Rest, Relaxation & Race Part 3:“Draining Our Pool: The Allure of City Park”

by | Mar 3, 2022

Don’t miss part 1 and part 2 of this series.

You can guess what followed the extreme government divestment of the late 50s and 60s:

  • Worsening schools.
  • Low-paying jobs.
  • Few healthy places to live.
  • Almost no places to recreate.

The traumatic conditions spiraled people deeper into poverty, untreated mental health, crimes of desperation, and substance abuse as self-medication. All these problems persist at crisis levels in every town across America, but now even white Americans suffer from these disinvestment-related afflictions. White Americans now receive most social services and keenly understand how poorly funded and inefficiently operated they can be.

Everyone now walks by the once-fantastic city amenities that were privatized to preserve segregation or became blighted when municipal maintenance funds shrunk dramatically or dried up altogether after integration became the law of the land in 1964. From that year on, we’ve witnessed a devastatingly slow motion, a one-two punch that has both concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty. The inequality we wrought upon ourselves is so vast that our democracy and economy now struggle to work efficiently for anyone.

In her book, McGhee uses the example of magnificent public pools built as Public Works projects through the early 20th century. After integration, white citizen riots ensued when Black citizens tried to enjoy these spaces, so these stunning pools were swiftly privatized, drained, or filled rather than serve a united population. Did Norfolk have flourishing, impressive public spaces that were shuttered, stubbornly separated, or downgraded?

Indeed, there are lessons from our history about how we collectively and economically benefited by prioritizing investments in human comfort, leisure, and joy. Soon after integration, many public pools were sold for $1 and privatized, or the city developed new pool clubs for white citizens. I needed to satisfy my intrepid curiosity about the inception of our own beloved neighborhood pool club. It was still somehow shocking to see the founding date on the page.

You guessed it: 1964.

IV. Historical Leisure In Norfolk: City Park

My journey into our city’s leisure past started with old postcards. As a teenager in Myrtle Beach, SC, I grew up walking the beach boulevard with friends and riding oceanfront amusement park attractions. I squeezed through shelves in the rambling interior of the Gay Dolphin Beachwear Store—a perfectly preserved relic of the 1950s; stuffed to the gills with vintage souvenirs like salt and rust spotted button pins with the slogans of golden times gone. My favorites, though, were the braided seagrass baskets full of stale, unsorted, irreverent old postcards, highlighting the best (and most stereotypical) parts of our beach town. What were Norfolk’s most historically postcard-worthy spaces, the ones so lovely that a visitor would purchase a memento of it to mail or keep?

I started digging up images from Norfolk’s days of yore. There began my exploration into the complete history of City Park, also known as Lafayette Park: the home of Norfolk’s zoo. The delicately colored-in postcard images of the original City Park are breathtaking. The space is what Norfolk city historian Peggy Haile McPhillips described as a “breathing spot of the people of the city” looking to take a “sedate stroll along beautifully landscaped paths.”

City Park sat on the Eastern boundary of Park Place, a planned streetcar suburb developed in the 1890s for white citizens, using mostly affordable, Craftsman-style kit homes. The epicenter of Park Place was the bustling, entertainment-filled 35th Street thoroughfare, which guided citizens toward the stunning, formal gardens of City Park. This vast 114-acre oasis ended on the shores of the Lafayette River. The city planted one thousand trees, and the first public concerts began in 1901. It enjoyed new government investment for decades, including the animal exhibits that ultimately became the Virginia Zoo—all at no cost to local white citizens.

No wonder there were postcards. It was a magnificent space any city would be enormously proud to showcase.


Kayce White

West Ghent, NFK

Kayce White is a community organizer and advocate passionate about creating unique conversations via artistic and inventive mediums, with the goal of engaging citizens in important local and national civic issues.

Raised in Myrtle Beach, SC, Kayce and her family happily washed ashore in Norfolk after 11 years in Brooklyn, NY. They found a true home for their two little boys and two black cats in West Ghent, where Kayce now heads up the civic league’s safety committee. By day, she runs her sustainable home goods brand HAVEN®.

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