Navigating needles and broken glass to go for a swim? Welcome to Philadelphia’s Badlands

Imagine being a young person.

It’s hot out. You decide to make the trek on foot five, six, seven blocks or more to the nearest city swimming pool to cool off from the blistering mid-summer heat, only to be turned away because you don’t have the proper swimwear.

Not only that, but you don’t even have shoes.

Philadelphia’s “Badlands” neighborhood carries with it a long reputation for open-air drug markets and rampant violence. Kensington Avenue, the main drag, is a hodgepodge of Chinese take-out joints, pawn shops and check-cashing places. You don’t need the photos of the random mattresses, hypodermic needles and trash-strewn streets to tell you it’s rough.

Here, however, is a section of the city where hundreds of kids flock every summer to the only pool in their area to get cool, feel some relief and, in many cases, stay out of trouble when it is often tempting them.

No responsible parent would want their child, accompanied by an older sibling or an adult, walking through this neighborhood without shoes on their way to the city pool. Yet, many do. Last summer, one man with a gentle heart saw a real need and stepped in.

Edwin Desamour has been a Philadelphia Parks & Recreation staffer for about three years. He adopted the role of teen liaison at Waterloo Playground Pool in the so-called Badlands, and it was not long before he began noticing kids coming to the pool with no shoes. In some cases, they had no bathing suits either. Last summer, on his own dime, he bought a bunch of flip-flops and made them available to the kids at Waterloo.

“Waterloo is in the heart of that opioid epidemic area and…kids were walking through there barefooted, or in some type of slippers that were not in the best shape,” he said.

Despite the neighborhood’s reputation, Desamour said that there are good people in that area, so he began digging into his own pockets because he wanted to support them.

“Some of these kids have no other place to go, and that swimming pool is really the hub of that community,” he said. “When you have kids walking from six or seven blocks away just to make it to the swimming pool, many of them don’t want to take their sneakers. They don’t want to take the chance of losing [them], so they go swimming and leave them behind…and sometimes, by the time they get to the rec center, we have to make sure we have Band-Aids and some of the equipment ready because they may have stepped on glass or ‘I think I stepped on a needle’ or they need a break and go sit in the shade because they’ve burnt their feet on the walk.”

Desamour’s testimonials and others like his helped precipitate the first-ever citywide swimwear drive, which is now underway. The Parks & Recreation Department celebrated the opening of its first pool Monday. The campaign, dubbed “Suit Up for Summer,” is driven by the mission of making sure no child is turned away at the gate because they are improperly prepared for the pool.

The city regulates a dress code when entering pools. Cotton T-shirts, for example, are a no-no, because the fabric can clog the filtration system. Jeans are unacceptable in the water. Bathing suits must have the proper lining, and so on.

“The lifeguards, in doing their duty, are turning these kids away, but we don’t want to see that as a barrier for young people who may not have the means to purchase the appropriate swimwear to be rejected at the door and not being able to use the pool — which is what it was intended for — to cool down during the summer,” said Orlando Rendon, Deputy Commissioner for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

Philadelphia is accepting youth and adult bathing suits of all sizes, swim diapers, flip flops, beach towels, goggles and shorts of all sizes. Donations must be new and unused, with the tags still on.

Rendon said the city hires roughly 800 seasonal employees who deal with pools, including 400 lifeguards, and there is always a need for more workers.

Monday marked the start of summer swim season with the opening of the first public pool at Bridesburg, which recently underwent a renovation. City pools will now open on a staggered schedule.

By helping out in this way, Desamour said, young people can enjoy themselves naturally.

“Our kids can be anywhere, getting into anything, and people don’t understand or underestimate the swimming pool and how it keeps our youth busy and also keeps them being kids instead of worrying about the issues in that community — the trauma, the dangers, the drugs, the violence that plagues certain areas,” he said. “They can laugh, play, splash, jump in the pool and have a good time and forget about what they may be dealing with at home. Being able to walk there and feel comfortable would be great.”

Monetary donations to the swimwear drive can be made here.



The rollout for city pools happens all week. In fact, the pool near you might already be ready to go.







    • A writer, educator, and sports nut, Aaron Kahle was born in Philadelphia where his fondest memories are drives around the different parts of the city with his aunt as a kid. South Philly and Center City are two of his favorite spots in town. When he’s not writing, Aaron is watching sports. Fly, Eagles, fly!

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