Monday, May 26, 2008

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Ghastly God-awful Idea.

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Joni Mitchell

Last September, I posted a report about a public meeting held by the NYC Parks Department, to allow people to make suggestions for how 40 million dollars in city funds set aside for improving Riverside and Fort Washington Parks should be spent. A number of local dog people, myself included, showed up to represent all the many people and dogs who come to Fort Washington Park for what the Parks Department calls "Courtesy Hours"--the long-standing policy, only recently made formal, that properly monitored dogs can be offleash in certain city parks between 9pm and 9am.

As matters turned out, there were no complaints about offleash dogs. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Speeding bicycles, yes. Insufficient points of access, yes. Need to accommodate the disabled, yes. Dogs simply didn't come up--until near the end of the meeting, when a woman I couldn't even see from where I was sitting started talking about the need for a dog run over by the Little Red Lighthouse.

The way the meeting was structured, there was no further time allotted for the other dog owners present to respond to her, so none of us had a chance to mention that this was the very last thing in the world that most local dog owners would want. Not because we're opposed to dog runs (I like to think I've demonstrated pretty convincingly that I'm in favor of them), but because Parks Department policy is that "Off-leash hours are not necessary in parks with a dog run--."

What she said was something along the lines of how the Parks Department should encourage dogs and their people to make the park safer by setting up a dog run over by the bridge. We had no idea who she was, or why she thought this was a good idea, or why the bridge area needed a dog run to make it safer when there are professional security contingents guarding it from terrorists on a 24/7/365 basis--we didn't have a chance to talk to her afterwards, and didn't really understand this was more than just some passing fancy. In a fit of truly inspired paranoia, I later wondered if she was some anti-offleash zealot, pretending to be a concerned dog owner. We should have been so lucky.

In fact, as I recently learned, she's been going to pretty much every public meeting held by the Parks Department, Community Board 12, etc, for several years--she never misses any possible chance to advocate for "The Little Red Lighthouse Dog Run" as she has been describing it to anyone who'll listen. She has a big energetic dog she can't control very well, she does not feel safe letting the dog run offleash in the park, and she really really wants this dog run.

No, she does not want to use the Fort Tryon run, the J. Hood Wright Park run, or the run this blog happens to be partly devoted to, even though all three are within walking distance of her. Yes, people have tried to talk to her. She knows quite well that there are many dog owners in the area who think this is a terrible idea, that it would end offleash hours in Fort Washington Park, and she's quite okay with that. In short, trying to talk her out of it would be a terrible waste of breath.

If you have not spent most of your life in complete isolation from your fellow humans, I feel confident that you have at least once or twice encountered someone with a single-minded devotion to a particularly ill-considered idea or agenda, or idea for an agenda--and have thus learned how frustrating it can be to try and explain to him or her the impractical, counterproductive, or even downright anti-social implications of the idee fixe in question. The phrase 'dog with a bone' comes to mind, but even the most obstinate dog will eventually drop a bone. Or bury it. I think it would be far more descriptive, when you you encounter a dog hoarding a nice meaty cow femur, to exclaim "He's like a human with a pet project!" Which in this case really is a pet project. And to make things even worse than that pun, a pet project that is starting to get some traction.

It's the 40 million dollars, as you might have guessed. The park is going to go through some changes in the near future, and we hope they're positive--quite honestly, Fort Washington Park has never struck me as needing much in the way of improvement. It could be a little better maintained, and the bathrooms could be open more regularly. That's about it. It gives you the broad majestic Hudson stretched out at your feet, with one of the world's great bridges looming impressively in the background. And in the early morning, you have beautiful friendly dogs, of every breed and no breed, dancing happily through green fields. What more could you possibly want? It's the best damn park in Manhattan. Hell yes, I'm prejudiced.

So while the city has generally required dog run advocates to come up with most of the necessary funds themselves (this was certainly the case with the Rocky Run), the existence of a very large sum of money that has to be spent on park 'improvements' creates an environment where even the dodgiest of pet projects become substantially more feasible, whether the people using the park want them or not.

