Old Nonswimming Hole

Debates swirling over the prohibition at Jamaica Pond

By David Abel  |  GLOBE STAFF  |  July 15, 2008

The water sparkles like a mirage in the summer sun, taunting joggers, fishermen, and neighbors such as Tom Fendley, who has long gazed at the liquid remnants of a glacier and wondered what it would be like to take a dip - without breaking the law.
Over the past year, after wading into its placid warmth, the 37-year-old writer has been asking city officials why he could be arrested for swimming in Jamaica Pond, which on a good day mirrors the clear blue of a cloudless sky.
"I found the responses from the city unsatisfying," Fendley said.
Officials told him that it would be too dangerous and that he could be arrested for trespassing, but, to him, it seemed easy enough to hire lifeguards and allot an area along the beach designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Officials said it would ruin the serenity of the pond to have children screaming and splashing, even though he thought it could be limited to a few months and be regulated by time and numbers. Officials told him it was a backup for the city's water supply, but the 68-acre, spring-fed pond has not provided water to the city since 1848 and would have to be treated if it were ever reconnected to the system.
So a few months ago Fendley sent a letter to the neighborhood newspaper, asking: "Why not allow Jamaica Plainers and others to swim in Jamaica Pond? Would it not be great to have a local swimming hole, where the community can come together around one of the oldest human pastimes in a beautiful setting?"
It was not such a novel idea. Before the city began enforcing a no-swimming ordinance in 1975, people of all ages could be found cooling off in the pond. The Parks and Recreation Department even used to hold aquatic extravaganzas dubbed "Water Wonderland," which attracted thousands of spectators and featured water skiing competitions, rowing contests between firefighters and police officers, and a fashion show by the pond's lifeguards.
Now, after a succession of heat waves and with few outdoor pools or other pristine bodies of water nearby, more residents are asking similar questions about swimming in the pond.
But there is passionate opposition. In a letter in the Jamaica Plain Gazette, Patrick Lally called Fendley's ideas "naive and shortsighted."
"Can you imagine the deafening din of children from every corner of the city descending on the pond? Yikes!" wrote Lally, 43, who lives on Sumner Hill. "I would venture to guess that the garbage generated, the noise, the mayhem, the increased parking would in fact deter neighbors and pond-lovers from taking that relaxing stroll or run around the pond on a summer Sunday."
Despite the law, the pond has remained an illicit refuge from the heat for many in the area, even earning a listing in "Let's Go" for being a popular place for midnight skinny-dipping.
Julie Crockford, the president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, said she would support swimming in the pond, if the city hired lifeguards, set strict rules, and improved the beach in the southwestern corner of what was a glacier until about 14,000 years ago. "I would say it would be a wonderful opportunity for residents," she said. "I do know people who have swum there, and nothing untoward happened to them."
Among the swimmers is her daughter Kade, 24, who estimates that she has gone skinny-dipping in the pond as many as 30 times over the past few years, usually late at night with friends.
"It's beautiful," she said. "It's really nice to be there at night, when no one's around. It's really peaceful to swim in the center of the city."
Another night swimmer, Sean Madsen, says he has taken the plunge more than a dozen times, though "not as often as I should."
"It's like jumping into a big pool," said Madsen, 24, a software developer from Jamaica Plain. "You don't have to walk for a long time before it drops off and you can swim. It's beautiful with all the city lights reflecting off the water."
Stephanie Berry, 23, a preschool teacher, has blogged about her swims in the pond, which is ungated. She remembers one night when the pond was so crowded with late-night swimmers that she and her friends had a hard time finding their own secluded spot.
"It feels really great, especially when it's hot," she said. "I would like to experience it during the day, rather than under the cloak of night." There are day swimmers and not just those who have so-called accidents while renting the sailboats and rowboats at the graceful century-old boathouse, which the city restored in 1991.
For more than two decades, Mark Adler, 57, a professor of mathematics at Brandeis University, has evaded park rangers by doing his summer laps before 8 a.m., keeping close to the tree-shaded shores.
"I swim in a place discreetly hidden from the boathouse," he said. "The water's very pleasant, very clean, a very nice temperature, which is why I swim there and why others should be allowed to as well, provided it's controlled."
City officials say the swimmers are encouraging dangerous behavior, which over the years has led to multiple drownings, including DeAngela Fuller, 43, a Roxbury mother and an experienced swimmer who died after taking a dip on a hot evening last July.
Toni Pollak, commissioner of the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, acknowledged how tempting it is to swim. But she said it would be too expensive to add enough fill to level the submerged ground by the beach, which quickly drops to depths of as much as 53 feet. She worries that swimmers would endanger local wildlife, such as the snapping turtles, mallard ducks, and double-crested cormorants that frequent the pond. Then there are the potential liability issues.
"As tempting as it is, we do not allow swimming in Jamaica Pond," she said. "It's really a public safety and wildlife preservation issue."
For 40 years, Gerry Wright has helped preserve the pond's beauty as director of the Jamaica Park/Olmsted Park Project, a citizens group that has pressured the city to maintain the pond. He says allowing swimming to return would threaten the delicate ecology, now in Zen-like balance, along the 1.5-mile trail surrounding the water. He also worries more human interference could exacerbate what he sees as the effects of global warming: algae blooms, eel grass, and other pond scum.
"I would be opposed to swimming every step of the way," Wright said. "Fully, I grant that swimming is more than appropriate, but it would interfere with the appreciation of the nature.
"This is the city," he said. "It's not like Concord," where, at Walden Pond, a similar "kettle hole" pond that is twice as deep, authorities have found a way to balance preservation with swimming. But with the city under pressure to provide more outdoor pools, some officials said they would be willing to consider opening the pond to swimming.
Emily Tisei Moscol, who spent eight years teaching sailing at the pond, worries that swimmers would muddy the water. "It would become brackish and dirty with children and adults using it as their bathtub," said Moscol, 28, of Dedham. "Not allowing swimming is one way of actually preserving the pond."
Meira Levinson, whose daughters have waded in up to their knees, frets about too much traffic on local roads. But she argues that the joys of allowing swimming outweigh the potential problems, which she considers manageable.
"Every time I take my dog to swim in the pond in the summer, I think longingly of doing so myself," said Levinson, 37, who lives off the Arborway in Jamaica Plain, and is also breaking the law letting by letting her golden retriever frolic in the water. "The opportunity to swim outdoors, in one's own neighborhood, in fresh water, would be fantastic."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.