The shallow end

Personal vendettas drain Dallas' wading pools for poor kids

If you want to know what's wrong with the soul of this city, come here and walk with me for half an hour. Our city government system, designed to be "above politics," puts people in power who are beneath politics, people who are self-seeking chiselers and social climbers, born without hearts, who care only about their own press and their own pocketbooks.

This place where I am walking, a ragged little city park in a very poor part of town, might as well be on the moon; it's that far from the center of things in Dallas. An oasis cradled in the chalk hills of western Dallas, the Arcadia Park Rec Center is veiled by trees from the surrounding poor neighborhoods. The dusty streets and lanes nearby are lined with war-vintage cottages, cheap when built, still standing a half-century later only because impoverished families have pinned them together with tin and baling wire. Hulking apartment blocs nearby give off the telltale musk of uncertain plumbing.

Led by Mayor Ron Kirk, the Dallas City Council voted at its April 12 meeting not to use a corporate gift that would have kept the creaky little swimming pool here in operation this summer and to shut the pool down instead. It was the single meanest, pettiest, spiritually brutish thing the Dallas City Council has done in a long, long while.

Park board member Ralph Isenberg pledged to save the wading pool in Arcadia Park. But fellow board members Joann Baggett, Dwaine Caraway, and others blocked his way because of personal politics.
Mark Graham
Park board member Ralph Isenberg pledged to save the wading pool in Arcadia Park. But fellow board members Joann Baggett, Dwaine Caraway, and others blocked his way because of personal politics.

First you have to know what this little park is to the people who live nearby. A single road runs into the park along a creek bed. The city-owned buildings are small and not well repaired, but the staff here manages to keep things tidy and welcoming anyway. Maybe because you have to come downhill to the park and then walk along this length of road, there is a sense of walking out of the city and into a cool green glen.

All summer long, every single day, children come down through the trees and appear at the park in the morning expecting to spend the day, many with their mothers and fathers.

"A lot of them have no a.c. in their apartments," a staff member told me. "The mother gets away for a couple hours with her little ones and comes down here." (The staff asked me not to use their names for fear of reprisals.)

The swimming pool is at the far end of the park. It looks ancient, but someone has managed to keep it nicely painted. Right now the pool is padlocked and dry. The area around it is neatly tended. The city stopped maintaining the pool's filtration system some years ago, so now the pool must be emptied every night and refilled every morning.

Employees told me that the old people from the neighborhoods come down from their hot little houses and apartments in the morning and take part in a seniors aquatic exercise program while the pool is filling. One of the ladies who helps run the seniors program learned to swim in this pool as a child.

It's not a wading pool. I remember wading pools: They were ankle-deep. This is a swimming pool. It's 4 feet deep at the deep end.

There's a swim team at this pool. Before each meet, the rec center staff drives the kids on the team to one of the city's full-size pools so they can get the feel of a regulation lap.

There's a lifeguard here and two assistants in the summer, the staff told me. There are so many kids who want to swim that the staff has to break them up into shifts.

The kids pay $1 for the entire summer for a city ID card so they can swim in this pool. And the staff told me there are lots of kids who can't raise the dollar. So what happens to those kids? I'll probably get someone fired for saying this, but what happens is that the staff either pays the buck for those kids out of their own pockets or lets them swim without a card. When you are face to face with children who are poor and desperately needy, and you think about them staring at that pool and not being able to swim in it, it's a lot harder to close your heart to them.

Ralph Isenberg, who is leading me around today, is the park board member who decided something had to be done to save this particular swimming pool. After our walk, he sits me down in the activities room of the rec center and leads me through a stack of city documents. Our talk is a long, dry journey through reams of bureaucratic paper, but at least twice during the conversation his eyes are wet with tears and his voice trembles.

"I promised these people that I would save their pool," Isenberg says. "It hurts inside to think people would say I have a political agenda. I have to do this."

The Park and Recreation Department has been trying to shut down the last couple of dozen neighborhood pools in the city in order to put more money into big regional pools. The goal is to better meet new state and federal health guidelines and save money by achieving economies of scale. The department is willing to bus kids from distant neighborhoods to those pools.

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