Chop Talk

Houston remains embroiled in what to do about Memorial Park

Instead of decorating pine trees with tinsel, the women take hedge clippers to trim the eye-level branches on the trail. "We don't want to get whapped in the face by a branch," says Janice Bernal, president of the association. "I have some friends who hate to get their hats knocked off."

Hobby has been horseback riding in the park since 1957. "We put our babies down in playpens under the big oak and we'd ride," she says. She and her husband rode all over the park, covering every trail. Her son, Paul, keeps two ponies at the park stables. And her grandchildren take riding lessons at the park.

The Houston Chronicle reported in the 1960s that park officials had difficulty keeping horseback riders on the bridle path and off the golf course.

Early-morning boot camp attendees do jumping jacks 
in the dark.
Daniel Kramer
Early-morning boot camp attendees do jumping jacks in the dark.

"That's just bad manners," Hobby says.

In the late 1970s, every building in Central Park was covered in graffiti, lights and benches were broken, and the Great Lawn was a dustbowl. The Central Park Conservancy formed in the 1980s, commissioned a high-priced master plan and spent $300 million restoring the park. About $50 million worth of work remains, says Regina Peruggi, president of the Central Park Conservancy.

Because Central Park is a historic landmark, the conservancy couldn't make any controversial changes. It wasn't allowed to remove ball fields or bathrooms. All it could do was restore. "We're just bringing it back to what it was originally," Peruggi says.

Which is exactly what the Memorial Park Conservancy is trying to do in Houston. It just has a little more design leeway, since there isn't a historical, preserve-this-forever marker. Although the park is a historic site: The land is a memorial to World War I doughboys who trained at Camp Logan. In the 1920s, River Oaks developers Will and Mike Hogg sold the land to the city at cost. The Hoggs left a clause in the contract stating that if the land was ever used for anything other than park purposes, ownership reverted to the Hogg heirs.

According to newspaper archives, the Hogg brothers' sister, Ima Hogg, vetoed more than 100 park proposals, from a fish hatchery to a flying field. She nixed the idea of the park housing the Astrodome, the Museum of Natural History and the University of Houston.

Conservancy members talk about "carrying out Miss Ima's wishes." Exactly what her wishes were is open for interpretation. Most members of the conservancy think Hogg wanted the park to have trees and not much else. Nancy Reynolds, a member of both the conservancy and the parks board, says she doesn't agree with fellow conservancy members. She thinks the ball fields should stay in the park. Hogg approved the golf course, and that illustrates that she endorsed recreation and might not oppose the ball fields, Reynolds says.

Alliance members say that it doesn't matter what Hogg's wishes were because the city bought the land. "It was not a gift," Vasquez says.

The sky turns from black to blue. Pine trees are silhouetted against the sky. By 7 a.m. there isn't a parking space available in front of the tennis courts.

There are overdressed joggers running in pairs, listening to headphones or conducting conference calls on cell phones. Parents push baby carriages with bike wheels. Fat dogs, too tired to walk or run, sit in the middle of the path, refusing to budge.

The woods, however, are deserted -- even though it's ten degrees cooler in the forest. Birds caw, crickets chirp, cars rush along 610.

Crumpled yellow leaves make it look like autumn on the Appalachian Trail. Piles of pine bark are heaped around dead, limb-free trees attacked by pine bark beetles. There aren't any young trees. The forest is overgrown with non-native shrubs that have blown in from nearby gardens. Plants like tallow, privet, ligustrum and camphor spread quickly. By the time an old oak tree dies and opens up a patch of sunlight, the invasive plant fills it, Rondot says.

Most of the pine trees were planted 80 years ago, he says. Most pine trees live only 80 years.

Caudill wants to renovate the small, dirty, locked restroom in the picnic area. She would like to construct a runners' locker room with showers and a changing area. But that might encourage "deviant behavior," she says. The kind that got George Michael arrested in a Beverly Hills park restroom. The conservancy is considering raising money to pay a bathroom attendant to make sure no one in the shower drops the soap.

Caudill doesn't want the entire park to be as wooded as the arboretum. The conservancy's goal is not to eliminate ball fields but to remove locked, fenced-in areas of the park -- so that the public can use the park. Currently, the fields are surrounded by rusting chain-link fences. Even the croquet courts are fenced and locked. Caudill made an undercover reservation to ensure that members of the public are allowed to play on those courts. She wants people to be able to use all parts of the park without having to make a reservation or pay rental fees. Plus, it would look nicer to have less gray metal and more greenery.

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