There is something quintessentially American about a diver cutting into the surface of a crystal blue pool on a searing day, the air filmed with humidity as the water ripples in his wake. When summer comes around we march onward toward that fenced-in oasis, some of us lucky enough to go no further than our backyards. Iconic film scenes happen in swimming pools, artists paint them, writers use them as symbols, and all the while we keep swimming.
I hope I’m not the only one who has asked herself, as Seinfeld might, “What’s the deal with pools?” Where did they come from? When you think about it, doesn’t it seem a little strange that we just decided one day to build ourselves a personal ocean, but without salt and devoid of all life? These blue squares, which essentially amount to oversized baths, are packed with so much meaning – leisure, isolation, excess – and their history in this country is in a way our history of socioeconomic divide, private and public spaces, and of course, bikinis. Part of the American-ness of the American swimming pool is its duality, it represents our desire for individual conquest and the conflict between private property and communal experience.
There’s no question that humans love the water. On the most basic level, it makes up most of our biology. If we don’t drink it, we die. But our connection goes much deeper than survival. Wallace J. Nichols, marine biologist and water obsessive, describes our draw to the water – ocean, pool, or puddle – as our “Blue Mind…a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment…It takes advantage of neurological connections formed over millennia.” It’s not hard to see what he means – for instance, we take showers as part of a perfunctory routine but stepping under the water has an automatically relaxing and meditative effect. Ditto listening to the water flow in a river, or hearing your cat lap it up from his bowl.
Of course, what most people do in a given body of water is swim. We’ve been swimming, wading, and floating since we started recording history, in watering holes and ancient bathhouses, or — for those of us blessed with proximity to it — the ocean. The appeal of swimming in the ocean is obvious: it is formidable, vast, unknown, dangerous. We are still discovering species by the bucketful in its depths, and epics have been written about what takes place on and beneath the waves. Visiting the ocean allows us to skirt the edge of a largely inaccessible world, a completely different Earth that takes up more space than land on our planet but is somehow totally unsuited for us to live in. The ocean says, ”Sure, you can play on the beach, but if you go too far, I’ll fucking kill you.”
To create pools, we neutered the danger and mystery of the open sea and cordoned off watery spaces for our recreation. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t without their own troubles. In America, racial desegregation in pools followed a meaningfully different trajectory than that of other public spaces. Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, argues that during the Progressive Era of the late 1800s, while gender and class divides were strictly enforced in public pools, race played less of a factor, meaning black and white swimmers shared the water with little tension. However, the integration of sexes and classes brought to light different biases; for instance, now that men and women were mingling in swimwear, the racist stereotype of black men preying on white women led some to alarmism. In addition, as swimming became more appealing to the Middle class, pools were built further towards majority white suburbs. This intersection of race, class, and gender relations played out differently in the water than in the workplace, school, and home, and it left a lasting mark, evidenced by the fact that even today white Americans are twice as likely to know how to swim as black Americans.
While backyard pools are privately owned, they still carry a convoluted and somewhat contradictory history. Historian Ryan Reft describes the boom of private pools in Southern California in the 1960’s as “decadent and grandiose expressions of wealth and power, communal experiences for working class kids and families, and a symbolic reservoir of twentieth century alienation and danger…the pool stands as a testament to the complexity of California life.” He goes on that the pool even came to mean something when it was empty, the 1970’s drought forced swimmers out and the abandoned pools became an enclave for underground skateboard culture, most famously including the Zephyr Competition Team, or Z-Boys.
The pool as a status symbol, a glistening money sink for all your neighbors to see, is a common trope seen in the lush backyards of reality TV stars and Hollywood films. John Cheever’s famous short story, “The Swimmer,” reveals the more sinister undertones of this grandeur. The story follows its wealthy, tanned protagonist as he attempts to swim the entire way home from a party through the backyard pools along the way. It was dissected in my literature class (and, I assume, most literature classes) as an allegory for the inherent loneliness and darkness of material excess. The swimmer’s mood at the beginning is so eternally upbeat he can hardly contain his good fortune, or the beauty and riches that surround him and afford him the opportunity to swim through private pools all the way home. As the day wears on and a storm clouds above, his mood darkens, as do the demeanors of the people in the backyards he swims through. He grows tired; the water is not as familiar. Finally, he arrives at an empty house, his own, long abandoned and his family nowhere to be found.
It’s telling that Cheever chose the pool as his main character’s conveyance when he needed a symbol mercurial enough to change completely over the course of the story. On a summer day, the pool is the 4th of July and sharks and minnows, a stand-in for the school cafeteria where you might glimpse the beaded back of an upperclassmen as he squints at the sun. As with most hallmarks of American culture, once the lights dim and the hot dogs have been taken off the grill, an eeriness descends. Barb in Stranger Things didn’t fall into the Upside Down through a trampoline, is all I’m saying. There is something enamoring, strange, and special about the pool. Everything is clear, but everything is murky.