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As Temperatures Soar, Chicago City Council Members Get Angry Over Closed Park District Pools

With temperatures soaring into the high 90s for the second day in a row, city councilors on Wednesday demanded why so many Chicago Park District pools remain closed while lake beaches are open.

The Park District operates 49 outdoor pools, 28 indoor pools, and partners 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 park ranger. Attempts to lure lifeguard applicants with $500 bonuses apparently haven’t been enough — by Wednesday night, the Park District increased them to $600.

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

The Chicago Sun-Times called all the pools listed on the Park District website. Only six indicated they will be open this week, but all six also said they will close after Friday.

Another eight pools are scheduled to open on June 24 or 25 — but people in some of those locations weren’t sure whether the shortage of lifeguards would prevent them from opening as planned.

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

At five pools, the number listed on the Park District website has been 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.

The lack of swimming opportunities in the area has some residents warm 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 transport to the beach would take about an hour, she said. And because of the cost, she’s never been to Oak Park. (Day passes at Oak Park’s two public pools cost $10; a non-resident annual pass costs $87.)

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

In response to a freedom of information request, the Park District revealed a vacancy rate of 91% among seasonal workers and 73% among “all district-wide lifeguard positions.”

Mayor Ray Lopez (15th) represents a neighborhood plagued by gang violence, including West Englewood, Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, Gage Park and New City.

Lopez argued that the three swimming pools in his ward will remain closed because the new parks regime was not prepared quickly enough to aggressively recruit lifeguards and because people “are still afraid to work for the district” because of “unresolved issues from the sex scandal” that has hit Mayor Lori Lightfoot swept under the rug.

“She never faced the problem. 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 all targeting the ones we can get to the lakeshore at the expense of the neighborhoods,” Lopez said.

“That is a terrible decision. We have tens of thousands of children who cannot go to the beach to go swimming with a lifeguard.”

The closed pool at Cornell Square Park in Back of the Yards, photographed on Tuesday, June 15, 2022.

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

Anthony Vazquez/Sun Times

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

“Is she going to take responsibility if a child is injured, if there is a fire and there is no water pressure or if seniors have trouble flushing the toilet because the water is on for nine hours a day?” he said.

Ally of Mayor Nick Sposato (38), chairman of the council’s Special Events, Parks and Recreation Committee, said he is “outraged” by the park district’s decision to “take lifeguards out of the pools and on the beaches.” put”, forcing both pools in his Northwest Side department to remain closed.

“You say you want kids to have things to do in their community? If they can’t go to the pool in their own community, what should they do?” said Sposato.

“If you have massive crowds in some places and it’s hot outside, what is that a recipe for? Issue. You have massive crowds of people. The heat is there. That’s going to be a problem.”

Sposato called the decision to keep beaches open and close neighborhood swimming pools ‘incomprehensible’.

“I say it’s not right for selfish reasons. I’m not happy about this. And they say, ‘Look, we need lifeguards on the beaches,’ Sposato said.

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

An ice cream vendor found many potential customers on Montrose Beach on Wednesday, as temperatures reached the mid-’90s.

Sposato acknowledged that the shortage of lifeguards is real. It’s not an excuse.

“Norridge is across the street from me. They have their own pool. A friend of mine sent his daughter there. He said they were constantly canceling classes for the kids because they couldn’t get the lifeguards in,” Sposato said.

“It is a terrible time we live in today. Children used to be hungry. Kids would do anything. Most everyone’s job when I was a kid started somewhere as a busboy or a dishwasher. That’s what we did. Now, it’s like that’s among the 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 the workforce.”

“Lake Chicago beaches are open for swimming over Memorial Day weekend. Lifeguards are on duty daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” Lemons wrote in a statement.

“The district currently has 176 spray features in 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 photo of the empty swimming pool at Palmer Park, 251 E. 111th St., in his neighborhood.

“They should have foreseen this months ago. They should have started the hiring process months ago to make sure we weren’t short for the summer. I could understand if we were a few hundred short. But 1600 openings is totally unacceptable,” Beale said.

Beale said he got that number from “insiders” — Lemons wouldn’t provide the Sun-Times with a number of job openings.

“We’re posting all of these [warnings] from. … And on the hottest days of the year – when our kids have something to do and our families need to cool down – they don’t have access. Again, we prefer other areas. Some of my residents can’t go to the beach. What should they do? They are popping fire hydrants everywhere.”

Contributors: Jordan Perkins, Michael Loria

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