By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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Since the late '70s, one of Buffalo Bayou's most important caretakers has been a landscape architect named Charles Tapley. Tapley planted Victory Gardens as a child, and as an adult taught a course on the bayou at the Rice School of Architecture. During the last 15 years he helped create a master plan for Buffalo Bayou. While the details are constantly shifting, a few general goals have emerged.
Perhaps the most important one is to develop Buffalo Bayou as a "linear park" from Shepherd Drive to the Ship Channel turning basin. It's an old concept; in the early part of this century some civic leaders called on the city to buy land on both sides of the bayou for parks and thoroughfares. Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway, though, were the only segments to be developed. A linear park of the sort Tapley envisions would be dotted with amenities and attractions to draw visitors to the bayou. And in some places that's coming true. Construction is already progressing downtown on the second phase of the $18 million Sesquicentennial Park near the Franklin Street Bridge. Funded by a combination of private and public money, Sesquicentennial Park will extend a series of walkways, waterfalls and benches from Wortham Center along both sides of the bayou. An open-air amphitheater will be built to host musical and theatrical performances.
While this capital-intensive project is being built, other lower cost projects downtown manage as well to reveal the bayou's enchantments. One of the most charming and little known is Championship Park, which Tapley designed for the Harris County Flood Control District. The park is situated just to the right on the north side of the Main Street Bridge, across from the University of Houston Downtown. Instead of using a standard sloping concrete retaining wall, Tapley designed a series of concrete terraces that emulate the natural deposition process of the bayou, and provide access for visitors to the edge of the water.
But the most remarkable part of the park has been its plantings. The flood control district has planted a steep slope with a profusion of wildflowers: Mexican firewheel, galardia, phlox, delphinium. Working with a group of adult probationers, Tapley has overseen the planting of dozens of native trees, among them Southern magnolias, red maples and cypress. Many of the probationers, Tapley says, have told him that the planting and care of these trees has been the most meaningful experience they've had in their encounters with the criminal justice system.
Tapley says the park is called Championship to remind people not only of the city's champions, but of the champion in every person. It is a beautiful and mostly undiscovered spot. But the best part of Championship Park is the plan to connect it further east toward the turning basin, in what has come to be called Heritage Corridor. [See sidebar, page 14.]
After showing off his park to a visitor, Tapley walks through some high weeds and debris and points east. He has the gleam of the master gardener in his eye: where others see only an eyesore, he sees tree-lined walks and a public enjoying nature.
Yes, he admits, there will be difficulties. There is money to raise. The public still needs further education about how individual actions pollute the bayou. They need to know that every time someone throws a Styrofoam cup in the street, or dumps oil or house paint or potting soil or leaves in the gutter, it's as good as throwing it in the bayou, since that's where the majority of Houston's storm sewers eventually empty.
Getting the public to the water should help raise that awareness. And it will remind us how, for a long time, the city understood that the bayou was its greatest natural amenity.
Tapley connects a hose to a portable tank and opens the valve to water his fragile young trees. It will take a couple of years of care and nurture, and then they'll be able to make it on their own.
Tapley opens his arms and smiles before the large arch of the Main Street Bridge. A mullet jumps out of the water. The bayou, Tapley notes, reminds us both of where we have come from and what role we must play in taking care of it.
Somewhere, somehow, we lost track of that vision. But in my time on the bayou's waters I discovered that what I had been told was in fact true: the bayou is coming back. I had a tough time completing the final leg of my paddle. Trees had fallen across the water, and I had to pick my way around the edges and hump the kayak over low clearances. I grew careless, and a snag caught my shirt and ripped a hole in it. Then I broadsided a tree and tumbled out into the bayou's flow. When I emerged, my watertight camera no longer worked and my binoculars were clouded and useless. When I finished the trip I was wet and tired, and wished I had taken it a little easier. As I hauled my boat out of the water on the north side of Woodway, a woman pulled into traffic a little slowly, and a blond woman in a red convertible Mercedes came roaring up behind her, her horn blaring.