As temperatures soar, City Council members angered by closed Park District pools

The effort to open pools has been hampered by a lifeguard shortage — a nationwide problem but one made worse locally by a Park District lifeguard harassment scandal, despite the offer of bonuses.

SHARE As temperatures soar, City Council members angered by closed Park District pools
A closed pool at Cornell Square Park in Back of the Yards, Tuesday, June 14, 2022.

A closed pool at Cornell Square Park in Back of the Yards.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

With temperatures soaring into the high 90s for the second straight day, City Council members on Wednesday demanded to know why so many Chicago Park District pools remain closed while lakefront beaches are open.

The Park District manages 49 outdoor pools, 28 indoor pools and works with the Chicago Public Schools to operate school pools for community use in neighborhoods without a park pool.

Efforts to open those pools have been hampered by a nationwide shortage of lifeguards and exacerbated locally by a lifeguard scandal that forced Mike Kelly to resign as parks superintendent. Attempts to lure lifeguard applicants with $500 bonuses apparently haven’t been enough — by Wednesday evening the Park District bumped them up to $600.

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The district in a statement said it will temporarily ease a residency requirement for applicants who may live in Chicago suburbs and that qualified seasonal lifeguards could get year-round jobs after the summer.

The Chicago Sun-Times called all pools listed on the Park District website. Only six indicated they are open this week — but all six also said they are closing after Friday.

Another eight pools are scheduled to open June 24 or 25 — but people at some of those locations were unsure if the lifeguard shortage would prevent them from opening as planned.

Three indoor pools — at Agricultural High School, Portage Park and Harrison Park — indicated they are open and, for now, will stay open.

At five pools, the number listed on the Park District website is disconnected.

And at 40 pools, no one answered the phone.

The Chicago Park District pool in Portage Park on June 14, 2022.

An indoor pool at Portage Park is open, but the outdoor pool there is closed.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The lack of nearby swimming options has some residents hot under the collar.

“I either have to go to the pool in Oak Park or take the CTA to the beach,” said Morgan Spencer, 32, who lives in West Garfield Park.

Public transportation to the beach would take about an hour, she said. And she’s never been to Oak Park because of the cost. (Day passes at Oak Park’s two public pools cost $10; a yearly pass for non-residents costs $87.)

“I also go to Humboldt Park, but not to cool off, more just to hang out. There’s an alligator there,” Spencer added, referring to the creature caught in the park’s lagoon in 2019.

In response to a Freedom of Information Request, the Park District revealed a 91% vacancy rate among seasonal lifeguards and 73% among “all lifeguard positions district-wide.”

Mayoral challenger Ray Lopez (15th) represents a ward plagued by gang violence that includes West Englewood, Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, Gage Park and New City. 

Lopez argued the three pools in his ward remain closed because the new parks regime did not gear up soon enough to aggressively recruit lifeguards and because people are “still afraid to work for” the district due to “unresolved issues from the sex scandal” that Mayor Lori Lightfoot swept under the rug.

“She never confronted the issue. She never reassured our families that it was a safe place for children to work. And now, here we are, struggling to get lifeguards and focusing all the ones we are able to get on the lakefront at the expense of the neighborhoods,” said Lopez.

“That’s a terrible decision. We have tens of thousands of children who are not gonna be able to get to the beach to go swimming where a lifeguard is.”

The pool at Cornell Square Park in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood among many Chicago Park District pools that remain closed amid this week’s scorching temperatures.

The pool at Cornell Square Park in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood among many Chicago Park District pools that remain closed amid this week’s scorching temperatures.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Lopez said he already sees a “spike” in the number of open fire hydrants as children in inner-city neighborhoods do whatever they can to “stay cool and play in the water.” 

“Is she gonna take responsibility if a child gets hurt, if there’s a fire and no water pressure or if seniors struggle to flush the toilet because the water has been on for nine hours in a day?” he said.

Mayoral ally Nick Sposato (38th), chairman of the council’s Committee on Special Events, Parks and Recreation, said he is “infuriated” by the Park District’s decision to “take lifeguards from the pools and put ’em on the beaches,” forcing both pools in his Northwest Side ward to remain closed. 

“You say you want kids to have things to do in their community? Well, if they can’t go to the pool in their own communities, then what are they supposed to do?” Sposato said.

“When you have mass crowds in places and it’s hot out, that is a recipe for what? Trouble. You have mass crowds. The heat is there. That’s gonna be trouble.”

Sposato branded the decision to keep beaches open and neighborhood pools closed “incomprehensible.” 

“I’m, for selfish reasons, saying it’s not right. I’m not happy about this. And they’re like, ‘Look, we’ve got to have lifeguards on the beaches,’” Sposato said.

Montrose Beach on Wednesday afternoon, June 15, 2022, as temperatures climbed into the mid-90s in the Chicago area.

An ice cream vendor found a lot of potential customers at Montrose Beach on Wednesday, as temperatures reached the mid-90s.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Sposato acknowledged the lifeguard shortage is real. It’s not an excuse.

“Norridge is right across the street from me. They have a private pool. A friend of mine was sending his daughter over there. He said they continually canceled classes for the kids because they can’t get the lifeguards to come in,” Sposato said. 

“It’s a terrible time that we live in today. Kids used to be hungry. Kids would do anything. Most everybody’s job when I was a kid started off as a bus boy somewhere or a dishwasher. That’s what we did. Now, it’s like that’s beneath people.” 

Chicago Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareno could not be reached for comment. 

Her spokesperson, Michele Lemons, said only that the Park District “continues to recruit lifeguards” and is “currently evaluating staffing numbers.”

“Chicago’s lakefront beaches opened for swimming Memorial Day weekend. Lifeguards are on duty daily, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” Lemons wrote in a statement.

“The District currently has 176 spray features operating across the city and we are working diligently to activate the remaining features.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), another outspoken Lightfoot critic, texted the Sun-Times a picture of the empty pool at Palmer Park, 251 E. 111th St., in his ward.

“They should have foreseen this months ago. They should have started the hiring process months ago to make sure that we didn’t have a shortage for the summer. I could understand if we were short a couple hundred. But 1,600 openings is totally unacceptable,” Beale said.

Beale said he got that number from “insiders” — Lemons would not provide the Sun-Times with a number of vacancies.

“We’re putting all of these [warnings] out. ... And on the hottest days of the year — when our kids need something to do and our families need to cool off — they don’t have access. Once again, we’re favoring other areas. Some of my residents can’t get to the beach. What are they supposed to do? They’re popping fire hydrants all over the place.”

Contributing: Jordan Perkins, Michael Loria

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