When I was growing up, summer didn't start on June 21; it started the day the city swimming pool opened. My small home town in Northern Ohio built a community swimming pool in the mid 1960s. I remember going to the dedication and seeing all of that cool blue water inviting my brother and I to learn to swim.
The Amherst pool was never free, but it was affordable. The City of Amherst sold (and still sells) individual and family memberships. Each year my Mom purchased season passes. That pool was open regular hours everyday, and my friends and I lived at that pool between Memorial Day and Labor Day. When you live in a tiny Cape Cod house with one box fan and no air conditioning, a swimming pool is an inviting place to be in the summer.
But we live in Tucson, Arizona, where the temperature gets to only 110 degrees, so we don't need community swimming pools... right? Guess again.
Many of Tucson's swimming pools--particularly those in poorer neighborhoods--will be closed this summer due to budget cuts. This is a short-sighted policy for many reasons.
First of all, the number one community strategy for disease prevention is to provide free (or affordable) places for individuals and families to exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Closing pools (on the city level) and parks (on the state level) may seem like a wise budget decision, but the unintended consequences could be great. Not to mention vandalism and people sneaking into pools and parks unsupervised, there are public health consequences. Childhood and adult obesity are on the rise in the US. Regular, moderate exercise has been shown to prevent or control diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions. We save some money now with these closures, but we will pay out more in the future with higher chronic disease costs.
How much is the City of Tucson really saving by closing swimming pools? The city still has to maintain the pools, so why not have them open? Can the city sell memberships--like tiny Amherst, Ohio has been doing for 40 years? Can neighborhoods band together to save their local pool?
Barrio Anita resident Alexandra Queen, who lives across the street from the Oury Park pool, said that there are a lot of children in Barrio Anita and the Oury pool was "full of kids" last summer. This summer the inner city pool will be closed.
"I watched them clean the pool yesterday. It's beautiful. I'd take a life-saving class and volunteer as a life guard if they would keep that pool open," she added.
If there are few pools and parks to play in, what will the children do this summer? The rich ones have parents who can afford summer camp, health club memberships, and backyard pools. The docile ones will sit around the house, play video games, snack-- and gain weight. But there are others with no money for backyard pools, health club memberships, or video games who will act out with spray paint or drugs or petty crime. This will cost the city money in the long run.
Yes, I know the City of Tucson has budget problems. I am not suggesting that we keep the old system of cheap day passes and patchy hours, but has the city thought of alternative strategies to closing the pools-- like season passes, volunteers, or neighborhood-control of pools?
On Monday, it's supposed to be 108 degrees. It's criminal that the children of Barrio Anita have to stand outside the pool fence and look at that cool, blue water. What message is the city sending them?
This article originally appeared in my Progressive Examiner column.