Swimming Social Pool #3: Pride, struggle and TLC abound at Roseland’s Fernwood Park

Teresa Albano
May 31, 2019 · 13 min read
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The first thing you notice about Fernwood Park is the TLC — tender loving care — invested in the park, and the pride the community takes in this “hortus in urbe.” (“Garden in a city” — it is the Chicago Park District’s motto, a play on the city of Chicago’s motto “urbs in horto” — “city in a garden”).

Huge potted plants forest the fieldhouse lobby. Community rooms are named after rivers in Nigeria. A mural, full of deep blues, greens and reds portraying scenes of the park and the surrounding Roseland/Washington Heights neighborhoods, covers an entire fieldhouse wall. The Fernwood Park Advisory Council bulletin board is full of photos from a multi-generational community gardening event, promoting organic foods.

My swimmate, Ronna Feldman, and I drove to Fernwood Park pool at 104th St. and Wallace on a mid-March early Thursday morning. According to the city of Chicago, Fernwood Park is in Roseland, but sits just a block from Washington Heights’ border.

Both neighborhoods are 96 percent African American, according to 2016 data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

Just a few miles away, the first neighborhood park pool we visited was in Mount Greenwood, which is 83 percent white.

Fernwood pool was our third pool on our journey to swim in all 91 Chicago Park District pools. It will take us a while. We are visiting one park pool per month.

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Fernwood field house mural

Exploding myths

The purpose of the project is manifold. Ronna and I are lifelong Chicagoans, alumnae of Schurz High School and swim geeks. We met through the Chicago Swedish Fish swim team of which Ronna is a co-founder. I thought it would be fun to spend time together and check out all of the public pools in the city. An inexpensive working-class female on-the-road adventure.

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But there’s more. I wanted to see if I could sustain my dream blog: Swimming Social, a place where my three passions — swimming, writing and activism — converge. As a strong believer in democracy, solidarity and the common good, the purpose of Swimming Social is to combine swimmer information with contemporary social issues and the history of place.

Often times, swimming is considered an individual sport and removed from the intersection of sports, race and culture. By naming the blog Swimming Social, I want to explode those myths.

Swimming pools and beaches have been (and still are) sites of struggles for civil rights, gender equality and transformative democratic advancement. All sorts of social issues converge there, including the right to clean water and the right to access public pools and beaches.

(By the way, I highly recommend, “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America,” in which the author Jeff Wiltse details the role of swimming pools in the battles for racial equality and integration, women’s rights and their intersection with class in America.)

That morning at Fernwood Park, the waves from any of history’s or current contested waters lapped at all of us as we bantered in the locker room and in the pool.

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Ronna and I in the forested field house lobby

Swimming in two working-class neighborhoods, one Black, one white

One of the reasons we went to Mount Greenwood and then Roseland park pools first was I had come across this series in The New York Times comparing the two neighborhoods. Author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson reported on racial attitudes and experiences based on interviews of residents in Roseland and Mount Greenwood in 1992. Before I dive more deeply into the visit, I wanted to share some context to understand the situation facing Chicago neighborhoods and public spaces.

Wilkerson called the two neighborhoods “a simulcast version of blue-collar America,” both “are churchgoing, workaday neighborhoods made up of people who put in overtime to pay the bills, who curse drugs and dandelions with equal indignation and who dream of a better life and maybe even college for their children.

“The chief difference between the two is that Mount Greenwood is white and Roseland is black. They are separated by two miles, a highway and fear and suspicion so deep that many people in one community would not dare set foot in the other.”

That was 1992. Things changed. Roseland’s fortunes declined, Mount Greenwood’s grew.

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Across the street from the hibernating community garden beds are single family homes on Wallace Ave.

Single family homes line the 10400 South block of Wallace Ave, most of which have bars on their windows and doors. The only bars I saw in Mount Greenwood were Irish. There small businesses seemed to stand shoulder to shoulder up and down 111th St. In contrast, from 103rd and Wallace going east, stores and storefront churches punctuated the vacant lot landscape, offering toothless grins. On our way to the park, we saw more than a half-dozen yellow-vested Safe Passage workers, protecting children as they walk to nearby Langston Hughes Elementary School.

The racial wealth gap between the two areas became a canyon, carved out by decades of disinvestment, job loss and mass incarceration fueled by the war on drugs.

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Wilkerson wrote that in 1980, Mount Greenwood’s and Roseland’s median household income were relatively close at $21,996 and $18,540 respectively.

“But as manufacturing jobs waned nationwide and service jobs predominated, Mount Greenwood profited. Its median income nearly doubled to $40,226 in 1990, according to Census Bureau figures. Roseland’s rose at about half that rate to $28,601,” Wilkerson wrote.

“When inflation is taken into account, Roseland’s families were in effect making $2,700 less a year in 1990 than they were in 1980. Mount Greenwood’s families were making $5,097 more.”

By 2017, the divide had grown exponentially with Mount Greenwood’s median household income in the 60655 zip code at a whopping $94,524 and Roseland’s in the 60628 zip code at $38,206.

