Discovery Green's Pokémon Go ban is silly — and seemingly out of touch.
It’s 10 p.m. on a rainy work night in Houston — and Discovery Green is bustling, alive with people, activity, and commerce. Houston looks like a real, happening, cosmopolitan city, one in which the sidewalks of downtown don’t roll up at 6 p.m.
It’s almost like Houston’s most recognizable park deserves to be mentioned right alongside New York’s Central Park, Chicago’s Grant Park, and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Or at least, not laughed at when held up against those famous major-city parks. One would think that this is a good thing for Discovery Green. One would think that its leadership would embrace this new reality.
One would be wrong.
Instead, Discovery Green officials are trying to ban the very thing that’s giving it extra life and relevance. They’re on an out-of-touch crusade to banish Pokémon Go from the grounds. This is your grandpa yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn.
Only, the grandpa is a park, and it’s supposed to be a public lawn.
Taking extraordinary steps to boot a game that gets people outside and moving — one of the core purposes of parks — is the antithesis of the park movement. But that’s what being done, with Discovery Green officials going as far as contacting Niantic — the maker of the widely popular game — and requesting that the park’s gyms and Pokestops be removed from the augmented-reality game.
Meanwhile, a place such as Central Park encourages Pokémon Go “safaris” through its vast grounds. It’s the difference between forward thinking and fearful thinking.
If you’re older than 25 or so, you probably don’t get Pokémon Go. You probably shake your heads at the scrums of people walking around with their heads down in their phones. I’d no doubt be in that same category — part of the Houston media crowd dutifully espousing the Discovery Green company line and acting as if the park had no other choice (those Pokémon dudes are scary and reckless!) — if I didn’t have two elementary school kids who play the game.
I’ve seen the good of Pokémon Go, though. I’ve seen how the reality of the gameplay often clashes with the alarmist, gleeful coverage of “all” the robberies and other mayhem that are supposedly attached to the phenomenon. And I’ve been at Discovery Green with my three children — all under the age of 10 — multiple times this summer after 9:30 p.m. — my kids keep a newspaper editor’s hours in the summer — and seen first-hand how calm and peaceful the so-called overflow crowds really are.
There are Seth Rogen weed-movie crowds less chill than this group. In fact, the only people I’ve ever seen tense — or disruptive — during my kids Pokémon Go excursions at the park are the security guards Discovery Green hires. These aren’t always people who come across as if they’re trying to make sure everyone enjoys the park. Instead, they often seem to be overbearing folks on needless power trips (locking the bathrooms more than an hour before the park’s official 11 p.m. closing time is a great example).
Public parks should not be dictating the legal leisure activities people engage in at their facilities. They should embrace one and all — Frisbee tosser, playground rollicker, and, yes, Pokémon Go player — equally.
Discovery Green officials say the hordes of Pokémon Go players are making the park spend too much money on extra security and trash-cleaning. This reeks of the small-town thinking, the kind that sometimes inexplicably holds back the fourth-largest city in America.
Hello? You’re a downtown park in one of the largest cities in America. You should be crazy crowded. You shouldn’t be the absolute ghost town I often encountered with my kids earlier in the summer pre-Pokémon Go. You should yearn to be more popular.
Instead, Houston’s leaders seem more comfortable with being a little park with a footprint that’s actually much smaller than even its tight confines — with the exception of a few major music events whenever the Final Four or Super Bowl is in town. Increase the budget of Discovery Green director Barry Mandel — a man who truly cares about the mission of parks — if need be. Embrace the idea of a grander vision for Houston’s signature downtown park.
This Pokémon Go Ban is sad, provincial, and more than a little anti-youth culture. Somehow, I think that if a mass of middle-aged bird watchers descended on Discovery Green because of the surprise appearance of a rare ivory-billed woodpecker, everyone would be OK with it. Any extra necessary security would simply be hired, all the extra trash would simply be picked up.
A Parent’s Look at Pokémon Go
I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Pichu or a Dratini. I have no clue how to deploy PokeBalls. I’m not even quite sure why my two boys find catching Pokémon and taking over gyms so fascinating. But I know Pokémon Go has been good for my family. In many ways, it’s brought three diverse kids together. My oldest is a baseball fanatic who’s always going to get plenty of outdoors time because of his love of the game. But my middle child has to be coaxed into playing soccer for the exercise and naturally gravitates to computers. And my 3-year-old … well, she’s just on an eternal search for the next great playground.
The two older boys used to hate to have to go to playgrounds for their little sister. My middle kid wasn’t much interested in outdoor time (unless he’s in a kayak) to begin with. But the two boys love Pokémon Go, and they’ll eagerly go to any playground now because it means they can hunt virtual creatures while their sister tears it up on the slides and monkey bars.
Discovery Green provides the perfect stage — a nice playground for the 3-year-old, tons of Pokémon for the older boys — for it to all come together. Everyone in my family’s been walking more because of this game I’ve never played. A park should love that kind of story. Instead, Discovery Green tries to ban it.
It should pain people that this is happening in Houston, including older individuals who still aren’t quite sure what Pokémon Go is. Because it’s bigger than just a game that I expect my children will grow tired of within six months. It’s about Houston being the city that just doesn’t quite get it.
Spots around the world are courting Pokémon Go, realizing just how advantageous that extra foot traffic and walking is for everyone. Then there’s Houston, losing its old-man mind. If the Bayou City was a person, it’d be Clint Eastwood. That’s not a good look for anyone these days.
Discovery Green’s ban drive brought me back to a conversation I recently had with the owners of White Oak Music Hall, the innovative new multi-stage concert venue on the Bayou. They were talking about the challenge of getting people in Houston to go to a show at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night — a challenge that’s not experienced in cities such as Austin, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or even Denver.
“That’s not late for a real city,” Will Thomas, one of White Oaks’ founders, told me. “When people in Houston start thinking that way, we’ll be way better off as a city.”
That should be the goal: Elevating Houston in every way possible, making a great town even better.
Instead, the city’s best downtown park is working to ban a game that prompts people to go outdoors. Shame on you, Discovery Green. And it’s a shame for Houston.