Pamela Powers Hannley, a progressive voice for Arizona
For two years now, only a handful of Tucson’s public swimming pools have been opened to the public, thanks to budget cuts.
Last summer, I wrote about access to public pools and complained that only people who could afford fitness club memberships or who lived in communities with their own pools could enjoy the luxuries of cooling off in the water during the hot summer months.
This spring–not happy with the sad state of public pools in Tucson– Jim Hannley, president of the El Rio Neighborhood Association and a life-long swimmer, started a one-man crusade to open at least one pool on Tucson’s west side for the 2011 season. He met with one of the top Parks and Recreation administrators, along with Ward One Councilwoman Regina Romero, the West Side Coalition, and public health researchers at the University of Arizona. He even considered starting a fund-raising campaign to open at least one pool. The West Side Coalition of eight neighborhoods passed a resolution to appeal to the Tucson Mayor and Council to open more pools but to no avail. Hannley was told that each pool costs the city $50,000 for the season– not an extraordinary amount of cash– but his crusade to provide swimming and swimming lessons for children and families in some of Tucson’s poorer neighborhoods was thwarted by bureaucracy and lack of resources.
According to a recent article in the Huffington Post, When Did Swimming Become a Privilege in the United States?, Tucson is not the only major city to cut swimming pools and swimming lessons to save money.
… cities and counties all over the country are closing their public swimming pools. In this summer of sweltering heat, with our nation in three overseas conflicts and oil companies reaping windfall profits from high gas prices and Republican politicians fighting to protect the riches of millionaires and billionaires, we cannot seem to find enough resources to keep the pools open for our kids.
“From New York City to Sacramento, Calif.,” the Associated Press writes, “pools now considered costly extravagances are being shuttered.”
Sacramento, according to the story, had 13 pools a decade ago for its nearly half-million residents but will have only three by next summer. Search Google and you’ll find report after report of communities padlocking their pools. Pasco County, Florida, one of the fastest growing counties in the United States with 471,000 residents, is debating whether to close its last two county-run pools. Johnston County, North Carolina… Goodlettsville, Tennessee… Beverly, West Virginia… Utica, New York… Austin, Texas… cities and towns around the country are closing their pools or proposing to do so.
Ours is the wealthiest nation in human history. But we are obviously not all sharing in the wealth.
The top 150,000 families in the United States — meaning the top 0.1 percent of all earners — earn over 10 percent of our nation’s income. From the World War II years through 1980, the top 0.01 percent of all American families earned about 180 times more income than what the bottom 90 percent averaged; today it’s close to 1,000 times more. While income for America’s high earners has soared, it has flatlined for almost everyone else.
In terms of wealth, the top 10 percent of Americans control over 70 percent of our wealth, while the bottom 50 percent holds just 2.5 percent, and in fact the richest 1 percent possess more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans.
Yes, the wealthiest Americans may have their own pools, and pricey swim clubs dot affluent suburban communities whose well-heeled residents can afford a membership and annual dues.
And in those grand backyards of Greenwich, Connecticut or McLean, Virginia — as well as those well-maintained suburban pool clubs — you will hear the squeals of children splashing in water and letting their summer imaginations flow and playing impromptu pool games with foam footballs and noodles. Teenagers will preen themselves for one another or lie in the sun procrastinating about their summer reading. Kids having summer fun, making friends, creating lifelong memories — good for them.
But in the rest of the country, where families have fewer and fewer summer options, childhood will lose yet another of its vivid narratives. There will be no poolside memories for those unlucky kids. Public pools used to be magnets for people of all backgrounds to mingle and splash, but that too will be lost as poolside hobnobbing will be reserved only for those able to afford the privilege.
When our country looks at public spaces simply as expenditures to be cut, we lose a lot more than just a line in the budget. [Emphasis added.]
According to the Tucson Parks and Recreation website, 11 pools are open this swimming season, which ends this Friday, July 29. First of all, it is unconscionable to have 11 pools open in a metropolitan area of nearly 1 million people. Second of all, it is ludicrous in a city that regularly sees temperatures over 100 degrees to have a swimming season that goes from June 6 through July 29. According to the schedule, some pools will have an extended season through November 15, and three pools– Sunnyside, Clements, and Catalina will be open all year. A neighbor of mine went to the Catalina pool in midtown recently and had to wait in line to swim laps because the pool was so busy on a week day. Too bad the Himmel Park pool has been closed for two years.
Providing safe and affordable recreational facilities for all of its citizens is an important, cost-effective role for local government. Swimming pools, recreation centers, and parks foster good health habits through exercise, reduce long-term public health costs by decreasing the obesity rate, provide activities for teens, improve quality of life, build community and in the case of swimming lessons– directly save lives.
Tucson should start now to develop a plan to open more pools next year.