Playing Pool

S.F. has great swimming pools, but political insanity makes them all but useless to families and kids

When diagnosing complex societal malaise, the simplest and most obvious symptoms can be telling.

Where beat cops solicit bribes, there's corruption all the way to the top. Where people support leaders with a brutal past -- the Augusto Pinochets, the Efrain Rios Montts, and the Kurt Waldheims of the world -- social critics aptly fret over culturewide inhumanity. Where citizens contemplate leadership by movie stars -- Reagans, Beattys, Schwarzeneggers, etc. -- one sees polity in the thrall of myth.

And so it goes in San Francisco, where broad and subtle social ailments are likewise expressed in a symptom most plain: During the hot summer of 2003, it's nearly impossible for a child to take a dip in one of the city's nine public swimming pools.

This simple problem points up one of the crises of San Francisco political culture I've written about in the past. S.F.'s decades- old neighborhood-empowerment movement has devolved into self-righteous selfishness. In this instance of tiny-interest-group-empowerment-gone-mad, outspoken lap swimmers -- goggle-eyed adults committed to wrapping a few thousand weekly meters around their work schedules -- have packed neighborhood meetings set up by the Recreation and Park Department and managed to gain the lion's share of access to the city's pools -- at the expense of kids and families.

I've asserted that San Francisco's reputation for left-wing progressivism often serves to varnish local types of meanness and political pandering. In this case, amid noisy discussions over how many union jobs to preserve in the fire, police, and other departments, the government quietly cut back public pool availability. The city has saved a few nickels and dimes -- while simultaneously wasting millions of dollars of investment in recreational infrastructure -- by reducing hours for low-paid pool cashiers and lifeguards.

I've long suspected San Francisco suffered a deficit of civic culture. But I had no idea we had gotten to the point where adults, in the name of democracy, deny kids the chance for a summertime swim.

When local telecom saleswoman Laura Schwartz recently set out to swim in one of San Francisco's public pools, she didn't intend to embark on a sociological sojourn; she just fancied a dip. Years back, she'd spent time living in Eastern Europe, a region poor in many things but not in public amenities such as swimming pools.

San Francisco, Schwartz learned, is likewise blessed with a legacy of beautiful public pools. We have nine, most at least a half-century old. They're one of those taxpayer-funded amenities that for some odd reason are never officially publicized in San Francisco, and therefore make it easy for writers at publications such as this to come up with items for annual "best-kept San Francisco secret" guides. The Recreation and Park Department's Sava Pool, at 19th Avenue and Wawona, for example, is spacious, with a water temperature of about 83 degrees. The Mission Pool, an outdoor treasure, is smaller, yet has a warm, neighborhood feel to it. A dive in this pool can change your whole perspective of life in the city, Schwartz wrote in a recent letter to SF Weekly.

At least, that's the theory. The Sava Pool was recently closed for emergency repairs, and other city pools are hopelessly skewed against kids and families.

"Basically, it's completely impossible to find a place to swim. All the operating hours are a complicated maze to get through to find out where to swim and when. When I finally made it to the Sava Pool, the laps were so crowded, with 15 people in each lane, that it wasn't worth it. I mentioned it to the lifeguard," Schwartz said in a recent conversation. "He said next Sunday the crowd would be worse, as they would be cutting down hours."

Even greater woe awaits the parent of a sweaty, bored 4-year-old. For kids, especially small ones, the city's public pools may as well be off limits. A parent wishing to take her children for a dip in, for example, the Mission Pool, will look at the Internet schedule and find that there's time for "family swim" -- where parents accompany their young children to splash and paddle -- only on weekends, from 12:30 to 1 p.m. You read right: just one half-hour, twice a week. There's a name for parents hoping to bustle the kids out the door, shuttle to the pool, change, and shuttle back, all for the wonderful benefit of a half-hour swim: delusional.

And "recreational swim" -- the sort of ordinary, summer, kids 'n' teens free-for-all our collective imagination says municipal swimming pools were made for -- is limited to an hour per weekend day, two hours on weekdays. To make the game even more interesting for kids, a woman answering the phone at the Recreation and Park aquatic division says the schedule is subject to change by the week.

On a superficial level, that parents may as well quit even thinking about taking their kids for a swim at a city pool is the result of budget cuts and, to an extent, pool time set aside for valuable special programs such as swimming lessons and swim time for the elderly. Since last year's city budget crisis, San Francisco's nine pools have drastically limited their hours. Further cutbacks this year will save the city a few thousand dollars on wages for low-paid lifeguards and cashiers. Lifeguards will now be assigned to do the work of laid-off cashiers.

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