Friday, July 10, 2009

Out of the Pool: It's not just about race

If there was ever a story to push Code Red on our cultural buttons, it's the news that a private swim club in posh, suburban Huntington Valley (photo) decided to boot out a group of Northeast Philadelphia summer campers because of their race. This troubling story plays into several other narratives, and race is only the beginning of it.

It's worth remembering why the summer camp, Creative Steps, Inc., contracted with the Huntington Valley Swim Club in the first place. The answer, of course, is that Philadelphia was only able to open a token number of its public pools this summer because of the nation's devastating financial crisis, which has hit cities especially hard. The reduction in pool operations is just one more example of how America's fifth biggest metropolis is unable to provide its citizens with the sort of quality-of-life amenities that suburban dwellers take for granted. Not that anyone would have ever confused Philadelphia's no-frill public pools with those lush suburban oases like Huntington Valley, where the Olympic-size basins are surrounded by lawns and shade trees.
Inferior as they were, Philadelphia pools at least gave urban kids a small sense of what a normal, lazy summer is supposed to be like - the flapping around in the water, the pool fights, the shivering, the rush for the towel after your lips turn blue, the warmth of the sun. Now, without a neighborhood pool to cool off in, city kids have one more way to feel cut off from the mainstream of American life. I can't help wondering why the Nutter Administration didn't lease the city pools to private operators this summer People would have had to pay to use them, but the price could have been subsidized for the poorest of the poor, and the pools would have stayed open. Lots of suburban residents pay a fee to use their town pools.

But the fact is, it's gotten to the point where if you're an urban resident - black, brown or white, it really doesn't matter - you just accept it as your fate that your services won't be as good as your suburban neighbors. In the last few months, we've seen our firehouses closed, our park programs suspended, our branch libraries threatened and their hours reduced. The city has slashed funding for our great cultural institutions and for our beloved parades, which are so much at the core of our Philadelphia identity. It' not that suburban towns haven't suffered, too. It's just that most have a lot more resilience than the city, not to mention private resources. In places like Philadelphia, public amenities are often the only amenities.
Perhaps because this crisis has been so fast and deep, the long-standing inequities between city and suburban life stand out more sharply than before. Cities like Philadelphia bear huge cost burdens than the suburbs don't have to worry about. They spent a significant proportion of their revenue trying to deal with collateral costs of poverty, which leaves them with less and less for general municipal services. Meanwhile, suburbanites get to play for free in Fairmount Park which the city bankrolls. They file civil cases in Philadelphia law courts, which the city funds. They ride SEPTA, which receives its largest contribution from the city (And, remember, suburban risders pay the same fare for a long bus ride as city riders do for a short one).
So no wonder we're outraged when Philly kids pay their own hard-earned money to use suburban pools and then get thrown out. Even if the pool club's actions weren't racist, we know something is very wrong when there are some towns with big beautiful pools and others with none at all.


Blogger rasphila said...

A good and perceptive article. The irony here is that the suburbs are too car-centric to be sustainable in the long run. We are going to have to move back to the cities as fuel prices rise, traffic becomes intolerable (well, more intolerable than it already is), and climate change forces us to change our ways. And the suburbs themselves will have to become more like the cities—more dense, with better public transit—if they are to survive for the long term.

I have no idea how all of this will play out, but I do know that a good urban neighborhood where you can walk to school and the store is a better place to live than the suburbs I have experienced.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post - one criticism...shutting down fire stations and other City facilities isn't always an indication of less sometimes is (many times, actually) a City government that is better aligning it's resources. We don't need all the infrastructure we have. We don't need all of the programs we have. Somethings need to be closed, gotten rid of.

7:31 AM  
Anonymous Roe Breslin said...

Good article... TERRIFIC PICTURE! Can we get THAT to the Pennsylvania Human Relations committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, Ms. Alethea Wright at Creative Steps, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC (and on, and on, and on!) along with everyone else hell-bent on making this a race issue? My heart goes out to Mr. Duesler for trying to help these day camps hurt by Mayor Nutter's closings of city pools. I guess no good deed DOES go unpunished!

8:09 AM  
Blogger MaggieL said...

Inga, the city isn't entitled to spend beyond its means and then send the bill for the remander to the rest of the state. "Private resources" is all *anybody* has, city, suburbs or rural. The "kids' hard earned money" was returned to them when they literally didn't fit in the "posh" pool (Take a look at that pool on Google Maps, by the way; it's a tiny community way could it safely contain that many kids.)

3:13 PM  
Blogger JuliaDesign said...

I enjoyed reading your article, however, there are many free events in the city that the suburbs would never be able to hold, like free family movies at the Pearl Theater on Broad Street. Also, I was curious to know why you wrote this was the money given to the club belonged to the kids? (As in their hard earned money.)

1:28 AM  
Anonymous RitaF said...

Let's face it the city has become dysfunctional somewhat like Russia before its collapse. Too many employees and not enough service. And the cry for more revenue is their only solution. My company offered to enter into a public private JV where the city could have earned millions of dollars to keep the pools and libraries open. Absolutely no response from the mayor's office, his staff or other key departments. Not even an inkling of interest to see if our proposal had any merit. The city has no pulse and nobody has recognized it is DOA. Big business has left and wihout mor companies there is no reson for people to return.

7:04 AM  
Anonymous retoque fotografico said...

Good article, I agree great picture!

8:41 AM  

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