Emmett Kelly Park is one of Houston’s most familiar and noticeable landmarks. It’s one of the first things seen by travelers entering the city limits from the north on U.S. 63 and is hard to miss by anyone traveling through town on the “main drag.” For the most part, local citizens appreciate the park’s close proximity, accessibility and general beauty, and it gets plenty of use by individuals, families and groups.
Subsequently, Emmett Kelly Park receives a sizable share of respect and consideration by visitors –– at least most of them. Houston Police Chief Tim Ceplina said issues are surfacing with some young people.
“The primary problem is trash left in the park,” Ceplina said. “We also frequently have complaints about loud noise, cursing and profanity that continue late into the night.”
Many of the park’s facilities have in the past fell victim to vandalism, too, including bathrooms, playground equipment, picnic tables, pavilions and even surveillance video cameras. Ceplina said the problems stem mostly from teenagers gathering in the evening –– usually beginning at about sunset –– and “hanging out.”
“We’ve even had problems with kids driving on the grass between the pavilion and the street,” he said. “The park is supposed to be a family environment, and we want it to be nice place for everyone. We want it to be welcoming; it’s a very nice public facility, and we want to keep it that way.”
Due to significant littering and other problems, including underage consumption of alcohol, young people are no longer allowed to congregate in several private locations around Houston. Among them are the parking lot at Orscheln Farm and Home and Town and County Supermarket.
“We’ve had this problem ongoing for years here,” Ceplina said. “Kids will find a place to park because they want to sit and talk and converse – and that’s great, I get that. But they need to do it with personal responsibility and consideration for others. If not, you’re not going to be welcome.
“One of the questions my night officers are asked most often is the same one I was asked when I worked nights: ‘Where can we park, then?’ The answer is, wherever you’re going to employ a little personal responsibility and consideration. The bottom line is, if you trash a place up, or you’re loud and obnoxious and using profanity or drinking, you’re not going to be allowed there.”
Ceplina said people who come to the park in the morning are often greeted by a somewhat trashy scene.
“That makes it an unsavory place you don’t want to be at,” he said. “The city has worked hard over the past 30 years to build up Emmett Kelly Park and make it nice. It’s one of the first things people notice about Houston, and things like that are a strong representation of a town.”
Now and then, a citation will result from unruly behavior at the park or other gathering place.
“It’s disgraceful that we have such a nice set of facilities for everyone to use, and we know it’s just a few people who are going the extra mile to mess it up,” Ceplina said. “ I don’t want to blame this all on younger kids, because they’re not the only ones who are littering –– it’s a cumulative thing. But they’re generally the last ones seen in an area where there’s a lot of litter.
“If you’re considerate of others and take that extra two minutes to pick up after yourself when you’re done using a location or facility, you’re not going to have an issue at all.”
Ceplina said one solution to the park’s situation would be a curfew specific to it –– an idea that hasn’t been officially discussed by city authorities, but that has been pondered by Ceplina, Mayor Don Tottingham and other officials. A current City of Houston curfew ordinance states that people under the age of 18 are to be off the streets from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. weekdays and midnight to 5 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
“I hope it’s not necessary to have a park curfew that’s any different,” Ceplina said. “Personally, I want the young people to use the park and I want them to have a place to gather. But I also want them to do it responsibly.
“As a city, we’re not they’re maids. They need to learn to be responsible and accountable for their own actions, or they will be held accountable for their actions. They have to understand they are welcome at the park, but there are rules, and we have to have those to live beside one another.”
“I’ve gone down there with my grandsons and went in the bathroom and there’s wadded-up toilet paper all over the ceiling where they’ve gotten it wet so it sticks,” Tottingham said. “And some of the fixtures were broken. I only went in one bathroom, but the sink was broken and the toilet was stopped-up with stuff flushed down it.
“It’s such a shame because the park is such a nice facility for all the people to use and you should be able to go there for a picnic or reunion or whatever and not have to worry about things like this. The cooperation of people around town would certainly be nice; it’s just a few who are causing the problem, and it would be good if we can raise awareness and try to avoid that kind of behavior down there.”
The other solution, Ceplina said, is for the gatherings to take place somewhere else again, and that hasn’t proven to be effective.
“And the number of ‘somewhere elses’ is dwindling,” he said. “I don’t know a better way to put it.”
Ceplina and other city officials see the issue as one of civic pride.
“We want the citizens’ and young peoples’ help in keeping the community clean, friendly and inviting,” he said. “We want people to come here and say, ‘Wow, this place is squared away and nice, I’d like to come back sometime.’ We don’t want it to be an unsavory location in any way.”
“Kids will find a place to park because they want to sit and talk and converse – and that’s great, I get that. But they need to do it with personal responsibility and consideration for others. If not, you’re not going to be welcome.”
HPD CHIEF TIM CEPLINA