Poetry in the Park was that rare program that kept people coming for 17 years.
Every fourth Tuesday, they'd show at the Encanto Park clubhouse for open mic nights, poetry readings, and even the occasional musician or dance troupe. There was never a fee, never a need to RSVP, never even a request for donations. Just poetry and art and a really good time.
But last week, Poetry in the Park said goodbye to Encanto Park. City bureaucrats had told the event's sponsors that they needed to become an official city-sponsored event and start charging admission, which, naturally, the city would collect. The city even dictated the price: $3 a head. If the group refused, city staffers said, it would have to start paying rent — to the tune of $100 a month. Not surprisingly, the poets are saying goodbye instead.
And it's not just the poets leaving Encanto over the new rules.
Every Wednesday for 15 years, a rag-tag group of acoustic musicians has jammed in the clubhouse lobby. But the city told the group that the Wednesday-night sessions need to become an official city event. Anyone who attends will have to cough up $5 a month and, unbelievably, get a city-issued photo ID.
If the musicians refuse, well, they can pay $100 to rent the space for each week's session.
Parks officials tell me that this is merely part of a new "tightening" of parks department policy.
Ruth Powell, a recreation supervisor for the city, says that the parks department put together a task force to examine the use of its facilities by outside groups. It found a number of groups were using Encanto without cost, and decided to change that. Events that the city wanted to promote could stay on for free, but everybody else would have to start chipping in.
Initially, she says, the reaction was pretty heated. "But after the dust settled, I'm starting to see some clear air," Powell says, optimistically. "Really, some of these groups are realizing it's not so bad."
That may be true for some. (Powell says the orchid society, for one, is staying put and ponying up.) But for others, the result has been disastrous.
The poets are now looking for a new, more affordable space. Carol Hogan, who's been organizing the event for nearly a decade, says they probably won't be able to find one in time for their scheduled January date.
Meanwhile, David Baumann, a musician and longtime attendee of the Wednesday-night jams, says he's practicing "American Pie," specifically the line "the day the music died" — and that the group is looking at space in Glendale.
The groups found out about the city's edict in late October, which hasn't given them much time to organize. After all, neither group has a corporate charter or a 501(c)(3), much less a bank account.
As it turns out, that's the city's fault.
Baumann tells me that the acoustic sessions at Encanto were the brainchild of Lon Austin, the city of Phoenix's longtime activities director at Encanto. (Austin has since retired.) So the city actually set up the Wednesday-night event and instructed the musicians that they had to be free and open to everybody — and then, when the event was running beautifully on its own, announced a rule change that's sure to kill it.
And Hogan says that the city's old policy expressly forbade groups from charging fees or even collecting donations. So the city surely can't be surprised that Poetry in the Park has no resources other than what comes out of Hogan's pockets, other the occasional bag of coffee or plate of cookies donated by attendees.
Oh, and speaking of cookies . . .
"They told us we can no longer bring cookies from home," Baumann says. "Everything served has to be commercially bought." The county health department is cracking down on everything from bake sales to church socials — and the city wants events on its turf to be in total compliance. Goodbye, homemade cookies; hello, ID badges.
I'm not surprised that both groups have flatly rejected the idea of becoming official city events in order to eschew rent.
For one thing, neither group wants to charge its participants, which city officials insist on doing even under the rent-free scenario. Both the poets and the musicians believe that what made the events special was the open-door policy, the fact that no one checked IDs at the door or asked for money.
The other problem is that these are artists. Specifically, the poetry veers more toward Allen Ginsberg than Emily Dickinson. "Do you know how many times we heard the F-word last Tuesday night?" Hogan says. Poets have been known to rant about everything from Sheriff Joe to, more recently, the city's director of parks and recreation. "We can't be in a position where they can come in and tell us what we're allowed or not allowed to do," Hogan says.
It's clear that the city has this thing unbelievably backwards. They sell millions of dollars in bonds to support the arts — money that gets handed over to big-ticket arts groups, like the ballet and the impressive museums on Central Avenue.
But when it comes to grassroots stuff, to music sessions and open mic nights and art that real people can do and not just watch, the city wants to assign ID cards and charge rent and make things so onerous that it's easier to hightail it to the next town over.
I don't blame these groups one bit for leaving, even though their departure is a loss for every one of us.
We have little enough culture as it is in this town. It's ridiculous that we're going to chase it away in the name of tightening department policy.
THE GRILL HEATS UP
This summer, I wrote about the fight brewing at the Phoenix Country Club ("Men Behaving Badly," July 19, 2007). The club has long featured separate restaurants for men and women, but this spring, a pair of longtime members decided that integration was long overdue. Logan and Barbara Van Sittert complained to Attorney General Terry Goddard that the club's separate facilities violate civil rights law.
Legally, the issue boils down to whether the country club is private (meaning it can set its own rules) or public (meaning it must treat everybody equally). Goddard is mulling the issue.
But the fallout has been more interesting than the legal skirmish. The club tried to strip the Van Sitterts of their membership and passed rules to bar members from publicly disparaging the club. Even worse, a few less-civilized members resorted to the age-old tactic of calling Barbara Van Sittert a "bitch" and a "whore" in graffiti — on their own golf course.
And the gentlemen are still at it.
Last month, after some female members played in a golf tournament, they dared to join their fellow golfers in the Men's Grill. One male member immediately wrote an e-mail to 90 of his closest golfing buddies, calling for the termination of the club's general manager.
"Everyone please send an e-mail and/or put in a phone call to every Board member you know," wrote Brad East, pronouncing that General Manager Pat LaRocca "should be fired today!"
Several members responded quickly — and let's just say no one seconded the firing idea. (One member, in fact, was horrified enough to send me the e-mails.) No matter how you feel about the Men's Grill, surely we all agree that a hard-working professional shouldn't lose his job just because he allowed a few women to dine there.
East, senior vice president for a local investment firm, seemed to back away from his comments when I reached him Tuesday. He said he really just wants to see the club work toward nicer mixed-gender dining. "It appears to me that the Phoenix Country Club members have been basically fighting over an issue where they all basically agree and don't realize it," he wrote in an e-mail.
William Maledon, president of the Phoenix Country Club, says that East does not speak for the club. The women's inclusion was approved well in advance, Maledon says, and "the only person who didn't know about it was the member who wrote that stupid e-mail."
Ultimately, Maledon doesn't seem too worried about the attorney general intervening.
The Arizona and Paradise Valley Country Clubs both recently completed extensive remodels, Maledon notes. Both retained separate dining rooms for men and women.
"I think the A.G. has a problem if they decide to pursue us and not the others," Maledon says.
Regardless, the Phoenix Country Club is beginning a construction project that may mollify any members who believe that women are being shorted. After the remodel, the coed dining room will be bigger, with more casual options. The Women's Grill is also getting an overhaul.
Not so the Men's Grill. "We're not spending 10 cents on the Men's Grill in this project," Maledon says.
Not 10 cents? Wow. Makes you wonder about the real victims here. In fact, if the crazy broads keep complaining, next thing you know, men could be second-class citizens at the Phoenix Country Club!
Somewhere out there, I'm betting, an angry young man is ready to fire off an e-mail about it. If I were Maledon, at the very least, I'd anticipate some new graffiti.
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