At a rally Sunday afternoon outside the tarp-shrouded Gus Young Park pool, area residents prayed that it will one day be reopened and returned to its former glory.
Some of the 20 or so ralliers were old enough to remember the pool’s opening 48 years ago — an event they said was a high point in the tumultuous civil rights era — and hope the site will once again be a bright spot for children in the low-income neighborhood.
But BREC, which operates the park, is planning to fill in the pool next month, citing its deteriorating condition. Officials say it would cost too much to renovate the pool, which has been closed since summer 2013 because of a problem with its concrete liner.
The pool was closed then “under the pretext of repairing it,” but nothing has been done yet, said Alfreda Tillman Bester, general counsel for the Louisiana NAACP conference.
“We expect them to honor their word,” Bester said.
Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who learned to swim with her siblings at the pool, said BREC officials told her it was closed in summer 2013 because it didn’t meet federal guidelines, and they wouldn’t have time to fix those problems before their busy summer season. The next year, Marcelle said, BREC claimed it didn’t have the budget for repairs.
“The stories went on and on, and now we’re faced today with what I believe was the intention all along — to close the swimming pool,” Marcelle said.
Some at the rally said they suspect the pool arrived at its condition because of poor maintenance over the years.
“The work that has been done — the significant investments that have been made in BREC facilities in recent years — have not been in the African-American community,” Bester said. “I don’t know that this is racially motivated. … I just know that the effect on this poor and depressed community would be devastating if they don’t repair or replace that pool.”
Among those at the rally was Betty Claiborne, who in 1963 was arrested when she tried to integrate the white-only City Park pool in Baton Rouge. Claiborne, who was 20 years old at the time, said Sunday that the fight to keep the pool open mirrors the fight for equal rights she fought half a century ago.
“Everywhere I look, I see signs that say ‘your tax dollars at work,’ ” she said. “But I don’t see that tax money being put to work in black communities. I see the same old filthy gyms, the same old incidents” at BREC facilities in the area.
Cheryl Michelet, a BREC spokeswoman, said Sunday that she recognizes people are upset about the closure of the historically significant pool. But she insists that “there is a valid reason behind it” — the pool has reached the end of its usable life.
“It could not be opened safely,” she said, unless completely rebuilt because of damage to the concrete liner.
But in the past decade, BREC also has been placing less emphasis on its 156 small neighborhood parks like Gus Young that serve fewer people, and shifting to its 12 community parks, Michelet said. The larger community parks include Howell Park and City-Brooks Park, which both have pools.
BREC operates a total of 180 parks, meaning funds must be divvied up so many ways that the neighborhood parks are left with relatively small budgets, Michelet said. The Gus Young Park has been allotted $150,000 for the entirety of the 10-year strategic planning period that began this year, she said.
A number of aging pools have been closed at the neighborhood parks that had them and, in some cases, were replaced with more-efficient splash pads, Michelet said.
A new pool would cost $400,000 to $500,000, and come with an annual operation and maintenance price tag of $92,000, she said.
A splash pad would cost about $500,000. And neither of those could be built without private donations, Michelet said.
Rally attendees, however, maintain that the parish parks commission isn’t holding up its end of the bargain — to renovate the Gus Young pool — and instead is investing money in frivolous projects such as the five dog parks it has opened in recent years. They closed out their rally Sunday with a chant of “children over dogs.”
Without the Gus Young pool, they are concerned about the distance between neighborhood children and a place where they can learn to swim.
Michelet pointed out that the Howell Park and City-Brooks Park are both about 2 miles from Gus Young — but residents worried that 2 miles is too long for children who don’t have reliable transportation to walk by themselves.
“You have so many children, boys and girls who live in this community who can walk (to the Gus Young pool) and swim and fellowship and learn how to swim. That’s important,” said J.W. Vaughn, a deacon at New St. John Baptist Church.
He recalled growing up in a time when many children drowned because they hadn’t been taught to swim.
“When this pool was built, people came from all over to see it,” he said. “This is a beautiful spot. That’s why we pay our taxes. To heck with BREC.”
Bester said BREC officials have agreed to meet with area residents Thursday evening at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center to discuss their concerns.