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North Pinellas County says farewell to a cool haven

The glittering pool seems more suited to a small hotel than a neighborhood. Cramped bathrooms see hundreds of visitors a day while tiny underground fissures create water bill headaches for the pool's handlers.

The pool is useful, but antiquated, swimmers say. Even the deep portion is too shallow for a low diving board.

So there's a chance that no one will notice the permanent closing of the Holt Avenue Pool in the North Greenwood area of Clearwater. It will be demolished at summer's end and the youngsters who swim there will move to a new sports and aquatics complex a few blocks away.

But ask anyone who's been around more than four decades and they'll give you the rest of the story _ tales of the devil that haunted the pool and of the thousand people who traveled far and near just to see it when it opened.

That's because the pool at 1259 Holt Ave. was the first and only public pool in Clearwater that could legally be used by black people.

It was a feat seven years in the making.

"We wanted to get something going to try to get our kids some of the joys of life," said Charles Rutledge, 77, one of a core group who asked the city for the pool. "We were taxpayers and couldn't do anything, so that's why we started fighting for our rights."

Those rights created 47 years of happiness for area children and mecca for anybody black living from Largo to Safety Harbor to Tarpon Springs. On Aug. 5, from 1 to 6 p.m., pool officials will commemorate that history with an official closing party and ceremony.

Before the opening in 1954, African-Americans had only a handful of swimming options: the creek, the mucky waters of "Colored Beaches" along the Courtney Campbell Parkway or off South Mole (now Demens Landing) in St. Petersburg, attempting to visit the "whites only" Clearwater Beach or hop into what city officials and newspapers called the "Negro Pool."

Most everybody chose the pool.

"It was better than what we had," said Rutledge. "The kids were ecstatic about it because they had some place to go, some place to swim, as hot as it is around here."

No one is really sad to see it go.

"It was probably one of the greatest experiences of my life," said David Payne, 60, who in the 1960s coached the Holt Avenue Sharks swim team. "I'm sorry to hear the pool is closing, but progress must go on."

Holt Avenue Pool opened on Aug. 28, 1954, and quickly became the upper county "hot spot." Opening day saw 1,000 spectators lining up to catch a glimpse. Admission was free, the ceremony started with the 23rd Psalm and ended with an inaugural dive by lifeguard Bob Lewis.

"The children were excited, you know?" said Christine Morris, 80, of Clearwater. "The parents were excited that they had something decent to go to, well-protected with lifeguards and what not."

Adding to the pool's popularity was its prime location next door to north county's only black high school, Pinellas Junior-Senior High. (Now the Clearwater Intermediate School.)

It wasn't uncommon for there to be lines to get inside, residents say.

"It used to be jumping," said Al Hinson, who swam with and coached the Holt Avenue Sharks and now is a recreation supervisor for the Martin Luther King Complex, adjacent to the Holt Avenue Pool. He's been with the facility for more than 30 years.

"The pool was and is well-used, but it's so small," Hinson said. "It's served its purpose."

The pool's closing marks the end of an era and brings warm memories to those who grew up here.

"What put us on the map was that we wanted to compete," said former swim coach and lifeguard David Payne, 60, now in Cincinnati. "We had only six weeks to train and we'd spend nights there at the pool sometimes, practicing from 7 p.m. to midnight and again from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. We were too tired to go home."

Swim meets were a county affair. Hundreds would line the walls and spill out into the streets and nearby park on Friday nights to catch a glimpse of their neighborhood swim champs. The team sold crab and chicken dinners to make the money to travel to Fort Lauderdale, Cocoa Beach and Sarasota for competitions with other black swim teams.

But there were dissenters. A black graveyard was dug up and moved to make space for the pool. And some pastors, wanting the pool closed on Sundays, preached that the devil was in the water.

Kids who had never before felt the blurry sting of chlorine in their eyes believed it for a while.

"After we got through the devil scare, we had no problem getting kids to come to the pool," said Payne, the former life guard.

Though North Greenwood residents now can swim in any city pool, the waters at Holt Avenue are as popular today as they were yesterday.

They see about 300 visitors a day, said Mark Roberson, aquatics activity director. If swimmers belong to the Martin Luther King Complex, they pay $1 to swim. If not, they pay $2. On Aug. 3, Roberson will roll back the prices a decade or two to 50 cents.

Economics plays a part in the closing. The city has spent more money repairing that pool than the $55,000 spent to built it, said Hinson, the recreation director. It has a $75,000 budget and leaks that sometimes bring water bills to $1,000 a month, more than three times the norm, he added.

The city in 1988 did a massive makeover by replacing pipes and pumps. Even that retrofitting can't stop the leaks that come from the ground shifting ever so subtlely year to year.

The pool was built in the days before cities had to do right by their black communities, Hinson said. He remembers when there was a high diving board over the pool's 10-foot deep center. He also remembers someone dying after jumping off that board into too shallow waters.

Roberson, the aquatics director, is looking forward to working at the many-pooled North Greenwood Sports and Aquatic Complex at 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. Instead of the existing tiny tot waterslide, there will be a 30-foot one. And instead of no diving, there will be high diving.

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.