In Over Their Heads | City Side | Chicago Reader

In Over Their Heads 

A new fee for lap swimming at Park District pools prompts a crusade by a couple of aquanauts. So far, the city doesn't seem to be listening.

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About seven months ago the Park District quietly slapped a fee on lap swimming at the city's indoor pools. Officials figured that since it was essentially a tax on yuppies--who else swims laps?--they would pay it without much complaining.

Boy, were they wrong. They never anticipated Nicholas Sistler, a Bucktown artist who's been waging a one-man campaign against the fee ever since it was imposed. As he sees it, the fee symbolizes everything that's wrong with the way the Park District runs its operations. "I'm against the fee on principle, because I believe the district's supposed to provide egalitarian facilities," he says. "But what makes it worse is that they're charging us a fee for lousy service. That's adding insult to injury."

In his own way, Sistler became a student of Park District pool policy about 16 years ago, when he started swimming at neighborhood pools. "I'm not a great swimmer," he says, "but it's how I get my exercise. I have my own variation of the backstroke."

For a brief moment in the late 80s he'd signed up at the YMCA, but he went back to the Park District pools because he couldn't afford the Y's membership fees. "Not everyone in Chicago can afford private clubs," he says. "The Park District is the place for people like us."

Over the years he and his roommate, Sam Marts, became regular morning swimmers at Eckhart Park, at 1330 W. Chicago--funky digs, to say the least. There are burned-out lightbulbs in the locker rooms, broken lockers, lousy water pressure in the shower, and icy water in the pool. The two men shared the pool with swimmers from a local high school as well as some disabled locals who had their own coach and routine. They shared the showers with homeless men who wandered in.

But Sistler didn't complain, not much anyway. "I figured it was free--it's for the public," he says. "The homeless guys certainly have a right to use it. So does the team. I do think the lightbulb situation was absurd. I could go on and on about the lightbulbs. It's absolutely insane. The classic joke is, 'How many Park District employees does it take to fix a lightbulb? It must take a lot.' I'd tell the staff, 'The lightbulbs are out in the locker room.' And they'd tell me, 'We put in a work order.' I don't understand the need for a work order. But they said they had to have union electricians come in to change the lightbulbs--the regular staffers just can't do it by themselves. So weeks would go by before a lightbulb got replaced."

He remembers that in 1999--"or maybe it was 2000, I'm not quite sure"--people "had to bring flashlights to the locker room because it was too dark to see. It was virtually pitch black--just the slightest hint of light. I told one of the staffers we should start a 'Friends of the Lightbulbs.' You know, like Friends of the Parks, only this group would be in charge of raising money to pay for new lightbulbs. She just sort of brushed me off, and I never made a big thing out of it."

Until February 26 of this year. That's when the staff told him about the lap-swimming fee. The charge is $20 for 20 weeks. "It's a reasonable fee--in comparison to a private club," says Sistler. "But that's not the point. The Park District is not a private club. It's public. There should be no fee."

The more he thought about it, the more it bothered him. And he had a lot of time to think about it, particularly when he was doing laps. "I'd be swimming and I'd be thinking, 'This is absurd.' Even the Park District employees told us they didn't like it. Who wants to collect money? It's weird. Why charge to swim laps and not for open swim? Who made that decision?"

The fee, he realized, represented a retreat from the old-fashioned principle of a neighborhood park as universally open and free. Under Mayor Daley, he learned, Park District officials have been encouraged to think of the parks as moneymakers, or at least as places that partially pay for themselves through user fees. "It's all so arbitrary and undemocratic," says Sistler. "There are no public meetings. They didn't come to Eckhart and say, 'We're thinking of imposing a fee for swimming laps.'" He thinks the decision puts the Park District on a slippery slope. "Today it's a fee for swimming laps. What's next? A fee for open swim? Once they get used to fees it's hard not to use more."

He decided that enough was enough. "If they charge a fee--and I don't think they should--they should at least provide better service," he says. "And they ought to provide a better accounting of where the money's going that they collect. The people at Eckhart tell me the fees don't go to them. It goes downtown and gets spent--on what? Rebuilding Soldier Field or Millennium Park?"

On March 20 Sistler and Marts wrote a letter to Park District general superintendent David Doig. "We realize that the pool is a specialized, expensive facility, not unlike a golf course," they wrote. "However, we believe that the District pools were designed specifically for those who cannot afford a country club or health club or even the YMCA. The District pools are to provide healthful exercise and fun facilities for all citizens. To require payment of additional monies only creates an elitist system of those who can afford and those who can't." The letter went on to describe the shabby conditions at the pool, including the lightbulbs.

On March 22 Doig wrote back. "It has been common practice in the Chicago Park District to charge for restricted use of our facilities," his letter said. "Lap swimming restricts the use of the pool to a small select group of people for the sole use of swimming laps." But he also assured Sistler and Marts, "Your comments regarding the facilities will be addressed immediately. Bringing your concerns to the Park Supervisor will expedite the process in your park in the future."

