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.

"I don't disagree with the policy," Isenberg says. "I'm just saying that this particular pool needs to be an exception to the rule."

The kids here aren't really bus-able. It doesn't work that way. The families come down together. They're not all going to get on a bus and go spend the afternoon in another part of town. When you feel the closeness and intimacy of this little park, it's clear why the pool here needs to be an exception to the closing policy.

Isenberg went to the city council member who had appointed him to the park board, Laura Miller, and convinced her it was important for this distant little pocket of the city to keep its pool. Miller made contact with ExxonMobil Corporation through an intermediary.

After Miller announced she had found money to save the pool in Arcadia Park as well as a second pool in South Dallas, Park Board President Diane Curry called ExxonMobil. Curry did not return multiple calls from me to her home and office phone numbers. She has admitted publicly that she called ExxonMobil.

Council member Lois Finkelman also called ExxonMobil, but says she only left them a phone message. Finkelman told me her only aim was to warn the company that their gift might put them in the middle of a controversy. She suggested that several other people may have called the company as well.

Miller says the overall thrust of the calls from Curry, Finkelman, and whoever else may have contacted the company was that "they scared the crap out of Exxon."

In fact, shortly after the calls were made, ExxonMobil sent out a second letter saying the money was an "unrestricted grant," instead of being for Arcadia Park in particular. At its April 12 meeting, the city council voted to accept the money and not spend it on Arcadia, effectively closing the Arcadia pool.

If you try to sort this out according to any kind of typical public politics, you will never get to the bottom of the page; you will never find the real answer for why the park board and the city council would deliberately screw up a corporate gift, embarrass the socks off the donor company, and then shut down the only pool in a terribly needy neighborhood.

You want the answer? I found it. I'll share it with you. It's here, on an official audiotape of the April 6 meeting of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board. At that meeting, almost the entire board took turns upbraiding Isenberg for his efforts on behalf of Arcadia Park.

Board Vice President Dwaine Caraway could barely contain his anger and shouted at Isenberg several times: "We have never had, since I have been on this board, so much unnecessary, in my personal opinion, press, media, minute circumstances, penny-ante discussions...

"Every time we turn around, the press is being called. I don't really appreciate the press. The press was here the other day, and I told them how I feel about them for covering such trash...It's about the pools...personally I'm tired of being played to the press on issues that are one-sided and are packing personal agenda. I'm tired of filling up that woman's Web site [probably a reference to anti-arena activist Sharon Boyd's dallasarena.com], reading the things that are going on up here and are going on at City Hall.

"It is the most disruptive destruction I've ever seen."

Caraway, who is the appointee of his own wife, city council member Barbara Mallory Caraway, blasted Isenberg for bringing in Laura Miller.

"I don't run to Barbara," he said, "and I sleep with her. I don't tell her a dang thing about what's happening up here, 'cause I handle it myself, like I'm handling this. I don't need her to handle nothing for me."

On the tape, in a strange kind of parliamentary gantlet, each member of the park board takes his and her turn slapping Isenberg around. Park board member Joann Baggett, the wife of a prominent lawyer (her own name has never once appeared in The Dallas Morning News), told Isenberg: "When you call the press, we're going to shut it down."

There it is. It's personal. It's all about ego, image, and personal enmity.

Isenberg and Miller are pilloried and ridiculed for caring.

Look, this is what we get with this kind of system, with an unpaid city council, a hired mayor, and a bunch of appointed weasels on the boards and commissions. No real people, no people with jobs and families, flesh-and-blood people who live the life of the city: No people like that can even get to the table.

So we get mean, not very bright, small-minded self-seekers. Penny-ante chiselers. People looking for personal prestige. People looking for money. But damned few people with hearts.

And that's it, right there: Mrs. Baggett has expressed it succinctly. When the school year ends and the children come down from the chalk hills of Arcadia Park this summer, their swimming pool will be padlocked and dry because Ralph Isenberg and Laura Miller went public with the issue.

I only wish there were a way to force Mrs. Baggett to stand there in that park and explain it to those kids, all summer long.

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