Sunday, April 06, 2008

Let’s Go Downtown. For Some Bocce.

The daily newspaper’s Mike Snyder, one of Our Town’s ablest reporters (has a deep, deep knowledge of the city that can only be acquired through years of not only working and living here but paying attention here) had an excellent story in Sunday’s editions about the new Discovery Green thing-a-ma-bob downtown, which is set to open next week. In a very even-handed way, Snyder gently raises what has seemed to us to be the obvious question about Discovery Green: Will anyone aside from vagrants and other idlers actually go there, once the whoop-de-do dies down and the brass-band welcome from the tail-waggers in the media goes silent?

Based on Snyder’s reporting, it sounds to us as if the attractions at Discovery Green were concocted not by actual park patrons and/or taxpayers but by a committee of faux hipsters-cum-PR-and-marketing shills. According to Snyder

Visitors can sprawl in the grass for a concert, race model boats or splash in an interactive fountain. Runners can try out the jogging path while more sedate visitors can read a magazine in a small library or have a drink at The Grove restaurant … People who enjoy trendy games can play bocce, an Italian sport similar to lawn-bowling, while more traditional Texans can pitch horseshoes. Part of the model boat pool will be frozen during winter months for ice skating. Children can frolic in a "mist tree" that also serves as a piece of public art and a place for joggers to cool off … A farmer's market will serve a demand for locally produced food. On weekends, families can visit the park, put their pets in one of two dog runs and watch their kids play on the playground while they discard their newspapers and cans into recycling bins.

Bocce? This is Texas, podnuh: Why not an actual non-smoke-free* bowling alley? Anyway, we hope this all works out and the park is perpetually packed from dawn to dusk and taxpayers’ $41 million investment pays off (oh yeah, one of the lead designers of the park---her firm’s from San Francisco, of course---told Snyder that all activity sites in Discovery Green will be aligned “along the Andrea and Bill White Promenade, which runs through the park.”**)

We, however, are skeptical. Let us stop for a moment and consider why people go to parks, based not on the fanciful notions of some overpaid designer types but on the unfashionable evidence presented to our own lying eyes: People with little kids go to parks to let their offspring frolic on the rubberized, injury- and liability-proof playground equipment, as is available at city SPARK parks on school grounds across Houston; if there are jogging paths, as at Memorial and déclassé Bayland, a county-run facility near our home, people go to run and walk around the track, although we wouldn’t consider a jogging path a destination attraction (we’d bet most of the lithe young folks prancing around Memorial work and/or live near downtown, while we notice about the only people doing the circuit at Bayland are slightly overweight Hispanic women from nearby apartments [we when lope past we say encouragingly, “You go, muchacha!”); if there are tennis courts, the old and middle-aged go to knock the balls over the net; there are also many, many people, usually not from the upper-income zip codes, who go to the park to picnic and be with family (at Hermann Park on any given Saturday it’s like half of Mexico is having a family reunion [and that’s cool]); occasionally---meaning “not too often”---citizens will be drawn to Hermann Park to attend a special function targeted to their particular demographic profile***: Shakespeare in the Park, the Asian Festival, the Juneteenth Celebration****, the Meshketian Turk Pig Run and Roast, etc. (But apparently some of those to-dos, or related ones, are being pulled over to Discovery Green: Snyder reports that “the park plans to host a health fair on Juneteenth and an Asian festival.”)

Personally, we know of no one who’s going to drive downtown and stash their vehicle in Discovery Green’s underground parking lot (sheesh: a park with an underground lot, what a Houstonesque touch!) to read a magazine or dump their recyclables or play bocce or even horseshoes.***** We’re sure the Del Grande-Schiller restaurant operations will do just fine, but it’s a safe bet that what we’ll reductively designate as “regular folks” won’t be thronging the front doors. Snyder taps an out-of-towner, Phil Myrick, a vice president of New York-based non-profit Project for Public Spaces, which participated in early planning for Discovery Green, to delicately raise these points:

… the public and philanthropic investment in Discovery Green can be justified only if the park attracts many people from throughout the Houston area, said [Myrick].

Too often, Myrick said, "money gets poured into a place that very few people end up enjoying and spending time in."

Because Discovery Green is in a "challenging location," Myrick said, it will have to offer compelling activities to attract visitors from far-flung neighborhoods.

"Consider your average person on a Saturday or Sunday. Are they really going to pack up the kids and head downtown, or stay closer to home?" Myrick asked. "If downtown is the only audience (for the park), it will be a terrible waste."

Time will tell. In the spirit of civic-mindedness we had suggested the facility be named in honor of Lightnin’ Hopkins*****, a move that certainly wouldn’t have forestalled the bocce lanes or the Andrea and Bill White Promenade but would have generated some international buzz and perhaps ensured the park would attract the occasional visitor from Copenhagen or Lyons, should the homeless eventually take over.

*’Cause cigarettes and bowling go together like … Bill and Andrea White.

**Maybe it’s just our raisin’, but it strikes us an unseemly for a sitting mayor and his old lady to have anything connected to a taxpayer-funded facility---even a “promenade”--- named after themselves, no matter how instrumental White was in helping raise the private funding for the park. Discretion should have dictated that the mayor demur and suggest the avenue be named, say, the Bob and Elyse Lanier Promenade (plant a few roses bushes along the way) or even the Lee P. and Missus (Whatshername) Brown Promenade. Hey, while we’re on the subject, how come nothing’s named after Kathy Whitmire around here? After all, she was the town’s first and so far only female mayor and did a decent job under trying circumstances (oil bust, rampantly surreal gay-bashing, etc.), but is there even a Ladies Room at City Hall bearing her name?

***Once, it must have been in the mid- or late ’80s, we heard Sun Ra and his Arkestra in Hermann Park. Now that was cool.

****Looks like Al Edwards will be back this year in fighting trim!

*****We, of course, won’t be going, as we only venture downtown if we need to see a lawyer or a broker, and we aren’t interested in talking with a representative of either profession at the moment.

******Y’know, a local from the locality, who nevertheless was/is known all over the globe. (We’re still scratchin’ that thing.)


Anonymous said...

More negative yapping on the low hanging fruit.

lockmat said...

no kidding. negetivity pollutes our city more than the refineries.