Can we be honest about Houston for a moment? Do any of us really like living here this time of year? Remember, I said “honest.”
Don’t start canceling me on social media just yet, because I know this city is the land of opportunity and diversity and food and a 26-lane Katy Freeway. But I’ve met too many who proclaim to love their Houston who also skip town in July and don’t come back until the school bell rings. With COVID, I’m not sure they’ll be back before Thanksgiving.
Between heat advisories, ozone pollution warnings and a cone of hurricane uncertainty lodged in our brains for another couple of months, we could put together a rather ominous Chamber of Commerce postcard, huh?
Let’s assume we can’t do anything about the heat, with a tip of the cap to the climate change discussion. Of course, on Aug. 9, 1947, the high temperature in Houston was 103 degrees. This has been, and will be, a hot city.
What we’ve lacked, and what our leaders have tried to address over the past decade, is finding a respite from the heat. My wife and I, for instance, like being outside, even if we break a sweat. In order to find some trees or a breeze from the water, we either need a pool or a trip out of town. And what we’ve always wondered is why our city hasn’t done more to develop areas that create a better quality of life.
My wife came home last Saturday afternoon with a finger on the trigger of her cell phone.
“Look what they did at Memorial Park,” she said, flipping through a series of photos from the recently opened Clay Family Eastern Glades.
“That’s Memorial Park?” I asked, somewhat bewildered. “Where?”
The next day, I packed up the three kids and made the voyage myself, even if it was 103 degrees. My sons darted from my grasp in a race to stand at the edge of the new 5.5-acre Hines Lake, hoping to catch frogs or fish (though no fishing is allowed).
The Memorial Park Conservancy, in partnership with Houston Parks and Recreation, The Kinder Foundation and the Uptown Development Authority, has made our city’s best park even better with the opening of the Eastern Glades.
Here’s what the official press release said: “Located north of Memorial Drive between Memorial Park Golf Course and Crestwood Drive, the transformed 100-acre area features picnic areas, native wetlands, savanna, pine-hardwood forest, wide open green spaces and miles of accessible trails for Houstonians to enjoy.”
I wanted to know more, mainly because I couldn’t stay long enough, mainly because the public restrooms are still closed from COVID, which was a problem for my 3-year-old who has the intestinal fortitude of a rabbit.
Shellye Arnold has lived in Garden Oaks since 1993. She’s been the head of the Memorial Park Conservancy since 2013, and we talked earlier this week about the incredible transformation that has taken place. I didn’t ask so much about the generic information, because that can all be found on the conservancy’s website.
What I really wanted to know is how, after about two weeks of being open, could there already be a vast array of wildlife, perfectly placed native vegetation and boardwalks that look like they belong.
“This all dates back to our master plan that was put together in 2015,” Arnold said. “We formed a committee of ecological scientists – 25 of them – and brought in the best of the best scientist.”
If there was a specialist needed, the partnership found them – birds, turtles, frogs, vegetation, soil. And in 2015, when a small, 1-acre pond was dug behind shrubs and fences, the wildlife found the oasis on their own.
“In 2018, we just expanded [the lake] that was already there, and we enhanced the area to make it more resilient,” Arnold said.
The details and depth to what the Conservancy and its partners have created goes far beyond what I can provide in this column. There are new pavilions, 2.5 more miles of walking trails, the Live Oak Court, a food truck court and an event lawn. Even the parking lot feeds run-off water through phases of cleaning before that water hits the soil or runs into the lake.
All of those things make for a wonderful addition to Houston’s recreational opportunities, but the best stories are often the ones found in the dirt. And in the case of the Eastern Glades, what Arnold and the entire partnership did with the actual dirt gives such meaning to the project.
In 2011-12, Houston went through one of its worst droughts in history. Those who visited Memorial Park at the time saw the devastation – dead trees crashing down onto walking trails, once-thick canopies suddenly bare. The drought was a chemo treatment to one of our most historic parks.
Those dead trees were not thrown into a burn pile to stink our air and clear the land. Instead, as Arnold told me, they were taken to a 2-acre bio-cycle operation where they were treated for years. And today, those 40,000 dead trees have become 10,000 cubic yards of compost that has enriched the soil of Memorial Park.
For people like me, who sometimes spend too much time complaining about ways our city needs to improve itself, it’s tremendously gratifying to tell the story of what the Memorial Park Conservancy and its public-private partnership has done for the quality of life in Houston. The Kinder Foundation kicked this project into gear in 2018 with its philanthropic work, and the Clay Family helped put it over the edge.
And today, Houston is the better for it. Go see for yourself.