Colman Pool, at the very southwest corner of the city, is something that could only exist in Seattle. That statement is partly boosterism—Colman Pool is rad—but also something of an indictment. Only Seattle would want or feel the need for this pool, I think.
After all, Colman Pool is only a few hundred feet from some of the best beaches in the Northwest. Those beaches have black or gray sand and a perfect crescent arc. You can see massive weather systems swirl around the Olympic Mountains on a sunny day, as ferries ply the water, arriving and departing from the nearby dock. Sometimes you can see orcas or eagles going about their business. The whole thing is disgustingly picturesque.
The trouble is, those beaches are on Puget Sound, which is an inlet of the North Pacific, and therefore cold. Temperatures in the lower branch of the Salish Sea rarely go above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and are typically much lower, which is a real problem if you don’t feel inclined to catch hypothermia during a swim.
So, since they didn’t want to go swimming in the ocean, the industrious residents of Seattle decided to do the next best thing. They built a swimming pool next to the ocean, pumped ocean water into it, and kept it heated at 85 degrees. It was a stroke of genius. Bizarre genius, but genius nonetheless.
It’s a very pleasant swimming experience. You float more easily than in a chlorinated fresh water pool, because of the water’s higher density. The water is the perfect temperature, and it’s not treated as heavily as other public pools. It’s very refreshing.
When you visit Colman Pool, you take in a visual metaphor for the whole Seattle project: a modern, thriving city cut into rugged and hostile conditions. With beautiful summers. Colman Pool is a classically American thing—a public pool—positioned on the edge of a forest, made up of massive conifers, growing out of a steep, tall hill, with views of mountains pushed up from the edge of the continental shelf. It’s a simple example of extreme hubris, one of the more benign end results of the colonization of the northwest by white people.
Of course, it was a lot more literal back in the day, when Colman Pool opened to the public, or, rather, white people, in the late 1920s. Like most public pools of the era in the United States, Colman Pool wasn’t open to anyone who didn’t fit the contemporary definition of whiteness. That changed in the 1940s, when the civil rights movement got under way here and nationally, but the vintage of Colman Pool brings the bad old days to mind.
Now, on the good side, Colman Pool is open to everyone, and everyone takes advantage of it. Kids of color from White Center and Burien and the rest of the Highline region get in cannon ball contests with white kids from the northern tip of West Seattle, and get busted for it by a young and diverse set of teenage lifeguards who are very concerned with flirting with one another, as the parents try to get some time to relax on a deck chair and read for once by themselves, just one minute by themselves, one precious, tiny minute, please. It’s a beautiful thing.
When I last visited, this past weekend, I was reading Zadie Smith’s “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” which is about our resignation to and idleness about global warming and climate change. I idly wondered, as I ate some chips and guacamole, whether the heating, acid Pacific would one day bring its daily tides to the edge of the pool deck, and wash into the basin, rendering the whole thing somewhat pointless. Then I ate another chip and forgot about it until now, which pretty much proved Zadie right.
Another thing: Colman Pool has a giant waterslide, and it is so, so cool.
Also published on Medium.