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What does a pool mean?

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As Missoula’s masses search for relief from one of the hottest summers on record, Missoula’s aquatics parks have become the hottest spots in town, or better yet, the coolest. Most of us, however, never pause in our splashing to think about the importance, or the history, of the swimming pool. But Jeff Wiltse does, so much so that he dedicated his doctoral dissertation to the social history of these forgotten icons. Wiltse’s study was recently published in book form as Contested Waters.

From their origins as bathhouses through desegregation, racial integration, and the eventual cultural shift toward private pools, Wiltse traces pool history into the current craze of entertainment-oriented water parks, such as Splash Montana.

“The general trend has been for cities to fund water parks with lots of different play apparatuses that really provide entertainment for children in particular,” Wiltse says. But facilities intended for entertainment and exercise, he says, aren’t as useful as community space, and though Missoulians are threatening suit over their promised lap pool, Wiltse thinks we’re thinking too small.

Picture this: a giant, foot-shaped swimming pool larger than a football field, in which 10,000 people happily mingle in the water together, and 10,000 more sit watching on the sidelines, tanning on artificial sandy beaches and lawns. The “leisure resort” of yesteryear was a “vital and vibrant community space,” Wiltse says, a social melting pot where adults who grew up going to the pool would bring their children and spend the whole day, meeting people in the community and diminishing class distinctions.

Alas, the good old-fashioned municipal pool is in danger of extinction. Without those unique centers of visual intimacy and prolonged and charged interaction, adults are left high and dry for places to socialize and play.

If the history of swimming pools piques your interest, Wiltse will be at Fact & Fiction on Fri., Aug. 3, at 7 PM for a discussion of his  book, where you can learn all about it.

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