Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or so the old adage goes. That certainly seems to be the case for residents of Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, who recently celebrated the return of a much-loved attraction to their community.

It was 1979 when the People’s Pool originally opened its doors. The indoor swim center, which was roughly 10 years in the making, featured two diving boards and six 25-yard swim lanes. Along with an adjacent community center, this site was frequented by those who lived and worked in the area.

People's Pool Grand Opening
Chris Jordan, celebrated Tacoma artist of Fab-5 fame, created a mural celebrating diversity in the Hilltop community that was revealed during the opening celebration. Photo courtesy: MetroParks Tacoma.

This popular gathering place was a sweet spot to cool off on hot days and offered a great opportunity for young people to learn to swim, but it was more than just a rec center. For Hilltop residents in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the project was also the fruit of a freshly forged partnership between city officials and community members. It was following the Mother’s Day riot of 1969 that the People’s Pool was first proposed, an improvement to the community that was suggested during a period of healing after law enforcement and neighbors clashed violently.

Neighbors worked closely with the City Council from 1969 to 1979 in order to strengthen the relationship between residents and public servants. This site was proposed, voted for and eventually built as a result of that positive collaboration.

In 2008, MetroParks Tacoma was forced to close the People’s Pool after serious structural problems were discovered. Moisture and corrosive pool chemicals had compromised the building’s roof and walls, making it a hazard for swimmers and requiring repairs that simply weren’t in the city’s budget. For many years, city leaders batted around ideas as to what should be built where the community pool once stood. A public park, gym or basketball court were among their top contenders for a replacement, but concerned neighbors had something else in mind.

People's Pool Dedication
See the just-desserts of an exemplary collaboration between citizens and city government at the state-of-the-art People’s Pool in Tacoma. Photo courtesy: MetroParks Tacoma.

Hilltop citizens aligned quickly to express their need for a replacement pool. Fletcher Jenkins, a longtime member and president of the steering committee, attests to the overwhelming public consensus that just another outdoor place to play was not going to fit the bill.

MetroParks’ Michael Thompson remembers touching stories that came to light during town halls and public forums over the past 10 years, many of which were a huge factor in securing this massive building contract. “Fletcher Jenkins spoke about a young man who proposed to hold a bake sale or sell lemonade to raise money. There were so many people willing to hold car washes or help find a way to show their city leaders how important this project was to them.”

Constituents were instrumental in reviving the People’s Pool, but community stakeholders played a huge part in making this dream a reality as well. MetroParks Tacoma, in charge of managing the center, contributed $1.7 million toward the initiative. The City of Tacoma guided construction work and owns the facility, chipping in $5.3 million. The Washington State Department of Commerce also contributed roughly half a million dollars worth of funding.

The fruits of all that labor were finally savored on September 24, 2016, when MetroParks welcomed neighbors to the People’s Pool grand opening ceremony with much fanfare. Spirits were high and the mood was jubilant for the hundreds that came to the ribbon cutting, and more lined up to tour the facility and be part of the inaugural swim crowd.

People's Pool
The People’s Pool offers regular swim sessions as well as lessons, exercise classes and lap swim times with no membership necessary. Photo courtesy: MetroParks Tacoma.

If public opinion is any indication, the People’s Pool has been worth the seven-year wait. The water is always fine thanks to regulated temperature, which is kept at an inviting 85 degrees for year-round swims. Floor-to-ceiling windows along the pool’s South 17th Street side fill the room with stunning natural light. While the first swim center had lighting that would have been fitting for a hidden underground lair, the open quality of this brightly lit atmosphere is one of its most striking features today.

An L-shaped pool complete with three lanes offers plenty of space to practice laps, and the indoor spraypad—the only one in Tacoma—is a popular attraction for kids of all ages. Traction flooring provides a slip-free surface that’s safe for even the smallest swimmers, and an inventive design makes this attraction almost as much fun to admire as it is to play in.

In the end, a basketball court of sorts did find its way into the People’s Pool plan. Two side-by-side poolside hoops keep kids and adults busy with a friendly half-court game in between laps. For the more adventurous, floating pads like you might find at a water park bring a walk-on-water element to pool-goers. Anchored beneath a cargo net, these pads are playfully shaped to look like lily pads or log slices and allow the more intrepid travelers a shortcut that takes them from one end of the pool to the other.

Public pool Tacoma
Walk-on-water lily pads, an indoor spraypad and channel current are some of the modern features the new People’s Pool offers swimmers. Photo courtesy: MetroParks Tacoma.

For adults, a favorite feature is the current channel. The water circulation mimics the flow of running water, offering an outdoor element to indoor play. There’s a high-velocity vortex pool as well as the current, and both offer a useful tool for physical or occupational therapy.

The pool meets all Americans with Disabilities Act standards, too. It is equipped with a poolside lift and a set of closely spaced, parallel railings to ease entry and exit via stairs.

A passive swim area and submerged bench offers a great place for vigilant parents to spectate their splashing kiddos comfortably. Stair steps lead to shallow swimming areas that are just right for introductory lessons and new swimmers, and a relatively shallow depth in general offers an enjoyable experience for wading or laps. Renovated locker rooms and two family changing stations offer plenty of space for families to change, safely store their essentials and shower off.

Kids at People's Pool Tacoma
Floor-to-ceiling windows along the pool’s South 17th Street side fill the room with stunning natural light, and 85-degree water offers an inviting place to swim all year long. Photo courtesy: MetroParks Tacoma.

Private rooms offer up a convenient place to throw a party for your favorite swimmer. Prices vary, and can be scheduled during open swim sessions during evenings and afternoons. Private parties are available over the weekends as well, and include the use of a large room, convenient access to the pool and VIP status of having a space all to yourself.

Serving the Hilltop community and central Tacoma at large, the People’s Community Center offers a little something for people of all ages. Visit this state-of-the-art pool, experience a footnote in the history of civil rights and see the just-desserts of an exemplary collaboration between citizens and city government at this new facility located on South 17th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

People’s Pool & Community Center
People’s Community Center and Pool
1602 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Way
Tacoma, WA 98405
253-591-5321

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