Why, there are plenty of pools over here, my neighbor explained – just join a country club. But then he put the joking aside. “Public pools bring the wrong kind of crowd into this area,” he said, “People would rather join the YMCA and drive far than have poor kids hanging out over here.”
Fort Worth’s public pools are now closed for the summer, but a recent city council meeting showed that my neighbor’s view seems to have set up camp in city hall. At that meeting in early August, acting parks director Randle Harwood advised council members that the city should close six of its seven public pools because they cost too much.
Fort Worth figures it this way: The pools are antiquated, and each would cost millions to be replaced. City neighborhood associations are also building new pools in their pricey, gated developments north and west of the city. Fort Worth had 11 private pools operated by neighborhood associations in 2001; now it has 88.
So my neighbor was right – there’s no shortage of pools, as long as you own a house worth, say, $350,000 or more.
This attitude by city staffers and council members about the lower- and middle-class economic groups is getting embarrassing. Fort Worth likes to crow about its “small-town attitude” and how great that is. But a city with more than 625,000 people needs to get “all growns up” (to quote the movie Swingers), and part of the growing up is accepting the responsibility of providing assets that are available to all of its citizens. It’s what makes a city great – for visitors and all its people. It shows that the city has class.
Consider: Even if Fort Worth keeps all its existing public pools open, it will still have the smallest number of public swimmin’ holes among Texas’ major cities. Houston has 39 public pools and 13 water playgrounds; Dallas has 22 public pools; Austin has 48 swimming facilities including Barton Springs; San Antonio has 24. Even Arlington has more public pools – eight – than Fort Worth.
If you’re not a swimmer, not a parent of sweaty, bored kids, or if you have access to a nonpublic pool, why should you care? Well, first, there are those poor kids that my neighbor was worried about. Yank away public pools and other programs that give them safe, productive, inexpensive ways to spend their time, and you do create problems.
But beyond that, it’s the job of big cities to use their economic power to create environments that are attractive to companies and workers who might want to set up shop here. When cities plan parks, they don’t usually require that the parks pay for themselves. They’re recognized as an essential part of making a livable city, one that works for rich and poor alike.
It doesn’t seem to be a lesson that Cowtown has learned yet. On a recent visit to St. Louis, I found that the city’s science museum, the zoo, the largest art museum, and the Missouri History Museum were all free of charge. The Fort Worth Zoo charges $10.50 for adults and $8 for kids; The Modern Art Museum charges $8, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History gets $8 for adults, $7 for children.
I’m not saying everything should be subsidized. But Fort Worth seems to have things out of whack. This city loves to give out tax breaks to wealthy corporations and individuals, yet finds pools too costly. This is also a city with one of the worst mass transit systems in the country (The-T ranked 121st out of 126 mass transit agencies in a recent study), because this city views riding a bus as a thing poor people do.
What makes this pool issue even more maddening is that Fort Worth should be thinking about building more public pools, not closing what it has. Right now, Fort Worth ranks 14th out of the top 20 U.S. cities in the number of public pools per 100,000 residents. If it follows the city staff’s recommendation and keeps open only the Forest Park pool, we’ll rank dead last.
But hey, the city staff does have an alternative plan. They are advising the creation of “splash parks” instead of the pools – little water playgrounds with overhead sprinklers that cost less to maintain. But if you follow Fort Worth’s logic, aren’t even those too expensive? Why not just open up fire hydrants and let the kids splash around in the street? That’s all poor kids really need, right?