Remember the Pool that turned away the black kids in Philly?


It’s going out of business. As it should. A group of swimmers from Creative Steps, Inc day camp had money to spend and the Valley Club for a variety of reasons were turned away. The prevalent hash tag on twitter was “#RacistPool”. I don’t think that is neccessarily a fair description. People will say this pool was ruined by political correctness, and that is even more ridiculous. In the letter to membership explaining the club’s bankruptcy, Valley Club president John Deusler wrote:

“While many will point towards our legal situation and negative media exposure this summer as the reason” for the bankruptcy filing, “the truth is that the club has struggled to stay out of the red for at least the last decade,” he wrote.

“Despite our most ambitious efforts and countless hours of dedication towards the club, we have been unable to grow our membership enough to sustain The Valley Club any longer. Indeed, we have not been profitable, for as long as I’ve been with the club. And our current debt from this year’s operation and legal fees now exceeds $100,000.”

via Embattled pool can’t stay afloat | Philadelphia Daily News | 11/14/2009.

The club’s demise was quickened by the sheer cost of the discrimination investigation, but reviewing quotes from members and administrators, this day was already on the horizon. The Valley Club was an organization who wasn’t getting the needed operating revenue from its current membership, but somehow found money from summer campers, who basically paid a sub-premium rate to swim for 90 minutes during peak hours once a week, undesireable. One of Duesler’s defenses was that they had refunded the money to other summer programs who brought kids to swim. To me it does seem like bigotry, based on race, socioeconomics or some sort of micro-tribalism, played a role in this situation.

Let me explain why I feel there was some bigotry involved. The refund and cancelling of the contract occurred after the children had been at the pool and seen by some of the membership and Deusler. That was the event that changed the policy toward these 60 or so day camping children. Prior to that, their money was welcome. At the time of the incident, a member suggested a solution:

“To my knowledge, the members were not involved in any of the decisionmaking,” says Flynn, 41, a Fox Chase resident who pays a $700 membership for a family of four. “As far as I know, all we recommended was to change the time that [the campers] came, from the afternoons to a nonpeak time. We never recommended to disinvite them.”

As for Duesler’s “complexion” comment, he said, “I couldn’t believe he said that. . . . It was insensitive and inflammatory. Look, I’m not naive enough to think that racism doesn’t exist here, but I don’t want the good people’s names at this club to be smeared.”

via Annette John-Hall: Ugliness in the water at Valley Club | Philadelphia Inquirer | 07/10/2009.

Most of that sounds about right. Flynn suggested take the money, schedule them at non-peak hours, and both parties can be fully satisfied. To me, that is a fine and fair solution.

The whole situation comes off as driven by some sort of bigotry when examining Deusler’s executive decision and curious quote, completely absent of any violation by the campers, was to return the money and revoke the contract. The sudden nature with which Deusler took this action and did not seek a logical resolution give him the appearance of being driven by some other intent other than keeping the unprofitable swim club solvent and safe, which I imagine were his actual duties. He could have attempted to create a time slot for the kids to swim either at an earlier off peak time or during peak hours on a low traffic day, (My 2 brothers and I swam w/our friends as young children at Wedgewood Hills Swim Club where most mornings were reserved for maintenance, lessons and/or team practices).

A designated camp swim time slot would have made actual sense and wouldn’t lend itself to scrutiny for discrimination. Full members pay to utilize the pool to relax in the summer and an influx of 60 kids into a pool is not exactly relaxing. I am not sure how big the pool is, but 60 kids, probably concentrated in the shallow end, playing and having fun would make most pools crowded. (It’s one of the reasons all the Vegas resort casinos have sprawling mega pools and age appropriate areas, and even these remain packed).

Spite your nose to save the “complexion” of your pool was an awful move whether the complexion Deusler referred to was skin color, tax bracket, or peak time pool population. The club needed money, the camp program had the funds, and paid their bill in full. Deusler and the board would have been wise and fair to find time for the various types of paying customers, in the form of summer campers, they turned away. Deusler may have assumed the majority of the member’s dismay was because of ethnicity or class instead of overpopulation as Mr. Flynn was concerned with. Or he may have heard comments from members who insulted the children while they were at the pool and assumed that he should react to the loudest and most bigoted members. Or he may have just panicked.

It was unnecessary rebuke to the campers who joined that camp excited to get a chance to swim in the hot summer and to the camp administrators who found a way for these kids to get access to a recreational swimming. What alternatives did they have? Their could have been alternatives for day camp administrators if they had known that they would not have been welcome at Valley Club.

The initial coverage was unfair to the club membership. Even I jumped on the blanket racist pool explanation casting dispersions upon all of the Valley Club’s membership. I definitely would like this to stand as an apology for jumping to conclusions.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is researching the claims against the club. In the end, I believe these kids were discriminated against: they were red lined out of purchase of a service based on some new guideline based on the need for Valley Club to maintain a certain “complexion” for the comfort of its members. A guideline that was only enacted after the kids were seen. Not counted, seen. It was a bigoted act pure and simple and it should be attributed to the administrative staff starting and ending with Deusler and the Valley Club’s board.

The truth is, what was a decision by a handful of individuals guided, if even slightly, by the evil of bigotry can have exponentially larger, permanent, discriminatory effects. The Valley Club will close, Philadelphia loses public pools every year as tax revenues drop due to a flailing U.S. economy and these families and kids just won’t be swimming. In Philadelphia, a city that is 43% black and has a 31.3% child poverty rate, this was a very big deal as city pools that service these groups are closed every year due to budget constraints and children of color drown at a much higher rate (3.2 times more in the 5 to 14yr old age range) than children of European descent. Many more people won’t have access to a pool because of this fiasco.

Deusler’s administrative actions were indicative of the Valley Club’s inability to select and/or install adequate leadership for their pool operations or to treat the general public fairly. The Valley Club leadership was bankrupt well before the club’s coffers or the #racistpool hash tag.