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.