Artist Hannah Palmer at Ghost Pools in East Point. Photograph by Isadora Pennington.

Water is the source of all life. It is the most important liquid in our ecosystem, it sustains life and it can also take a life if not treated with respect. It is safe to say that writer and artist Hannah Palmer is obsessed with water. Her installation of Ghost Pools presented by Flux Projects will take form over the next few days leading up to the opening day celebration on Saturday, June 3. 

It all started during Palmer’s research on the lost neighborhoods around Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport when she learned about the forgotten Flint River headwaters there. Intrigued, she started a deep dive into the history of the area and the river. “It really kind of set me on fire,” said Palmer. Learning about the miles of waterways hidden deep underneath the 4,700-acre airport made her only want to ask more questions. She subsequently launched Finding the Flint, a campaign to restore the hidden headwaters of the river.

From that point forward, Palmer was all in on environmental justice. During our interview she explained the complex sociopolitical circumstances that have restricted the public’s access to natural water systems and waterways. This passion for water led her to research more and more about the creeks and springs that weave through the city. Though many streams and rivers are blocked by development, fences, or choked with garbage, the water still flows. “They are degraded, but they are so resilient,” said Palmer. “It brings me a lot of joy.”

Palmer lives with her family and two sons in the city of East Point. She saw firsthand how children are naturally drawn to sources of water. From puddles to creeks, rivers, lakes, and oceans, water has the ability to transfix people of all ages and all walks of life. So, she set out to get her kids swimming lessons, only there was a problem. Where were all the public pools? 

It didn’t take long for Palmer to realize that the city of East Point, located southwest of Atlanta with a population of more than 38,000 people, had exactly zero public pools. For Palmer it seems as though research comes naturally. Ask a question without an easy answer and she will devote herself to sorting it out. And so, she did. In her research she learned of two public city pools in East Point which had been filled in and covered over decades ago. 

“I was curious as to why we don’t have any, and why it’s so hard to get them and keep them,” said Palmer. “I started researching swimming pools and that led to the research of the history of pools across the country.” In her comprehensive deep dive – pun absolutely intended – she discovered the storied history of pools and the roles they played in our social order. And thus Ghost Pools was born. 

“All over the state we roamed looking for places to swim, and we found that in the city kids want to play in creeks but they shouldn’t because they don’t have access to them on private property or they are too polluted,” Palmer continued. She described how the influx of public pools were driven by federal funding and planning to meet the demands of city-dwelling populations. The benefits of proximity to water, particularly in the heat of southern summers, was also believed to reduce crime rates as it would provide a healthy and safe outlet for rebellious youths in warm months. 

Historic imagery of pools in East Point selected for Ghost Pools. Provided.

In a study conducted by the National Institute of Health in 2018 researchers found that simply listening to the sounds of water can reduce stress significantly, unless the subject experiences significant somatic complaints such as pain, shortness of breath, or struggles with function.

As society has progressed away from early civilizations which would by necessity be established around existing bodies of water, access to water for recreation and relaxation has become increasingly limited. The government responded by funding and establishing public pools and natatoriums across the country, and for a while nature-inspired spring-fed pools with irregular edges and sandy bottoms were a normal part of everyday life for American families. 

However, during the Civil Rights Movement pools took on new importance. The government saw riots across the country and installed pools in reaction, hoping to literally cool down tensions for an angry population. Those segregated pools also became battlegrounds, with one famous image depicting a hotel manager dumping bleach or acid into the hotel’s pool as Black people continued to swim in protest.

The intimacy of swimming, an act which asks one to strip down to much more revealing clothes than normal, played a big factor in the tensions surrounding their desegregation.

For some cities like East Point the risk to the public was ultimately deemed too great to justify their upkeep, and those with money opted to invest by installing their own backyard pools instead. “By the 80s in Atlanta, the city had reached a point where they had defunded and shut down most public pools. The Chattahoochee was too polluted to swim in, so were the streams, and we lost access to both natural and manmade water sources all at once.” 

As a result, many pools such as the two in East Point were filled, paved over, and lost to history. But for Palmer the story doesn’t end there. “There are some wonderful images of the historic pools that are just sitting in a filing cabinet, and every time I see these photos I just want to show everybody,” said Palmer. 

Ghost Pools includes large format exhibition graphics with historic photos accompanying a detailed timeline of swimming both in Atlanta and across the country. Additionally, visitors will be able to use their cellphones to play audio that Palmer recorded at public pools last summer to further enhance the immersive elements of her installation. The original footprints of the pools can be seen by way of markers, flags, paint, and even real diving boards that illustrate exactly where each pool was located. 

The exhibition opens this Saturday, June 3, from 5-10 p.m. with dance, music, and performances. But Palmer wants to be careful not to lose sight of the somberness of these sites. “I think of the big event on Saturday as a moment to gather and activate these spaces again, but I’ve been careful not to call it a pool party or a celebration. Particularly the white pool was a space of exclusion. It’s something to reflect on; it’s not a celebration.”

Ghost Pools will remain on display throughout the summer until Labor Day, in line with traditional pool schedules. Palmer hopes that the installations provoke thoughtful conversation around swimming pools and their importance to our society. And maybe – just maybe – one day the community of East Point will be able to come together to build a new pool for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.