Even when the fingertips are already wrinkled, Ferdinando doesn’t come out of the water. “Sometimes, I only come out to eat. And when I feel cold.” Since “looking old” doesn’t bother this 11-year-old swimmer, Ferdinando spends the hottest days testing jumps into the plastic pool planted right on the sidewalk in front of his building in the Picheleira neighborhood. The pool was bought by his family and assembled by everyone.

In this 4.95-meter-wide and 1.20-meter-high arena, the biggest athlete is Tomás. “When he jumps, it looks like a tsunami.” Water splashes outside and against the building walls, turning them into a sort of “water splash Olympics.”

Ferdinando, 11 years old, by his pool in Picheleira. Photo: António Brito Guterres.

But it’s Ferdinando who everyone recognizes as having a passion for water. When his birthday comes around, a trip to the swimming pools in Santarém is a mandatory outing. It’s a plan reserved only for special occasions since the family’s availability is limited, and there isn’t much money in their wallets for a visit to the nearest pools. As for reaching the sea from there, well, that’s another Olympic feat.

Therefore, summer vacations are spent in the neighborhood, practicing strokes and jumps in this plastic tub.

In the summer, those who live in these neighborhoods know well that the landscape is composed of the blue of the sea and plastic. A pool here, another one there. However, the usual scenery became a source of amazement for those unfamiliar with these parts, who discovered this tradition through images that circulated on social media. Instead of cars and outdoor cafes, there they were—the famous pools.

In July of last year, when Portugal was experiencing the most intense and extensive heatwave since 1941, and the purchase of fans skyrocketed, the concern in the social housings of Lisbon was different: dusting off the folded pools that had been stored since last summer. The folded layers were carefully separated, the rods that support the entire structure were opened, and the small ladders were set up. Thus began Ferdinando’s Olympics, with his friends and neighbors from other neighborhoods joining in.

Here, nobody is an exclusive owner. Although there is always someone who buys and stores the pool at home, when a pool is born, it is born for everyone. Some swim fully clothed, while others wear minimal attire. Young and old, some more skilled than others in the art of “water splashes.” Everyone becomes an athlete in the battle against the heat.

The first dives

“It must have been the family of the twins who live up there.” Memory fails because the topic was never a subject of conversation. However, it is certain that the younger generations in the Picheleira neighborhood cannot pinpoint when they first saw pools occupying the sidewalks and streets.

Sebastião – better known around here as ‘Xaxão’ – is 20 years old, all of which he has lived in this neighborhood, with memories of summers with a pool at his doorstep. Even before the sun started to rise, ‘Xaxão’ would be awake, setting up the pool himself with the help of his older brother. At that time, there were four pools in total, as he recalls. “Each one would set up their own pool,” but everyone was allowed to swim in whichever one they wanted.

The nearest complex to the Picheleira neighborhood is Olaias, where the entrance fee is 20 euros per person.

‘Xaxão’ (on the right) next to his friend António Capela at Casa da Juventude, where they are now monitors. Photo: Inês Leote.

“One thing that often happens in these neighborhoods is that when someone comes up with an idea – if it’s functional, doesn’t bother anyone, and the kids enjoy it – parents do everything to please others. We look around, and suddenly, others are doing the same thing,” says Rita Moura, 33 years old, currently the pedagogical coordinator at the Casa da Juventude (Youth House) in the neighborhood. She sees this trend as relatively recent, “around ten years ago.” As she grew up in the neighborhood, the trend was different, with water hose fights and water balloons. Little did she imagine that pools or tanks have become a tradition adopted from the neighborhoods where her parents and grandparents were resettled.

Rita Moura, pedagogical coordinator of Casa da Juventude in the Picheleira neighborhood. Photo: Inês Leote.

They say it’s an old story. They only replaced the rough stone ground with soft, blue plastic because, otherwise, cooling off with water at the doorstep has always been a tradition in social housings. Before, it was with tanks and buckets. Later on, it was with hoses. Now, it’s with inflatable pools.

Confirmation comes from another Rita, a resident of the “Branco neighborhood” (White Neighborhood) – officially known as Carlos Botelho neighborhood, in Beato -, just a few meters away from Ferdinando’s, Rita Moura’s, and ‘Xaxão’s buildings.

“Over there, in the shacks,” she points to an adjacent abandoned plot, “that’s where we used the tank,” in the Casal do Pinto neighborhood. “In our time, we didn’t play like they do now, we played with sand, buckets, and dirt.” Dirt and water. “You play with what you have, amidst difficulties,” says Rita, who now takes her five children to the pool near the archway that houses her sister’s home in the new neighborhood.

“Here in the Picheleira neighborhood, we truly have very disadvantaged, large families for whom a simple trip to the beach is not possible.”

Rita Moura, Coordinator at the Youth House
Rita, mother of 5 children, resident in the Branco neighborhood, recalls the hot days spent in stone tanks in the old neighborhoods of Lisbon. Photo: Inês Leote.

