I know this is no time to suggest adding another layer to local governments when revenue sources are drying up, but I’m going to do it anyway. I suggest we create a county-wide, intergovernmental agency called The Department of Free Stuff.
People should have lots of opportunities to have safe, free fun together, especially during hard times when families’ incomes are shrinking. We all benefit from the sense of community, of being part of something that belongs to all of us.
I don’t think we’ll actually see a new branch of government devoted to thinking up ways for people to have a good time without spending lots of money, but there are governmental and non-governmental groups that can make this kind of thing happen.
Here’s an example.
Lots of cities have a free day at the zoo once a month. I can only think of one reason we don’t have something like that here. No one has put together the time and energy to make it happen. And that’s a genuine shame. Zoos are more than family entertainment. They’re a valuable educational resource that should be open to everyone. For a kid, there’s nothing quite like seeing and hearing and smelling an elephant at close range. But a trip to the Reid Park Zoo sets a family back about $15 to $20, which is more than lots of people can manage.
It would take time and effort to round up enough sponsors to cover the zoo’s lost revenue if it offered a free day once a month, and more effort to get the word out to the media and the schools. But once that was done, we’d have a zoo open to everyone in our community, not just those who can afford it.
But why stop with the zoo? The city is filled with museums that more people would visit if it wasn’t for the cost of admission. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if parents on limited incomes could treat their kids to a day at the Children’s Museum, the Air and Space Museum or the Museum of Art one Saturday a month?
I don’t mean to exclude adults without children, by the way. They would be welcome, too.
A few weeks ago, downtown Tucson began a promising new venture that makes use of the Free Stuff concept: “Family Friendly Weekends.” Adults and children can participate in a number of activities within walking distance of one another — free events like story time at the Main Library, arts and crafts for children, mini festivals and parades as well as a number of activities with admission fees. An idea like this will help breathe life into our downtown by filling it with people intent on enjoying themselves. (By the way, you can look up what’s happening each weekend by going to http://www.visittucson.org/visitor/familyfriendlyweekends.)
And then there’s the annual block party. This simple, informal event can turn a bunch of strangers who live next to each other into a community of neighbors. The problem is, organizing a block party can seem like a daunting task. A simple pamphlet with step-by-step instructions, official permit forms for blocking off the street and a phone number where you can get more help and information would go a long way toward helping a neighborhood put one of these events together.
Music festivals are great. So are parades and art fairs and craft shows. The possibilities are only limited by the time and imagination devoted to the task.
It would take time, effort and, yes, money to create activities where the citizens of greater Tucson can get together and enjoy themselves without spending a lot of cash, but it’s not beyond our reach. We have volunteer groups and foundations that can work independently or with local governments to make things happen, one event at a time. I think it would be well worth the effort.
David Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.