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Residents must step up to keep pool safe

June 28, 2008|SANDY BANKS

The long list of rules posted at my neighborhood public pool seems to outlaw everything except Marco Polo:

No running on the deck. No climbing or jumping from fences or lifeguard structures. No foul or abusive language.

No horseplay, wrestling, dunking, pulling, pushing or splashing in the water. No snapping towels, playing throwing games or horse-and-rider.

No smoking, eating, drinking. No swim equipment or toys. No street clothes. No shoes.

That same set of rules governs every Los Angeles Recreation and Parks pool. But a bunch of knucklehead young men in Watts didn't get the memo.

On Sunday at the city's 109th Street Pool, they were running, wrestling, splashing, dunking, using foul language and swimming in street shorts. And when the pool manager intervened, they punched him, then tossed him, a locker room attendant and the lifeguard into the water.

The lifeguard? The closest thing to God at a public pool? That's unfathomable to me.

The Watts pool has been a management headache for years. It has armed guards and security cameras. Plywood barriers have been erected along the roof of its locker room building to keep swimmers from launching themselves off it and into the pool. Still, overcrowding, gang tensions and bands of unruly teens have made it such a dangerous place that many local families steer clear. Now, most of its visitors are youths from local housing projects.

"It's too ghetto," said Serena Gulley, 23, whose family lives across the street. Too much horseplay, foul language and trash talk among gang members, she said. "They think the rules don't apply to them."

That attitude helped sparked Sunday's attack, first reported by my colleague John Mitchell. The melee started, he wrote, when a group of men in their 20s and 30s went on a rampage after they were asked to leave the cloudy pool temporarily so it could be cleaned.

"They wanted us to know this is their pool, and we just worked there," the pool manager told Mitchell.

I visited the pool Thursday, a day after it reopened. There was an LAPD car parked on the street, two armed city guards patrolling the perimeter and a half-dozen beefy guys in black T-shirts hired to keep order. I counted about 50 people -- mostly young boys -- swimming, but the pool is so small, even that seemed crowded.

I could imagine what it felt like Sunday, with 200 people jostling for space on one of the hottest days of the year. Add to that the grumbling of adults who were charged $2.50 to enter, then told to wait on the deck while the pool was cleaned.

Donny Joubert, a youth leader at the Nickerson Gardens housing project, on Friday characterized the chaos as horseplay that got out of hand . . . the kind of thing that might be OK in someone's backyard pool but is outlawed on city-run turf.

"The older cats want to throw the kids in the pool, and you can't do that," Joubert told me. They didn't listen when the lifeguard tried to intervene, because "nobody wants to be told nothing."

"So the pool gets closed and nobody swims."

The shutdown disappointed a community proud of its recent drop in crime and its improving relations with police. One local leader argued that the pool should stay closed; it's a liability. Another blamed the melee on too many idle young men. I think Watts-area City Councilwoman Janice Hahn was right to reopen the pool so quickly.

This is a turf battle, not so much between warring gangs, but between residents of an insular housing project and the outsiders who are trying to control a pool that is the summertime gem of their community.

On the same weekend those swimmers in Watts battled pool employees, surfers in Malibu attacked paparazzi who were crowding their beach in search of celebrities.

The surfers think they rule the waves in Malibu. These young men in Watts are trying to rule their only neighborhood pool.

That's a problem that can't be solved by politicians or the Los Angeles Police Department.

"The community has to step up," Joubert said. "We have to give the lifeguards a chance to teach the kids to swim, let families come and enjoy themselves, and be safe and peaceful."

The pool has hired six local residents -- mostly ex-gang members -- to help patrol the pool.

I watched one in action Thursday: When a kid didn't get out of the pool quickly enough, he whacked the boy lightly on the back of the head. The pool emptied in short order.

But keeping kids safe when the pool is open is only the beginning. I got a glimpse of the challenge as I was leaving. The pool had closed, the staff had left.

As I drove away, I could see the locked pool from the street -- crowded with kids. There were a dozen young boys and teens in the water and more streaming over the fence. They were dunking, wrestling, diving into the shallow end. And climbing up the lifeguard tower to jump into the cloudy water, fully-clothed, shoes and all.


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