Last week I talked briefly with Jennifer Hoppa, administrator for northern Manhattan parks, and she confirmed that a dog run over by the George Washington Bridge was being seriously considered. It might be over by the Little Red Lighthouse, it might be at the north end of the nearby tennis courts, it might be elsewhere--nothing is set in stone, she told me, but I got the distinct impression they were already pricing engravers. Ms. Hoppa was a bit noncommittal about whether a dog run would end offleash hours--she said that hadn't been determined yet. But I've talked to other parks personnel who have confirmed that a fenced dog run down by the river would unquestionably lead to a situation where any person with an offleash dog outside the run fence would be risking a hefty fine, at any time of the day or night.

It's a bit less certain as to whether a run located elsewhere in the park--say, east of the train tracks and/or north of the bridge--would have the same effect. Ms. Hoppa has made some vague references to the possibility that there could still be 'designated offleash areas' in the park, even if a fenced-in dog run is constructed.

But right now, the entire park is a designated offleash area, before 9am. And this is not causing any major problems, as the lack of complaints at the meeting last September clearly shows. People are controlling their dogs, picking up after them, and generally giving a lot of credence to the Parks Department's own assertion that "Over the past twenty years, this policy has kept parks and neighborhoods safer, allowed owners to exercise and socialize their dogs, and reduced the number of dog bites."

Although dog runs are an invaluable asset for many New York dog owners, many others have dogs that don't do well in them, or are worried about possible health risks. In short, a dog run in Fort Washington Park would be taking away something most local dogs and dog owners seeking offleash recreation greatly enjoy, in exchange for something they already have, that many will never use.

There is a large well-maintained dog run immediately adjacent to Fort Washington Park--it's called The Rocky Run. It is located on land controlled by the Parks Department, but because it has the train tracks and the Henry Hudson Expressway between it and Fort Washington Park, it doesn't affect offleash hours there.

Fort Tryon Park has an even larger dog run, located well inside its borders--and for this reason, there are no offleash hours in Fort Tryon Park.

Inwood Park has a fenced run near its eastern border, so offleash hours are only recognized for a narrow strip of land running between the train tracks and the Hudson River, above Dyckman Street.

Highbridge Park has offleash hours and a dog run, but only because the Highbridge run is located towards the northern end of that very long skinny park, and has several significant obstacles (such as Interstate 95) between it and the area where offleash is still permitted.

Central and Prospect Parks, noted strongholds of offleash privileges, both have fenced runs fairly nearby, but none are permitted within the boundaries of the two historic 'Olmsted Parks', so offleash hours remain in effect there--and my apologies to everyone I've recently told that they have both fenced runs and offleash hours--I was quite wrong. In any piece of contiguous New York City parkland, it's either offleash hours or a fenced run. Agree or disagree with this policy, policy it remains, and it's unlikely to change anytime soon.

So that's where it stands. One local dog owner has been pushing for a fenced run down by the river, where it would clearly put an end to offleash hours. A high-ranking parks official is giving this idea serious consideration, but is open to hearing from local dog owners as to whether or not they would be agreeable towards such a trade.

And at this point in time, I'm pretty sure that the great majority of dog owners who take their pals down to Fort Washington Park for offleash hours don't even know that this treasured chance at recreation could become illegal--again. They won't pave paradise (though I'm a bit worried they'll astroturf parts of it), but it'd still be gone as far as our dogs were concerned.

So what do we do about it?


To be continued.....


Marc said...

Does anybody know when a decision is going to be made on the 40 million? Is this CB12 meeting about the 40 mil.?

Chris said...

The cb12 meeting on June 3rd regarding Parks and Cultural Affairs (for which I'll be posting info here very soon) seems to be a regular monthly event. People always have questions about their local parks. However, this particular meeting will, I believe, be focused in particular on upcoming improvements to Fort Washington Park, which probably does concern the 40mil. Unclear whether cb12 has any real say in how the money is spent, or is simply being used as a sounding board for the community.

I plan to attend tomorrow's general cb12 meeting at 7pm (711 W. 168th St, ground floor, entrance on Haven Ave.), which I think will be a good place to learn more.