When looking at the image above, taken in 1980, one’s attention is first drawn to the sign in the middle that says, “We want a safe clean place to play!” The sign is written in dark letters on a bright white background, with faint smiling stars surrounding the words. It is being held up by two young children, both in bright white tops, one even showcasing Minnie Mouse, and standing among a small crowd of similarly aged children. When imagining a protest located in the Ironbound district of Newark, NJ, a group of such young children might not be the first thought that comes to mind, yet there they were protesting in the middle of summer.
The call to action that brought them together revolved around the closure of a neighborhood necessity in 1979, the Wilson Avenue Bathhouse. When the site first opened in 1917, it provided the neighborhood with facilities to be able to bathe with hot water and also offered a year-round indoor pool. Having a public bathing facility with hot water gave many people in the neighborhood who had lived in homes without hot water the ability to bathe comfortably, and it was widely used. However over time, as homes modernized and people no longer needed to travel to get hot water, the facility became a popular swimming destination for locals. Many families enjoyed the facilities, because it gave children a fun place to swim and get elders a place to get out for some exercise.1
So why did an asset to the community come to the point of closure? Over time, as many well-loved things do, the bathhouse deteriorated, and was never upgraded or maintained properly to keep up with its usage. “This is the fault of the city.” says Joan Pikul, an ironbound resident who wrote into the Ironbound Community Corporation about her perspective of the problem.2 After the building was closed in 1979, it cut the community, specifically children from access to a fun place to play.
Looking back at the image, it is clear that those who are really suffering at the hands of the city choosing to close the bathhouse instead of fixing it up are the children. From the center poster, clearly laying out the demands of the people, our eyes are drawn to the two posters flanking the center one. The right poster, reiterating the goal of the protest “We want our pool”, but the left pulls the viewer out into a greater perspective “We are the future”. By stripping the children of this designated place to play, sets up them to find other outlets of play, which we can see in the other photos, of the children playing in the streets with sprinklers. Although this is solving the problem of the hot summers, they are using hard concrete paved streets which are reserved for cars as a place to play.
From the posters, written all on bright white backgrounds, one’s eyes are carried to the crowd of children holding them, a mix of boys and girls, aged from possibly eleven to six, all smiling and most having colored skin. What sticks out, in a similar manner to the handmade posters, is the one in the back, attached to the fence, with NO glaring in white letters. It is the only sign in the image that has a dark background with a lighter font on top, reading “Emergency NO Trespassing”. Underneath that in dark letters on a light background is “Field is CLOSED until further notice City of Newark”. This marks the stark division in the picture; the children standing in front, divided by a chain link fence from an unkept field with a large building in the background. This shows the intentional separation the city created between the children and public recreation facilities. There is one other prominent poster, located just in front and to the right of the city’s sign, being held up by a few young girls saying “Take time to stop and smell the toxic waste.”
One apparent character that is absent in the image are the parents of the children. Presumably, they are the photographers in this instance, standing behind the camera, calling for the children to look here and smile. This is symbolic of who is affected the most by the closure of the bathhouse, and without seeing the parents beside the children, it exposes the city to confront the weight of their neglect. The only adult in the photo is a figure behind the children, standing on the other side of the fence. The figure is turned away from the children, possibly conducting field work. This shows the separation of adults and children in this fight to reopen the pool, and how he is choosing to look away from the children’s pleas to save the pool. He is ignoring them just the same way the city ignored the community’s wishes. Subsequently after the site was closed, it was not properly closed off and became a desirable place for property destruction and vandalization. Not only did the city take away a community resource, but they formed a site in the city that was unsafe and attracted crime. According to this flier, handed around in 1984, the city officials had reserved $80,000 to repair the pool, however those funds were never invested in the site.3 Instead, the city was then interested in selling the property to private developers to build more housing, something the neighborhood was not keen on seeing more of, since there were already two large condominiums.4
This photo was one among many, taken between 1979, when the building closed, to the mid 1980s, when the property was finally sold, to document this period of community heartbreak. The city chose to prioritize making a profit from private developers over saving a valuable safe space for children and families to enjoy.
1 Joan E. Pikul, letter to the Editor, ‘Bathhouse’ Issue Clarified, Newark, October 14, 1985.
2 Joan E. Pikul, letter to the Editor, ‘Bathhouse’ Issue Clarified, Newark, October 14, 1985.
3 Ironbound Community Corporation, flier, When Can We Swim in Wilson Ave. Pool?, 1984
4 Joan E. Pikul, letter to the Editor, ‘Bathhouse’ Issue Clarified, Newark, October 14, 1985.