Bobbie Townsend vaguely remembers the first time the Board of Education shut down the Dyett Recreation Center’s indoor swimming pool. “They said it would be closed for a little while so they could make some structural repairs,” says Townsend, a south-side community activist. “At least I think that’s why they closed it. That was a long time ago.”

It was in 1996, to be exact. And the pool, at 51st and King, has been closed off and on ever since, as the board moves from one repair project to the next. The current renovation–a costly roof repair–has kept the pool closed since June.

Now the board has given nearby residents even worse news. When the pool reopens–and given the pace of the construction crews, that won’t be any time soon–the community can’t use it. And the community won’t be able to use Dyett’s basketball court or gymnastics room either. “We’ve been waiting all this time for the board to fix our pool, and now they won’t let us use it,” says Townsend. “Isn’t that something? It’s like they’re teasing us–you can look, but you can’t touch.”

So why does the Board of Education have the right to deny the public access to a public pool in a public park that was built with public funds to meet the recreational needs of a sorely underserved south-side community? “Good question,” says Townsend. “And good luck getting a good answer.”

Part of the difficulty stems from the way the rec center was funded back in the early 1970s. At the time, neither the board nor the Park District had the money to build all of the schools and parks they needed. So Mayor Richard J. Daley had the city’s Public Building Commission borrow the money and construct joint projects. Schools–including Clemente and Young high schools–were built near or in parks and connected by walkways or tunnels to separate buildings that had gyms and swimming pools. Joint governing agreements required that, among other things, the board and Park District share the gyms and pools. The schools controlled them during school hours, and the Park District took over in the evenings and on weekends.

That’s how the city built Dyett Middle School and the Dyett Recreation Center, which sit on 51st Street across from Provident Hospital on the northwest corner of Washington Park and are connected by a tunnel. Townsend, who’s a member of Dyett’s local school council and the recreation center’s local advisory board, says, “We never had any problems with the school, and the school never had any problems with us.”

Over the years the rec center became very popular, drawing users from Hyde Park, Washington Park, Grand Boulevard, and other south-side communities. It featured a gymnastics program, as well as basketball leagues for tots, teens, young adults, and seniors. “That center was going all day and night,” says Townsend. “Charlie Brown [the fabled public-league basketball referee] ran a senior citizens’ basketball league here. We also had church leagues and a Sunday men’s club. The dads would play, and their kids would watch. Afterwards they’d do a little barbecue in the park. You even had a circus camp there for the community which the Soul Circus ran when they came to town. I mean, this was a happening place.”

The pool was especially important to the community. “Yeah, there are Ys and health clubs and university pools, but they aren’t open to the public,” says Townsend. “If you can’t pay the fee you can’t get in. But Dyett was open to anyone who wanted to use it. They had swimming lessons there. They had family swims there. The seniors used to come over from Provident Hospital to do their therapy classes.”

In 1991 the joint-governing agreement ended, and the Park District gave the board complete control of Dyett’s rec center. “It was part of a larger series of transactions,” says a Park District official who requested anonymity. “In essence, we traded about eight or nine rec centers for various parcels of board property around the city. I think we also gave them control of the rec center at Clemente and Young high schools in that swap.”

But why would the Park District relinquish control of such valuable centers for next to nothing?

“Well, it’s not as though we got nothing,” says the official. “I mean, we got the parcels of land. But I know what you’re getting at. It does not look like an even swap. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what their thinking was. That was ten years ago. Most of the people around for that deal are long gone. I’m sure they had their reasons. And don’t forget, the board allowed us to continue with some of our programing at these rec centers.”

People who used Dyett claim that basic upkeep deteriorated after the board took control. “The board had no incentive to take great care of Dyett,” says Townsend. “It’s not their mission to run a rec center.” She also contends that the board has actually discouraged community use of Dyett. “Think about it from their perspective,” she says. “The more people who use the center, the greater the wear and tear and the more money they’re going to have to spend on repairs. The board’s not about spending money on a community center. They’re about spending money on schools. To them it’s probably a pain in the neck. In retrospect, it was dumb for the Park District to let the board take control. They’ve certainly done a lousy job of taking care of the pool.”

