‘Funeral’ marks closure of Berkeley high’s warm water pool

Oksana Yurovsky/Staff
Community members gather around warm water pool at Berkeley High School Wednesday evening to hold a mock funeral.

To recognize the closure of Berkeley High School’s warm water pool, roughly 40 people gathered for a “funeral” Wednesday evening to express their discontent at losing the facility, which is set to have its last day of operation Thursday.

The pool  —  which city residents have fought to keep open for years — will be demolished next summer as a part of a renovation effort led by the Berkeley Unified School District to add more classrooms and gymnasium space to the high school campus. Plans to close the pool have been consistently surrounded by debate, with the pool’s users saying the warm water pool provides unparalleled benefits for the elderly and the disabled.

Wednesday’s event was organized by the Berkeley Pools Campaign — an organization founded in 2009 to advocate for swimmers who use the city’s municipal pools — and featured an imitation coffin decorated with candles and flowers being lowered into the pool while an ordained rabbi sang hymns.

Robert Collier, co-chair for the campaign, called the event “a funeral for Berkeley leadership on disability rights.”

Attendees at the funeral said the closure of the pool represents a devastating loss for the community and in particular for youth, the disabled and the elderly who participate in programs there.

Oakland resident Judi Berzon said she has used the pool almost every day for physical therapy since she had back surgery 19 years ago. She said the pool allowed her to return to work after being bedridden for months.

Berzon said the city is “undoing its long-time status of a pioneer of disabled rights” by not providing a comparable replacement facility.

Berkeley City Council has recommended that patrons of the high school pool switch over to the Downtown Berkeley YMCA, which has agreed to provide one month of free memberships for anyone affected by the closure. Although many people who use the pool say they will take advantage the offer, some have said the YMCA facilities will not meet their needs.

Patrons have raised concern that the water temperature in the YMCA’s two warm pools is too low, parking is not easily accessible and the association’s hours of operation are too short.

In addition to serving the disabled and the elderly, the pool also hosts the Berkeley Special Needs Aquatic Program, which gives children and teens with special needs the opportunity to take motor development and exercise classes in the water.

The SNAP program currently serves approximately 45 children, according to SNAP founder and physical therapist Dori Maxon.

“We’re trying to accommodate everybody in other settings,” she said.

Maxon said she is concerned that the YMCA’s warmest pool is not deep enough for swimmers to tread water vertically. Access to such a pool is important because “it is an option for people who have very few options,” she said.

In 2010, the Berkeley Pools Campaign tried to acquire funding for a replacement warm water facility through Measure C, a $22.5 million bond that came up to vote on the June ballot and which would have also provided funding to renovate the city’s three other public pools.

The bond did not receive the two-thirds majority it needed to pass, but Collier said the campaign may try to get a similar measure on the November 2012 ballot.