While Mount Greenwood’s median household income growth exceeded the inflation rate, Roseland’s fell drastically.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator, $28,000 in 1990 has the same buying power as $53,371 in 2017, and $40,000 in 1990 is equal to $76,245 in 2017 dollars.

Roseland’s median income is some $15,000 lower than what is needed to keep up with inflation. Mount Greenwood’s is more than $18,000 above the amount needed to keep up with inflation.

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“It’s not even past”

On top of the economics, the city’s culture of white supremacy weighs heavy on the necks of the living. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner.

In 1947, the Chicago Housing Authority attempted to integrate one of its projects in Roseland. Eight African American families moved into veterans’ housing in the predominantly white Fernwood Park neighborhood. A violent mob action resulted which lasted for three days. More than 1,000 police officers were mobilized to control the white mobs. They did little to restore order. Gangs of whites pulled Blacks out of streetcars and automobiles and beat them. At least 35 Black people were wounded, according to reports.

Racial segregation is deep, real and palpable. Ronna and I felt it as we made our way into the Fernwood Park parking lot and walked into the field house. For me, it felt like we were breaking an unwritten law, crossing the invisible walls of segregation.

Despite the hard-won gains of the civil rights and Black power movements, including the election of Barack Obama as president, the cake of custom for most Black people is separate and unequal. For white people, it’s separate and privileged. I felt like an intruder breaking and entering. Even though I knew we would be welcomed as guests, I also anticipated a wariness.

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Fernwood Park pool from the zero depth ramp.

Finding the locker room

The first hurdle we had to overcome was finding the locker room entrance. We walked through the two long hallways looking for a locker room sign. Luckily two women arrived as we were searching and led us to it. The entrance is in the woman’s bathroom. Somehow we missed it. Duh.

We walked into the locker room. It was already a buzz with women getting ready for the senior swim, showering, changing, catching up with one another. The modest and spotless locker room pulsed with life. This was a vibrant community of water lovers.

Needless to say, they were surprised to see us. We introduced ourselves and told those who were interested about our journey to visit all the park pools. I didn’t notice anyone using a lock for their locker. I didn’t either.

A tall woman walked in with kicky ankle boots. She introduced herself, “I’m Cora.” She stood on one leg as she brought the other up so she could unzip her boots. She gently balanced herself with her hand on the wall as she took off her footwear. She caught me admiring her spryness. “I’m 83,” she said. “Swimming keeps us all young,” I replied.

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Meeting the mayor and sheriff of Fernwood pool

Cora walked into the shower room and brought out a woman to introduce to us. “This is Rosa. She’s the mayor and the sheriff of Fernwood pool.” Rosa told us if we wanted to take the aqua zumba class we had to sign the sheet on the table to the right once we walked into the pool. We followed her directions, even though we weren’t planning on taking the class.

When we walked into the pool, there were at least a dozen women on one side of the pool following Mayor Rosa in aerobic warm ups. There were only a couple of lap swimmers. The lane lines weren’t out so Ronna and I swam along the black lines on the bottom.

We introduced ourselves to the lifeguards, two young men, one white, one Latino. John, who is white, led the zumba class, lumbering through all the steps. Just before the music started, a woman named Connie got in the pool with her fins and kickboard. She said she takes swim lessons there and had to practice. The adult-learn-to-swim class, she said, is popular.

Ronna and I wound up doing about 15 minutes of zumba. Cora saddled up to me and we asked her where was a good place to eat. She said she goes over to Western Ave. I asked her about a restaurant I had heard about on Michigan Ave. and 111th. She said she didn’t know of any place to eat over there and warned us. “Please don’t go there,” she said. “They took a lady the other night and cut her throat.” She motioned her hand to her throat.

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Before we left the pool, Cora teased me about doing flip turns. “You’re a real Olympian,” she said. We put our foreheads together like an affectionate mind-meld. She told us everyone thinks we are some kind of inspectors with the park district. I told that to Ronna later. We laughed because we’re just a couple of Joe Schmoes. We are the real “nobodies who nobody sent.” I couldn’t help but think of the function racism plays on this micro-level, fostering suspicion from decades of being on the receiving end of white supremacy.

Back in the locker, as we changed, we started talking to Jeanne about swimming and the lovely community they had at Fernwood. She said there is something special about water. “It’s rejuvenating,” she said. I told her I’d send this blog when I finally wrote it.

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Thank you Harold Washington!

The beautiful Zero Depth, 6 lane, 25 yard pool is kept immaculate. Water was clean. Decks clear of equipment, grit and puddles. No garbage on the bottom of the pool, like we saw at Mount Greenwood’s.

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Next to the zero depth ramp sits a sprinkler made up of colorful pipes. It’s a popular summertime feature. You could almost hear the shouts of delight the children must make as they run through it, and the scent of barbeque rose up in my olfactory imagination as I spied an oil drum grill resting next to the wall in the pool’s outside storage space.