In July 1996, for instance, the board closed the pool to make those structural repairs. “They told us it would be open in a few months,” says Townsend. Two years later it was still closed. “They told us that they would go out for bids in January of 1998,” says Robin Kaufman, a Hyde Park community activist, “but they didn’t finish the project until the fall of ’98.”

By the summer of 1999 the pool was closed again. “This time I think they were having pump problems,” says Kaufman. The pool stayed closed until this past spring. In June it closed again, after the board said the roof needed to be fixed–a long and costly project that could take months to complete.

The residents say only one good thing came from all these problems–they brought together a wide assortment of south-side activists from different organizations, including ACTS Isaiah, a faith-based group. To the activists, the problems at Dyett were the result of larger inequities in the city’s recreational programs. Poring over Park District program guides, they discovered that the Dyett pool was the only public indoor swimming pool between the Loop and 71st Street and east of the Dan Ryan–an area that’s home to about 240,000 people. In contrast, the Park District has seven public indoor pools between Division and Howard and east of the Chicago River, which works out to about one pool for every 84,000 people. “How can they justify such a discrepancy? How can they allow it to persist?” says Linda Thisted, a member of ACTS Isaiah. “You’d think the Park District would do everything they could to rectify it. They are writing off an entire section of Chicago.”

Over the last few years Thisted, Kaufman, Townsend, and their allies have become regulars at board and Park District meetings. For the most part, they say, school and park officials have given them the runaround. “The Park District tells us we have to talk to the board ’cause it’s a board facility, and the board will tell us to talk to the Park District ’cause it’s a Park District program,” says Rahsaan Clark Morris, a member of ACTS Isaiah. “Then the Park District started telling us, ‘Well, not as many people are using that pool.’ Well of course usership’s down–the damn thing’s never open. You can’t get used to using a pool if it’s only open every once in a while.”

A few years ago rumors began to spread that the board planned to close the community center altogether. That was when schools CEO Paul Vallas announced his plan to convert King High School, at 4445 S. Drexel, into a college-prep school. To meet the needs of local high school students who would be displaced, Vallas converted Dyett from a middle school to a high school. “A high school has more after-school sports programs than a middle school,” says Townsend. “It has more teams and more competitions. When Vallas announced that Dyett was going to become a high school, we realized that the community might lose access to the recreation center.”

So Townsend and her allies began fighting the board on a new front. “We weren’t so much worried about the repairs as what would happen after the repairs,” she says. “Vallas assured us that the rec center would be open to the community, but we didn’t believe him. We thought this was just a line he was giving us to get us off his back.”

Sure enough, this August the Park District announced that it was, as one bureaucrat put it, “pulling out of Dyett.” According to Kim Bailey, the Park District’s southeast region manager, the Park District had no choice but to leave, since the board can do what it wants with its buildings. “The board made it clear that they would use the space until after six in the evening, because they wanted to participate in high school sports,” she says. “They offered us an opportunity to use the gym on weekends, but from a staffing standpoint or a personnel standpoint it would be very difficult to operate programs out of Dyett.”

Bailey says, “We’re not renegotiating our lease agreement with the Board of Education regarding Dyett.” But she does say the Park District is negotiating an agreement with the board to let residents swim at King’s pool. There’s only one problem–that pool’s closed for repairs. “We understand the board’s hoping to have it opened sometime soon,” she says. “You should talk to the board for more specifics.” (Board spokesmen did not return phone calls.)

“It’s like a bad joke–they say, ‘Go to King,’ but the King pool is closed,” says Townsend. “Let’s say they do fix it. How do we know the board won’t just kick us out in a few years from there? I mentioned this to someone at the Park District, and they said, ‘Go to Washington Park.’ But that’s an outdoor pool. What, black people only swim in the summer?”

Not surprisingly, the rec center has lost much of its vibrancy over the past few years. The gymnastics programs and the basketball leagues have moved or disbanded. Two of the center’s windows are broken, and clumps of trash lie on the floor. The pool is still drained and cluttered with scaffolding. The board says repairs should be completed in the spring, but the only signs of work-related activity on a recent Tuesday afternoon were two construction workers drinking coffee. “We’re just going to have to keep on pushing,” says Townsend. “I think there should be at least one indoor public pool on the south sideâ don’t you?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.