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Not everyone into the pool

July 21, 2007|Tim Cavanaugh

IHAVE ACCEPTED that I will never swim in any of Los Angeles' more than 50 public pools. The problem isn't inconvenient location or communicable disease or poor personal hygiene. And it certainly isn't price. It's that the keepers of the city pools have made it clear that I'm not their type.

If only I'd read the voluminous regulations beforehand, I might have known I didn't fit in with the teenage swells who relax in our city's capacious pools. Instead I plunged right in, so to speak, taking two of my children out on a recent broiling weekend for a swim at the Hollywood Recreation Center. We were denied entry three times, for three different reasons.

On my first try, the facility was closing early because of a filtration problem. The next day, I was turned away for bringing a stroller packed with the kids' stuff. The same cashier who had turned the three of us away the day before offered to let me leave the stroller outside, warning, "We take no responsibility for it." Looking out over the greensward of the Hollywood Rec Center, where two of the gruff but lovable rogues I like to think of as our very own sans-abris were punching and cursing each other, I thought better of it. After an hour or so of stroller disposing and kid complaining, I returned, only to be informed that I had too many children in tow. Each child under the age of 7 must be accompanied by an adult, as the pool rules say, "in a one-to-one ratio."

"Come on," I said. "Half the city's divorced. Who can provide a full adult for every kid?" But a breathless young lifeguard came around to lay out a "Sophie's Choice" scenario in which I'm holding on to one daughter and watching helplessly while the other one drowns. Sadly, I turned and left, giving my kids the first of what will undoubtedly be a lifetime of embarrassing lessons about the narrow limits of their father's authority.

While I have to applaud Citywide Aquatics' devotion to safety (there hasn't been an on-duty drowning since 1979), the pool rules provide an interesting lesson in unintended consequences. As any onlooker can see, the one-to-one rule actually reduces the number of adults and families at pools. The Hollywood facility has been populated exclusively by tweens and teens every day I've looked, and of the entire pool-going population in the city, barely more than 10% are adults each year. Other rules -- no street clothes in the pool area, no toys, no floating apparatus, no locking lockers -- tend toward the same result: no adults, no families.

A city official made the compelling argument that all these rules are necessary in an environment where anybody can come in free of charge. In rougher neighborhoods, pool workers frequently turn up weapons and drugs. When I asked why the city doesn't just charge a real but reasonable fee for entry, he said, "We'd love to do that," but described a waterlogged tragedy of the commons: In 1999, then-Mayor Richard Riordan made all city pools free for minors. Last summer, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa extended that welcome to all adults with library cards. Effectively, the pools are free for everybody, and although that doesn't seem to have brought out more swimmers (attendance has been dropping since 2002), it has produced an it's-so-crowded-nobody-goes-there result.

Think of it this way: The pools are now free for all residents, just like high school. And so you get something that looks and feels very much like high school: a prison-like environment for teenagers in which all property must be surrendered, all activity is strictly circumscribed and all adult supervision is provided by apparatchiks. On hot, sunny weekends, I'm still tempted by the lure of those big sky-blue watering holes, but it's just not worth it. Not just because I can't take the kids, but because high school was bad enough the first time.

Tim Cavanaugh

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