Fernwood has a relatively new pool and fieldhouse, not like the almost 100-year-old field houses of Portage Park, although the park has a history older than Portage Park’s. The Chicago Park District site says the original fieldhouse was replaced with a modern one in the mid-1980s, and the natatorium was added in 1996.

I remembered one of the big issues of Harold Washington’s campaign in 1983 was fairness in park funding. Parks in predominantly African American and Latino districts were starved for resources while parks in predominantly white areas received a seeming abundance.

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The Hammerheads is the age group team at Fernwood Park. Cool connections: One of the members of Chicago Swedish Fish Masters swim team used to swim for the Hammerheads when he was younger.

I found a July 11, 1986, Chicago Tribune article that seemed to prove my hunch. It described a contentious Chicago Park District meeting where a Washington-controlled park board was deciding whether to approve funding to build new fieldhouses in three parks. Fernwood was listed as one of those parks. It was controversial because one of the other parks was in a majority white ward of a notorious anti-Washington ward boss.

A little background: Harold Washington was elected mayor in April 1983, becoming the first Black mayor of Chicago. After the bruising and brutal campaign against him, 29 aldermen, led by two Edwards, Ald. Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrydolyak and Ald. Edward Burke, continued their racist politics, attempting to cling to power by opposing every proposal and nomination the mayor made. It was dubbed “Council Wars.”

(To get a sense of the fight, imagine a city council opposing everything Lori Lightfoot put forward, including her proposals for city departments and council leadership.)

The 29 relentlessly obstructed the mayor until Washington’s allies won the majority of City Council seats during a special election on March 18, 1986. Washington could finally move forward with his progressive and equity-based program for the city without the power-hungry (and prison-bound) Eds’ obstructions.

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Photos of Mayor Harold Washington, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and President Barack Obama hang on the wall above the Ware Ranch Steak House wait staff station, next to the grill.

However, a third “Ed,” stood in the way: Edmund Kelly, superintendent of the Chicago Park District, and a man cut from the same racist machine cloth as the other two Eds. Kelly ran the park district like his own private fiefdom. Showering northside parks with resources while forcing south and westside parks to go without. It was going to take a big fight to unseat the comfortably ensconced Kelly who had been at the park district for 39 years.

Luckily, in addition to winning the special election, Washington had another big assist from the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1982, the DOJ sued the Chicago Park District alleging racial discrimination in the allocation of park resources. After a federal investigation, the park district entered into a consent decree on May 13, 1983, with the federal government.

Among the remedies the decree had authorized were new funding formulas with 65 percent going to Black and Latino neighborhood parks and 35 percent to white neighborhood parks.

The 1983 agreement allowed Kelly to deny any guilt and kept him as park boss. But Kelly soon saw the political handwriting on the wall after the 1986 special election. He resigned his position in July 1986, the same month as the meeting run by Washington allies that took up funding Fernwood Park, as part of the consent decree.

A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into electing Washington and winning equitable park funding. The TLC the community puts into Fernwood Park keeps that legacy alive.

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Ware Ranch Steak House on the east side of Michigan Ave., just south of 111th.

Where to eat?

After we walked around the park and field house, Ronna and I had to decide where to eat. We talked about Cora’s suggestions to go west to Western, not east to Michigan.

Crime and gun violence plague communities throughout Chicago, but the concentration of poverty, racial inequities, enforced segregation, police misconduct, gangs and the prison-industrial complex make for a perfect storm ravaging black and brown communities. The night before, there was a shooting in Roseland. It makes one pause. Maybe we should take Cora’s advice.

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Ronna holds the hot sauce before she puts it in her coffee…not!

But why? It is outrageous and infuriating that this destructive perfect storm is — like climate change — human-caused. Thousands of people live and work in this area. Children walk to school everyday. It was the morning of a weekday. We decided fear should not be our guide.

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Grits, veggie omelette, steak omelette and hash browns cover my plate.

So we journeyed to Michigan Avenue and found the restaurant in the middle of a commercial block, lined with Black-owned businesses, just south of 111th. We had a wonderful meal at Ware Ranch Steak House, and just down the street from the steak house was the best donut place in the city, Old Fashioned Donuts. We stuffed ourselves with warm, melt-in-your-mouth French crullers, long johns, glazed, chocolate, coconut, fruit-filled donuts.

This is why we swim! You get to consume delicious calories, meet new people, expand our horizons. It was the perfect end to this swim trip.

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Fernwood Park Pool


10436 S. Wallace St.
Chicago, IL 60628

Within: Fernwood Park

Phone Numbers:
Office (312)747–6164

Accessibility Details: Pool Lift, Zero Depth Entry

Pool Depth: 0 ft. — 5 ft.

Pool Size: 25 yards, 6 lanes

Features: Pools, Indoor, ADA Lift, Zero Depth Entry / Ramp

Is Accessible

Parking: Yes. Entrance on east side of park on Union.

Previous Swimming Social blogs:

Swimming Social: Crossing the waters at Portage Park

Swimming Social Pool #1: The Swim Journey Began at Chicago H.S. for Agricultural Sciences

Swimming Social: Chicago has 91 park pools and I’m swimming in all of them

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