Doig's response hardly satisfied Sistler. "Let's break it down," he says. "Restrictive use of our facilities? We're not any more restrictive than open swim. It's just a different use of the pool. Small select group of people? What's that supposed to mean? Lap swimming is open to anyone who wants to swim laps. We're not restricting anyone. I could just as easily say that open swim is restrictive because it restricts me from swimming laps." Moreover, he says, his comments hadn't been addressed immediately. And he had brought his concerns to the park supervisors. "Nothing had ever happened," he says. "It's only when you go over their heads--when you write a letter to someone downtown--that something happens."

At a Park District board meeting in April swimmers who showed up to protest were told by officials that they had no reason to complain. Most suburbs charge their residents a fee to use the pools. Why should Chicago be different? Rising costs had made the days of free service impossible, and the alternative was to raise taxes. Park District spokesman Angelynne Amores adds that the district is going out of its way to limit the amount of swimming fees. "The swimming lap fee is for three seasons--in the summer lap swimming is free," she says. "These lap fees are not a big revenue-generation source, but we recognize that there are expenses for lap swimming. Sometimes the pools don't open until nine, but you'll have lap swimmers wanting to swim as early as five. You have to have two lifeguards there earlier than usual. So the fees are really recouping costs."

Over the summer Sistler continued his campaign to improve services. "It hasn't gotten any better," he says. "It's been a disgrace. A few months ago one of the toilets backed up, and it was really horrible--the smell was horrific. [An employee] told me she had put in a work order but nothing had happened, so she dealt with it herself. Another time there was this pool of water that sat in the locker room for a week. The floor drains were blocked, I guess. A lot of the lockers are still broken. The showers are still unpredictable. Sometimes the water pressure drops, I don't know why. We'll be hugging the walls for every little drip of water that slips out. Don't get me started on the water in the pool. Sometimes it's frigid--I mean ice-cold. Hopefully, with all the fees they're charging, they're going to get a thermostat. Right now, when the water's too cold the staff has to call the engineer. I said, 'Why don't you just use the thermostat?' They say they don't have one."

Sistler is still writing letters to Park District officials asking them to fix up the park. He's written to Cynthia Moreno, the manager of the region in which Eckhart Park is located, and Jaime Anderson, deputy director of beaches and pools. "They have not responded," he says. "My guess is that this is all about money. Someone's thinking, 'Hmm, how can we save money? I know--we'll cut back on lightbulbs and water. And we'll charge a fee!' What's next? Cutting back on toilet paper and cleaning supplies? I know not everyone's going to be sympathetic. I can hear some people right now--'Oh, stop complaining and just pay the fee. It's cheaper than a club.' But these are our parks. We deserve better."

Slow on the Trigger

In June landmark activists Jonathan Fine and Michael Moran sent Mayor Daley and about ten other city officials a two-page letter detailing their proposal for a new ordinance intended to protect valuable buildings in the city. Under their policy, the building department would automatically notify the planning department of any proposal to demolish a historically valuable building.

Fine and Moran call it a trigger system. If such an alarm had been in place last year--"and it's unbelievable that it's not," says Fine--then maybe the planning department wouldn't have allowed the building department to issue a demolition permit for the old Mercantile Exchange, the 17-story limestone edifice at the corner of Franklin and Washington designed by Alfred Alschuler ("Big and Beautiful," August 30). At the very least, the city might have had to hold a public meeting on the matter before issuing the permit.

"Without a trigger system there's no oversight, there's no protection," says Fine, who, along with Moran, helped found Preservation Chicago. "One hand of the city doesn't know what the other's doing."

In early September, Moran and Fine finally got a response from the city to their letter. "The mayor has asked that I respond on his behalf," wrote Brian Goeken, who's in charge of the planning department's landmarks division. "As you know, these issues are presently under review by our department. We appreciate your thoughts on these issues, and we will take them into consideration in our review."

"It's a perfectly respectful letter, I suppose," says Fine, trying hard to disguise his disappointment. "It just took, let's see, one, two, almost three months to write it. And it doesn't say anything. It doesn't address our proposal in any substantive way."

Meanwhile, the city has allowed at least three historically significant buildings to be demolished without reviews or hearings. "The most valuable is the Hamill mansion at 2126 [S.] Prairie Avenue," says Fine. "It's one of the eight remaining mansions left on Prairie, which of course was once the Gold Coast of Chicago. They had 80, and now the city's allowed 73 to be demolished over the years."

Also demolished over the summer were the National Bank of Commerce, an eight-story limestone building at 4008 W. Madison designed by the firm of Daniel Burnham's sons, and one of the original Schlitz taverns, at 11444 S. Front Avenue in Pullman. "The Schlitz tavern is just one of a handful that are left," says Fine. "These are just three of the prominent buildings that have been destroyed while we were waiting for action. I don't know how many others have also been destroyed. We only found out about them after they were destroyed. The city certainly didn't tell us that demolition permits had been sought. That inattention is only going to lead to more demolition of valuable buildings."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

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