Soapdish: Pooling Resources in North Avondale

With the sweltering Cincinnati summer making an early appearance this week, the recent announcement that ten city pools would not reopen this year due to budget cuts was even more pronounced.  Memorial Day weekend, the de facto kickoff for the summer swim season, may not be quite so festive in certain corners of our fair city.  This seems to be an annual rite of spring, as the City announces that budget cuts will force the closure of pools, and then some generous benefactor (a la Stan Chesley) steps up to fill the gap.

That said, however, there will apparently be no Chesley bucks in the offing this year.  And in the wake of the pool closures, some may question aloud whether the era of publicly-owned deep water pools, and the attendant costs and insurance issues involved, may be going the way of the dodo, to be replaced by the less costly "spraygrounds" (as exemplified by Yeatman's Cove and the new Washington Park plans). 

But one doesn't necessarily need to rely on a generous benefactor to step up and write a check so city children can frolic in an over-chlorinated concrete rectangle.   For example, word on the street is that fifty households in the East Row Historic District of Newport have been exploring a private swim club for resident members behind the Hannaford condominium building. Those residents would do well to study the model of North Avondale's Clinton Hills Swim Club. 

Clinton Hills Swim Club will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary this weekend with a cocktail party Friday featuring a jazz combo,"lite" bites, and various events on Saturday.  Admission to the party is $25 and open to members and non-members alike. The swim club, nestled atop a verdant, wooded aerie in the heart of the city, is a popular summer retreat for residents and families in North Avondale, as well as the surrounding communities stretching out to Northside and beyond.  Along with tennis courts and volleyball facilities, the club may not offer the types of bells and whistles and cart wheeling clowns seen in suburban water parks, but the success, durability and colorful, free wheeling membership ranks more than make up for a lack of water slides. 

How Clinton Hills got its start, however, is an interesting story of grass roots activism and neighborhood pride in what was then an era of shrinking cities and suburban flight.  Beginning in the late 1950's, according to Peggy Solonick, one of the founding members, unscrupulous real estate agents were canvassing the neighborhood and encouraging families to sell their houses and "get out of North Avondale as fast as they could." The agents painted a rosy picture of suburban post-war "Leave it to Beaver" bliss as contrasted to the creeping urban decay they claimed was at the doorstep.  Many North Avondale residents disregarded such tactics, recognizing that the history and beauty of their city neighborhood could not be replicated in a suburban cul-de-sac.

At this time, swim clubs had opened in Clifton, Wyoming and Anderson.  Solonick contacted the recently opened Clifton Meadows swim club, but was informed that residents of Avondale were "not allowed."  Shortly thereafter, she and her husband Jim, a real estate lawyer for Federated Department Stores, hatched a plan with neighbors Bob and Mimi Katz to launch their own swim club.  As Jim Solonick noted "This was a time when many people were fleeing the close-in suburbs for places farther away from the city.  Part of our motivation for building a swim club was to give those who lived in Avondale another very good reason not to leave."  As a real estate attorney, Solonick negotiated a deal for a tree covered parcel of 14 acres on Clinton Springs..seemingly rural, but just a block or so east of Vine Street, and four or so miles from Fountain Square.

The organizing families then went door to door seeking buy-in from neighborhood families, a stark contrast to the fear being peddled by the real estate agents.  The responses were overwhelming, as 250 families paid $400 each to help fund the acquisition and construction costs.   There were even donors who had no interest in being part of the pool, but just wanted to see the neighborhood preserved, and recognized that providing these types of amenities was a solid way to accomplish that goal.  As Jim Solonick noted, one of the great joys was in "returning those $400 checks every one of the non-swimmers, because we didn't need the money." 

While raising funds for the pool proved to be relatively simple, navigating the turbulent social and cultural currents of the early 1960's provided to be somewhat trickier.  In particular, the issue of integration was first and foremost on many people's minds, and North Avondale, as a middle to upper class neighborhood undergoing integration, was clearly a crucible for the issue.  While the Clinton Hills by-laws contained no such restrictions, there were no African American families on the opening membership roster in 1960.  Children in the neighborhood may have played and gone to school together, but some residents did not want them swimming together.  According to Peggy Solonick, at the time funds were raised to build the pool, "half the people said they would leave if [the pool] was integrated and half said they would leave if it wasn't."  But this type of thinking was rapidly evolving, and after a series of sometimes contentious meetings, the club determined that, ultimately, twice as many members were in favor of integration as opposed it.  As a result, the club became the first privately integrated swim club in the region.

This is in stark contrast to the brouhaha that played out over at Clifton Meadows, where that club, ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, and six years after the color barrier was lifted at Coney Island's Sunlite Pool, dug in its heels and enforced a "white guest only" policy after a child guest was refused entrance.  Lead by then-attorney and now-Federal District Court Judge Arthur Spiegel, a lawsuit was filed against Clifton Meadows seeking to eliminate the "restrictive guest" policy.  Ultimately, after almost five years and several lawsuits, the matter was eventually resolved in a settlement.

All distant history, perhaps. But not so distant that it cannot still inform the present.  Clinton Hills, as well as Clifton Meadows, now provide a distinct, yet inclusive urban oasis for all families in the heart of the city.  This is notable, as commentators have observed recent demographic trends indicating that the suburban flight directions have reversed.  In the wake of the "Great Recession," educated young professionals, the "creative class," as well as families, are eschewing the opportunity to live in a converted corn field in the sprawlburbs in favor of more close-in urban settings. 

Clinton Hills, which was founded 50 years ago in response to the original suburban flight, remains ready and willing to accept the offspring of the former residents who fled the city in the first place….and, ironically enough, lead to the club's creation. 

The circle is complete. Now jump in the pool.

For more information on Clinton Hills go here.

Photography by Scott Beseler @ Clinton Hill Swim Club
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.