he learned to swim when he was young.
“Those poor kids now, they don’t know how to swim,” he said. “If you live in that community, you have to go outside of that community to learn how to swim.”
For children growing up in east Yakima who have not had easy access to a community swimming pool, the alternative — swimming in nearby creeks or the Yakima River — comes with serious risks, Huey said.
Silvers said a pool in east Yakima would be a great chance to teach water safety to kids at Adams Elementary and Washington Middle School and prevent drownings. A lap pool was included in the facility’s preliminary design to support swimming lessons and safety programs.
Community advocates say the east Yakima pool is as close as it has ever been to becoming a reality.
The Legislature approved $1 million for the pool in its capital budget in March. Yakima parks and recreation manager Ken Wilkinson said that money will be used to fund the development of plans and bid documents for the construction of the pool.
“Then the plans, specifications and bid docs will allow us to go forward to construct the pool, to actually go out for bid and have that pool built,” Wilkinson said at a council study session on April 12.
The city has committed $3 million for the project.
Huey said she’s trying to keep the project’s momentum going, especially when it comes to funding.
Community advocates are pursuing funding from the federal government, and the city has requested pandemic-related American Rescue Plan Act funds from the county. The city is also pursuing other grant opportunities, Wilkinson said, including a $500,000 grant from the Washington state Recreation and Conservation Office, which has money available for park projects.
City Manager Bob Harrison said the goal is to line up as much money as possible for the project over the next year; there will be another opportunity for funding from the state next year, and other opportunities.
“If we can get everything together, you know, we might be able to break ground at the end of next year or so,” Harrison said.
Several council members voiced support for the project at the study session, including members Holly Cousens, Danny Herrera and Soneya Lund. And Huey said the project has come a good way in recent months.
“It’s been a long journey and it’s been a difficult journey, but, you know, it looks like it’s going to happen now,” she said.
Silvers said he’s advocating for a pool that can be a source of pride for the east side of Yakima. He said he sometimes asks himself why he has stayed in Yakima.
“But I think that there’s some things that need to be done,” he said. “We need to be able to get the quality of life back here.”
Reviving Martin Luther King Jr. Park and building a pool in east Yakima are a big part of that, he said.
“Let’s get it back to where it was, you know, that my family enjoyed it for four generations,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go, but it’s getting a lot closer.”