With six siblings, if it weren’t for the Casa da Juventude in the neighborhood, ‘Xaxão’ wouldn’t have many opportunities either. Due to their parents’ limited financial means, their vacations begin with the purchase of a street pool. Without a nearby public pool or affordable access to a water complex, ‘Xaxão’s reality is shared by the vast majority of families in the neighborhood.

The closest complex is Olaias, where the entrance fee is 20 euros per person. “Even for a family of two, we’re talking about 40 euros. In a normal budget, it already weighs heavily, but here we have truly disadvantaged, large families for whom a simple trip to the beach is not possible,” recalls Rita Moura.

Rethinking the place of cars

The alternatives involve integrating activities at the Youth House, which includes trips to the beach and the swimming pools in Santarém – the ones Ferdinando enjoys so much. Another option is to turn the sidewalks or a parking space into the place for summer vacations.

In the “Branco Neighborhood“, the tradition repeats itself. There can be up to seven pools throughout the entire neighborhood. The smaller ones are more common, designed for the little ones. Iuri’s pool is the largest one.

Iuri is the owner of the largest swimming pool in the Branco neighborhood, where he allows everyone to enter. Photo: Inês Leote.

There she is, lying under an improvised hammock umbrella. On this day, the water was calm. There were no splashes, no sounds of “water splashes,” because the wind was stronger than the sun and it intimidated the swimmers. But Iuri Ramos, 16 years old, leaves the pool available for anyone who wants to enter. “Everyone can come in. I can’t see a child standing outside, looking at the pool. Some people don’t have the means, and sometimes it’s better to set up a pool. Can you imagine taking these children to the beach now, in the summer, with these temperatures? It would cost a lot of money. Here, we spend less and stay together as a family.”

Despejos no bairro Carlos Botelho
Amandine Bouillet, coordinator at the Viver Melhor association in Beato. Photo: Catarina Reis.

Amandine Bouillet, coordinator at the Viver Melhor association in Beato, one of the associations that has provided significant support to the community in the Carlos Botelho neighborhood, recalls that there can be up to 14 children in a single pool. “Parents also gather around the pool, it’s always a pleasant moment for families to come together.”

The little ones bathe as much as they can and splash the sandy ground that a bulldozer keeps digging deeper, right there on the adjacent plot. The upcoming construction works don’t align with their desire to have a space to cool off in the summer. They are confined by unfinished houses with misplaced tiles, and their only option for a pool is a makeshift plastic one in place of a car.

That’s why they have to be set up clandestinely. Amandine says they have never had any issues in their neighborhood, but the tradition was put to an end by the municipal police in the Portela de Carnaxide neighborhood in Oeiras. The residents had set up their own domestic pools in the parking lot on Dr. Alberto Pinheiro Torres Street.

On Dr. Alberto Pinheiro Torres street, in the Portela de Carnaxide neighborhood, Oeiras. Photo: MC Somsen.

The Tradition That Reached New York

It’s not only in Lisbon that we find pools in the streets. In 2020, during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, the owner of a building in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, New York, decided to tackle the heatwave that the United States was experiencing by setting up a plastic pool in front of the building for the enjoyment of the neighbors.

The long queue for access to the municipal bathhouse in 1901 on Rivington Street. Photo: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

The story was covered by The Wall Street Journal, which reported that “since he opened the pool to the neighbors, the party hasn’t stopped, filled with people resting on folding chairs or bringing a pot of rice and beans for a post-swim dinner.”

This in a city that turned old bathhouses into public swimming pools. The New York Times recalls the early days when New York City opened its first municipal bathhouse in 1901 on Rivington Street. “A bathing house that became so coveted that during a deadly heatwave a few years later, a small riot broke out in the long line there,” the article reads.

Some of these bathhouses that emerged at the time are now functioning in the form of swimming pools.

Then came what the American newspaper refers to as “floating tubs,” which were essentially “rectangular structures perched atop pontoons in the Hudson or East Rivers.” These were eventually phased out in the 1920s “for sanitation reasons.”

Suspended pool at 96th Street, New York City. Photo: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, portable swimming pools emerged, which could be towed from one place to another. These were specifically “intended to provide relief to neighborhoods that otherwise would not have access to facilities to beat the summer heat.” However, unlike the social housings in Lisbon, these pools were made of metal.

There used to be 70 of them in New York City, but today there are 18, and as of 2017, only one pool was still not fixed—the so-called Floating Pool Lady.

With the heatwave once again hitting Lisbon, little Ferdinando might already be setting up his pool. And Iuri is welcoming the children to his pool. But this year, the pools have been more than just fun in the ‘bairro Branco.’ Residents say that the pools have actually saved some families who lost access to water due to a construction mishap next door, leaving them without water at home.

They grabbed a bucket, and tradition saved the day.

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