About a month ago I came across a number of articles, including this one in the Portland Tribune about proposed budget cuts to Portland Parks and Recreation, and particularly the recreation centers, in light of increasing costs in labor and facilities. In the last week, the city has released the complete budget proposal, which includes shuttering a number of community centers, and dialing back programming at the existing ones, due to a budget shortfall of around $6 million.
This is an incredibly shortsighted decision. It goes against the city’s purported values, including equity and sustainability. It will shut down long-standing facilities that will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover, which serve their communities in terms of both physical public spaces, and relationships that have been built up over years, if not decades.
As a scholar of public spaces, I think about how places for gathering in our cities support good lives for people in everyday ways. In my own ethnographic research, I found that elders who belong to a swim team in a local community center report better health as well as an emotional support network as a result of having a local community center to attend every week. Other benefits of public space to the body politic and to neighborhood vitality have been well-documented in ethnographic and large-n studies; this is more than just a feel-good endeavor.
To take one specific example from this budget year, it is cynical to pit the Sellwood community center (which is proposed to be shuttered due to expensive repairs) or the Laurelhurst dance center against the centers in the eastern (poorer) part of the city, with the idea that the relatively-more-affluent families will fend for themselves. Indeed, all should be funded. Decisions like this increase inequality within and across neighborhoods. That is: as one community center goes, so eventually will go all. The ‘realignment’ proposed in the budget (to consolidate programming in bigger centers, rather than support many neighborhood centers) is just the first step.
Furthermore, the notion that the relatively-more-affluent don’t need common public spaces along with everyone else, takes them out of the fight for good public amenities, as they become less and less served by them, and ‘public’ comes to be equated with ‘the worst the city has to offer.’ We have seen this with public schools across America, and we will see it with our public spaces if we treat them like pawns of a particular budgetary year.
The community centers provide recreational, arts and cultural programming, and a place to hang out, for so many. This value is never sexy or photogenic. These centers don’t have epic events, just a slow, plodding everyday vitality that connects people to one another in the halls and on the steps. Senior citizen yoga, ballet for small boys and girls, beginning guitar for people who never plan to become musicians, basketball for young people to enjoy the thrill of playing; these are the small ways a city stays public, and keeps the worst of our increasing American inequality at bay. Those who fight for the cause of public space tend to be few, because we weren’t set up to have to fight for it year upon year.
In a more pragmatic vein, with climate change, the city is suffering hotter and smokier summers, colder winters, and less predictability in terms of when Portlanders will be able to spend time outdoors. This particularly affects small kids, their parents, and our elders. The community center and the pool must be at the center of a plan for climate resiliency, not an afterthought. Anything less will lead to a weakening of our social ties and a retreat into our homes and tribes just at the moment we could use more time together, learning in everyday ways how to build a more just future based in cooperation and sharing of space.
Just as Portland must fight to keep a roof over the head of all her citizens, we also must fight to keep a home for the public in our long-loved community centers. Budget priorities are social and cultural priorities. Beyond the kid in tap shoes, or the elder who keeps fit with their friends is a question of our dedication to public life in a moment at which the social fabric itself is fraying. It would be thin reasoning if a city that has attracted tremendous wealth in the past few decades did not figure out how to marshal enough revenue to maintain these spaces in a meaningful way.