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Playing Pool 

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

Wednesday, Jul 2 2003
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.

As it happens, though, the bulk of the remaining pool hours is reserved for lap swimmers -- that is to say, politically active neighborhood swimmers (PANS).

According to Recreation and Park Department spokeswoman Becky Bollinger, the trouble began a couple of years ago when lap swimmers, who'd discovered city pools were cheaper and more convenient than the YMCA or private health clubs, began requesting that pools open earlier in the morning and stay open later at night. These are people with day jobs, after all. Happy to accommodate perceived neighborhood needs, Park Department supervisors obliged.

"Changes started to happen where we got earlier and earlier swimmers. Then we'd have people who didn't want to swim in the morning, so we'd open later in the evening. It's not that we would have every single pool open at 5 a.m. -- believe it or not, there are lots of people who want to swim at that hour -- but we'd try to give them options at every pool. Once people got used to it, they didn't like change. They've swum every morning at 5:15 for many years, and for them 5:30 would be very wrong," Bollinger says.

Before long, the department's friendly accommodation of the PANS had pushed the aquatic budget out of control.

"With the requests to open early, plus the requests to open later, we were robbing Peter to pay Paul," Bollinger recalls. "We had an aquatics program that was running over budget for several years, and we had to get it back in line. There was no hope that somebody was going to give us more money."

To make ends meet, the department decided to cut back its pool operations significantly, Bollinger says. She gave figures suggesting pool hours had been cut by some 40 percent, but later indicated she was unsure of those figures. She did not return repeated calls seeking the actual cuts to pool hours.

A schedule given to me by Rec and Park's aquatic division, however, shows the Mission Pool to be open a whopping 44 hours a week, with fewer than nine hours of total swim time on weekends. These cuts came after the department held a series of neighborhood meetings to seek guidance on how to partition the reduced pool hours. Lap swimmers, who had become accustomed to having reserved lanes in the public pools, attended in force. After taking the lap swimmers' concerns into account, Rec and Park put out new schedules that offered three to four hours of lap swimming per day at most pools, while giving an hour or two to recreational swimming and setting aside a few hours for lessons, synchronized swimming, training, and other special programs.

On weekends, they allowed a token 30 minutes at a couple of pools to young kids with their parents.

This year's city budget crisis is worse than last. The Park Department, to its credit, has tried to go easy on the pool hours, cutting back on cashiers and requiring lifeguards to staff the tills instead. But, says Schwartz, "All that crowding is just going to get worse and worse."

At first glance, San Francisco kids' dry summer of 2003 is the unexceptional result of two devastatingly parched budget years. In many ways, city fathers are doing the best they can to deal with the funding crisis. It's been fascinating, heartwarming even, to watch normally left-posturing Supervisors Chris Daly, Matt Gonzalez, and Aaron Peskin recast as penny-pinching Scrooges during Budget Committee deliberations. I believe their intentions are good.

But the fact remains: In San Francisco, taking the path of least budgetary resistance means placating public employees' unions and a swarm of neighborhood and other micro-interest groups.

There are some 400 neighborhood-based and other interest groups here, and new, ad hoc groups spring up every day. A carpenter can't pound a nail in this city without first confronting or soothing homeowners' associations, for example.

But it's the city's parks programs that have lately suffered most dearly at the hands of S.F.'s rabid micro-interest groups. Dog owners have undermined the city's Natural Areas Program, forcing park managers to abandon leash laws. Feral-cat advocates have protested efforts to protect wild birds. Botanically ignorant tree advocates have protested programs to protect wildflower species through tree removal. Sunset duffers recently put up a valiant fight against renovation of city golf courses. And last year, a handful of equestrians staged a sit-in to preserve their right to cut-rate, first-class, Golden Gate Park horse-boarding quarters.

During the past two years, Recreation and Park Director Elizabeth Goldstein has learned to be appropriately cowed by tiny groups of people who'd like to treat our public patrimony as their private property. And she has learned not to sneeze without holding a neighborhood meeting first.

Given the way things work here, I would have been astonished if lap swimmers hadn't bothered to make their voices heard in such meetings. But I really didn't expect government to step on 11-year-olds who love to swim in the summertime, just because they haven't yet learned to pack public meetings, and to behave as selfishly as some adults.

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Matt Smith


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