After more than a year, Houston's long-awaited Johnny Steele Dog Park opened January 17, and I'm looking forward to when the hype is over. Because it will probably take a couple of weeks before the $1.5 million, postcard-perfect grounds are utilized by lovers of dogs, and not lovers of shiny new things.
The Buffalo Bayou Partnership is so proud of its accomplishment that, when we visited Sunday, we saw that a security guard and a gentleman in a Partnership-logo shirt weren't enforcing the park rules. We saw plenty of children under 12, which park rules prohibit. But it was so crowded that I didn't stick around to check the enforcement of another weird rule: a one-hour time limit for each dog.
When I asked Partnership spokeswoman Trudi Smith about the rules, she said that the park was simply in line with the city's dog park ordinance. As it turns out, the Partnership threw in the one-hour time limit on their own.
"It will be enforced when needed," she told us in an email. But when I asked how, she didn't reply.
That's when I got the feeling that Johnny Steele Dog Park was never really about the dogs, because the unofficial dog park it replaced was just fine -- for dogs. And, sure, the shiny new version will be fine, too, even though it's divided into large- and small-dog sections, which greatly reduces the space.
I say this with complete awareness that I sound like a grumpy old man: The unofficial Buffalo Bayou dog park was the best dog park in the city limits. It was a wide-open stretch of grass that made for unimpeded dog-sprints, bordered on one side by the disgusting, muddy bayou bank and gnarly woods where dogs could get a sense of the wild, and by a freaking parkway on the other.
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It's my assertion that having such an unfenced, inherently dangerous layout kept a lot of idiots away. Or, perhaps more fairly, it kept away people who could not control their dogs. Sure, occasionally a dog would give its owner a heart attack by bounding up the steep incline flanking Allen Parkway, but I never once saw a dog make it out into the street.
I don't think I ever once saw an un-neutered dog there, either, because it just wasn't the kind of crowd. On Sunday, I saw two in my first ten minutes. (For some reason, the city ordinance and Partnership rules prohibit female dogs in heat, but give ball-sacks a pass.)
With all the hype surrounding the grand opening, it wasn't surprising to see such crowds. On even the busiest day at the unofficial dog park, there weren't numbers like that. Or, if there were, the extra space didn't make it feel so crowded. I'm curious as to how many people had brought their dog to that corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose for the first time, and what would have kept them away in the past. Was it the lack of a fence? The lack of cleaning stations, or fear of alligators lurking in the bayou?
Or was it that they just weren't interested in exercising their dogs unless the property was polished? Well, it's certainly pretty now, and, as much as the old version will be missed, it's still great to have a centrally located park. It's just a shame that Houston's dogs will only be able to enjoy the beauty for an hour at a time.