Inside Barton Springs, Austin’s Favorite Watering Hole

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

Janet Barkley-Booher first visited Barton Springs 58 years ago, and remembers being terrified by the pop of Roman candles during Fourth of July fireworks at the pool as a five-year-old. In the half-century since then, swimsuit styles have changed—"girls wear less, boys wear more," she says—but the limestone dinosaur tracks remain. Now, Barkley-Booher usually swims at sunset with two friends. "We're all grandmothers—we usually wear matching swim caps, and we call ourselves 'The Unsynchronized Swim Team,'" she says. "I love the camaraderie. We keep up with each other’s lives while improving our health and working out our problems in the solitude and serenity of these beautiful healing waters."

Photograph by Gregg Segal

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.