Inside Barton Springs, Austin’s Favorite Watering Hole

Photos and memories from the public pool that brings a city together.

While photographing people at the pool, I met nine-to-fivers and free spirits, hipsters and sorority girls. There were conga-playing vegans and war veterans, software designers from Oracle and Apple, and a fireman sharing a day off with his family of four. There were babies making their first—and possibly lifelong—acquaintance with these aquamarine waters. There were accents from around the globe. There were kids who’d sworn they’d seen the rare Barton Springs salamander. There were Mexican teens floating on inner tubes. There were brothers from Pakistan and sisters from Guangzhou.

In the 1960s, the long fight for civil rights led to the desegregation of municipal pools, and kids of all stripes shared the same water. But private pools began proliferating in mostly white, middle-class neighborhoods. By the end of the century, there were four million backyard pools—and far fewer places for less affluent kids to cool off. The remaining public pools are some of our few common grounds, where kids can go on a blistering hot summer day and be free from social boundaries and political sides.

If you want to get a feel for the character and culture of a place, look at the pool. I’ve visited community pools in small towns like Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin; Blooming Prairie, Minnesota; and Villisca, Iowa. I’ve also photographed in densely populated, gentrifying neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. I found that the public pools in these towns and cities are anchors of the community. But in Austin, I found a watering hole that is like no other pool in America: Barton Springs, the soul of the city.

In my series The Public Pool, I’ve documented 27 pools in 11 states, but more than any other pool I’ve photographed, Barton Springs embodies the culture of its community and the ethos of the public pool as inclusive sanctuary. From proud locals to awed visitors, there was an underlying sense that this precious resource was a shared gift. No cookie-cutter, gated community pool could ever be a substitute.