The Insider

Rocks in Their Heads
Japanese rock garden is supposed to inspire feelings of peace and tranquillity. But the rock garden in Hermann Park seems to have had the opposite effect on the city's Parks and Recreation Department hierarchy, which apparently views the five-and-a-half-acre garden as if it were full of gallstones, rather than granite boulders.

The city's continued neglect of the Hermann Park garden led parks department supervisor Virginia Vargas, who had overseen the garden, to resign her $22,000-a-year post earlier this month. Vargas complained that her superiors had failed to provide needed materials and equipment and had denigrated the work of department staffers who maintain the garden.

Vargas told The Insider that she had just returned from a ten-day self-paid trip to Japan to study garden culture when Bill Schwartz, the parks department's southeast division supervisor, informed her that she was wasting the city's time if she was "doing anything other than mowing grass and spraying chemicals."

According to Vargas, when she tried to explain that wildlife-killing chemicals could not be used in an organic water garden that attracts rare birds and shelters thousands of dollars worth of Japanese koi, or goldfish, Schwartz replied, "I don't need to know how the Japanese drink their damn water. I just need to get the grass mowed and the weeds taken care of." Schwartz also ridiculed the weeklong efforts of her staff while Vargas was in Japan to spread 146 tons of black granite gravel in the garden by shovel -- a labor made necessary when requests to parks department supervisors for a front-end loader were ignored.

"That kind of attitude is prevalent in the Parks and Recreation Department, and that is why I decided to resign," says Vargas. "I feel I can better support the garden as a private citizen in Houston by establishing a Japanese Garden Society."

(Schwartz denies making any comment about the Japanese and their water-drinking habits to Vargas and insists he had no problems with the garden staff while Vargas was absent. As to the value of Vargas's duties overseeing the garden, Schwartz said that was an issue for higher-ups in the parks department to address.)

The Hermann Park garden was a gift to the city from the Japanese-American community in 1992 and is supported by the nonprofit Japanese Garden Incorporated, which raised several million dollars to construct the garden and maintains an endowment of $176,000. In addition to a waterfall and several hundred tons of boulders in an arrangement designed by architect Ken Nakajima, the garden contains dozens of traditional Japanese plant species and walkways covered with raked gravel.

Unfortunately, it has not been kept in pristine condition. The water in the garden pond and waterways is so murky, according to garden supporter Norma Inafuku, that the fish can rarely be seen. Vargas estimates that only 1,000 of the more than 6,000 azaleas planted in the initial installation remain; she says the garden has not been adequately fertilized in two years.

In its first year of operation, the garden was maintained by people who knew little about the vegetation, says Vargas. As a result, when dogwoods and redbuds dropped their leaves in winter, a caretaker thought they were dead and had them ripped from the ground.

Even before her April 6 resignation, Vargas had ventured onto thin ice with her bosses by criticizing the decision to demolish a rock garden in the basement of the old HL&P building that the city had purchased and is remodeling. The garden was obstructing the path of a proposed new route for the downtown tunnel system.

When Vargas learned that city workers planned to shatter the boulders, she told a Chronicle reporter she was "devastated" to learn that the "beautiful stones were being destroyed." She suggested that the boulders instead be transported to the Hermann Park garden, an idea accepted by public works officials.

But Vargas's seemingly innocuous remarks in the Chronicle angered Susan Christian, a deputy parks department director, who called Vargas after the story's appearance and, says Vargas, "literally screamed" at her for talking to a reporter.

Christian denies she raised her voice to Vargas and claims she encourages department employees to talk freely with the media -- as long as they coordinate their comments with her. (In previous Press stories about the parks department, employees have flatly contradicted Christian's assertion, saying they had been instructed never to talk to the media.)

After resigning, Vargas prepared a list of improvements that were needed at the garden, including sprayers for fertilization, wheelbarrows, ladders and a facility where workers can eat lunch or take breaks. Currently, Vargas says, employees must use a public restroom for shelter when the weather is bad.

"I did see some of the things she wrote down and a lot of them are quite extensive," says Christian. "I think that a lot of those things are things we can't afford to do at current status anyway, within our budget."

Meanwhile, Dan Jones, a deputy director of the Public Works and Engineering Department, seems embarrassed by the HL&P garden flap and wants to assure Vargas that City Hall isn't angry at her over her previous public pronouncements. He also credits Vargas with giving him "the opportunity to get out of a ticklish situation with the Japanese garden stones" by recommending that they be hauled to Hermann Park.

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