Deepest depths

City council members find ingenious ways to screw poor kids out of their swimming pools

So you think the swimming pool thing is a done deal? Laura Miller raised the cash? The mayor backed down? The kids get to swim?

Yeah. Maybe.

If you saw what I saw last week, you wouldn't be taking anything to the bank just yet.

"It's about what's right": Dallas City Councilman Leo Chaney has faced heated opposition in his fight to keep open a swimming pool in his South Dallas district.
Mark Graham
"It's about what's right": Dallas City Councilman Leo Chaney has faced heated opposition in his fight to keep open a swimming pool in his South Dallas district.

You know the background here. At one point in the 1960s and '70s, Dallas maintained a whole system of swimming pools: several big regional pools set up for Olympic-length competition, and nearly 100 little "neighborhood" pools scattered here and there. Over the years, while the Dallas City Council pursued schemes to make Dallas a "world-class city," such as building a lavish new sports arena, fancy new symphony hall, new art museum, new library, new city hall, etc., it allowed the neighborhood pools to fall apart entirely.

This year--while the council had the unmitigated just-beat-me-with-a-baseball-bat-why-don't-you gall to start dunning us mercilessly about bringing the 2012 Olympics to town, they also announced they wanted to shut down the remaining 23 neighborhood pools.

The argument was that keeping the small pools open would conflict with the park board's "master plan" for pools. The impression given was that the park board has done all this very important master planning and that the small pools in poor neighborhoods were a violation of the "master plan."

One very poor, mostly Hispanic neighborhood, Arcadia Park, begged for a dispensation on the grounds that their little pool was the only recreational amenity the city offered their children in the summer and that, without the pool, the kids would spend the summer cooling off in a polluted drainage ditch.

Ralph Isenberg, the park board member for that district, and Laura Miller, the council member who appointed him, were touched--genuinely touched, moved, stricken in the heart--by the plight of the children in Arcadia Park.

So what do you tell the kids now? How about this: "Your parents should have thought about the park board's master plan before they conceived you."

Miller led a campaign to raise more than $75,000 in private donations to save Arcadia Park and maybe a couple of other pools in poor neighborhoods. Ron Kirk, the city's first black mayor, fought Miller tooth and nail and finally gave in grudgingly when the NAACP started attacking him in public.

(Please allow a brief digression: I hate it when people tell me they are disappointed in Ron Kirk "as a black man." One would hope that this nation has by now arrived at a point in its social, cultural, and moral development where a person of color has every bit as much right as a white person to become a wise-acre, money-worshipping fraternity brat.)

So let's go from there to a behind-the-scenes vignette that is positive, heartening, and shows there are still people in there fighting the good fight who do have hearts and who do have their heads screwed on right.

Leo Chaney is the council member who represents old South Dallas, including the South Boulevard Historic District. He comes from a family with business roots that go deep in the black community, he has a responsible job with the school district, and he gets it.

Before the May 17 Dallas City Council briefing on the pools, Chaney saw me in the crowd. I had phoned him the night before, and he hadn't had time to call back. I told him I was hearing stories that park board member Dwaine Caraway and his wife, city council member Barbara Mallory Caraway, were pressuring the park department staff to sandbag the Save Our Pools deal and make sure the pools don't open even if there is plenty of money to save them.

Chaney shook his head, thought about it, and then I could see him getting mad. "We need to have a priority on getting these pools open," he said. He started to walk off but came back. "I'm in the minority on this."

He meant he's in the minority among black council members.

"I'm being castigated, but I think it's the right thing to do." He started toward his place at the table but came back again. "Where in the hell are our priorities? It ain't by color, it's about what's right."

Back toward the table, stop, back toward me again.

"Isn't it ironic? We become a majority [he means blacks and Latinos on the city council], and the first thing we do is close the pools down."

Ironic: an overworked word at Dallas City Hall these days. I'm going to nominate a new word: appalling.

That morning, before the briefing even began, I had called Lee Alcorn, local head of the NAACP, whose eloquence in the Save Our Pools campaign had a great deal to do--according to lots of people, not just me--with pushing the mayor to back off his opposition.

I told him the same story: that I had heard the Caraways were exerting pressure on Paul Dyer, head of the park department, to stonewall the Save Our Pools effort with bureaucratic slow-downs and delays.

Alcorn never goes ballistic. That's not his nature. He's very controlled. But I would say he at least went BB-gun-istic over what I told him.

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