Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
When space and water are commodities, pools are a proxy for wealth.
Peering out over Los Angeles from an airplane window, it’s hard to miss the swimming pools. Hundreds of thousands of sparkling blue blobs patch the county’s landscape—though not evenly.
In Southern California, where both space and water are getting rarer by the day, pool ownership rates are a “decent proxy for neighborhood wealth,” writes the journalist and mapmaker Ken Schwencke, who has mapped this familiar story of chlorinated class politics at the data-visualization site The Thrust. Visitors can click and roam endlessly through aerial views of L.A. pools (thinking, maybe, of John Cheever’s famous short story, “The Swimmer,” which forever linked suburban pools with delusions of class hierarchy.)
Sifting through statistics from the L.A. County Assessor’s Office, Schwencke found that L.A. county contains roughly 250,000 swimming pools, 96 percent of which are attached to single-family homes. All told, 18 percent of homes countywide have a pool, and most of them are in more affluent suburban areas, such as the Hollywood Hills and the large swathes of the San Fernando Valley. Schwencke tells CityLab via email that fully 87 percent of homes in Hidden Hills (home to the Kardashians) have pools, while Bel Air and Beverly Hills are at 66 and 60 percent, respectively. But in neighborhoods south and east of downtown L.A., such as MacArthur park and Vermont Vista, ”you can go for blocks without seeing a private pool,” Schwencke writes. “Some of the ones that [do exist], are filled with refuse.”
Pool ownership isn’t just about money; it’s also about race. Across the country, desegregation played an important role in the rise of private swimming pools after 1950, as the historian Jeff Wiltse argues in his 2007 book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America:
Although many whites abandoned desegregated public pools, most did not stop swimming. Instead, they built private pools, both club and residential, and swam in them … . Suburbanites organized private club pools rather than fund public pools because club pools enabled them to control the class and racial composition of swimmers, whereas public pools did not.
It would be even better if Schwencke’s map tool included more data on income and racial make-up in pool-dense and pool-sparse neighborhoods across L.A. But virtually diving in and out of the county’s swimming spots still makes for a powerful exercise. Also check out the map of L.A. pool density that Schwencke shared with CityLab, at top.