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Turf War

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Then along came Rogers. She was quite the opposite of Moses. Her vision was Olmsted’s vision. Restoring Central Park’s myriad natural components, all of which Olmsted had designed as deliberately as if he were building a cathedral, was her priority. Getting the park back to the nineteenth century would make it new again. This approach was open to the criticism that it was mainly for the benefit of the Park’s rich neighbors on Fifth Avenue and Central Park West. But Rogers, like Olmsted, was a true democrat: “The Park is for all the people.” No one group could be allowed exclusive use of it or any part of it.

The Rogers way worked. At Harlem Meer, heroin gave way to herons. A newly burnished angel rose over a gleaming Bethesda Fountain -- formerly known as the largest outdoor urinal in New York City. As grass and trees were replaced, and hydrology upgraded, the awesome contrasts and contours of the original design reappeared. People came flooding back. And with them came much less freedom of movement for Rover.

Central Park’s rebirth was so dramatic that, says current commissioner Henry Stern (himself the owner of a golden retriever named Boomer), Rogers’s restorative approach has been adopted throughout the system. When last fall it came to be the turn of easygoing Washington Square, and new lawns sprang into being where dogs and dopers had lately tarried, tempers got extremely short.

“They want to make the park into some kind of grass museum,” snapped one cheesed-off dog matron -- the common reaction of a certain kind of liberal New Yorker confronted by what is essentially a patrician aesthetic. The twin prongs of the Rogers strategy -- intense restoration followed by vigilant maintenance -- require vigorous enforcement. This is bound to create new conflicts with those conditioned by decades of anything-goes, who see their “freedoms” shrinking.

One result: militant canophiles like the Urban Canine Conservancy (Central Park), You Gotta Have Bark (Prospect Park), and FLORAL (Riverside Park) agitating over the past year or so for the department to set aside some of its more bucolic spots -- e.g., the southern half of Sheep Meadow -- for the pets to run free. These somewhat impractical proposals conceal a longer-term agenda: to get rid of leash laws altogether.

In one sense, this is quite literally a turf battle. Meadowland and lawns make up only a small fraction of the park system’s 27,000 acres. Grass is therefore at a high premium; but it is grassland that dog owners want for their animals. Other than team sports (which are restricted to specific areas), no casual use of our common space destroys turf like unleashed dogs. That happy tumbleweed of gamboling fur that so delights the New York canophile of a dewy morn conceals myriad claws ripping the grass out by the roots; this is particularly the case when the grass is dormant or wet. And when Max or Princess or Sugarpie pauses for a quick tinkle or dump, the exhausted blades and the soil beneath them are clobbered yet again and, less retrievably, poisoned by their ultra-acidic waste. The costs here can be significant. Example: It took $17 million to restore turf in the Great Lawn. Just to repair dog damage in the relatively small Riverside Park last year cost almost $100,000 (on top of regular restoration and maintenance); the citywide estimate is at least half a million. Yet we all foot the bill. Dog-license money supports the licensing agency itself; dog tickets go into the city’s general coffer. Rover’s freedom isn’t free.

The problem isn’t just cosmetic. Dogless people -- bike owner, skate owner, or mere kid owner -- quickly learn to dread the honeyed assertion “It’s okay! He’s really friendly . . .” Friendly doesn’t quite cover the genome of a pony-size wolf-hound with the dentition of a teenage alligator. Flesh will be bitten, bones broken, picnic food stolen, small bodies exposed to ringworm, hookworm, and strep throat from slobbery tongues. A variant -- Rover Semi-Unleashed -- is the widespread use of the Flexi-leash, a tripwire that allows Rover’s owner to be anywhere up to a kilometer away from Rover. (If you square its length and multiply it by ?, you’ll get the acreage to which he/she believes he/she holds current title.) The reality here is not the cheery apology he/she yells as you crash to the ground; the booby-trap expresses, as so much else in our urban habits, hostility. Rover Semi-Unleashed is a weapon.

A subset of dog-as-weapon: dog-as-deterrent. Almost 40 percent of dog owners buy dogs, big dogs, because of fear of crime. At home, these animals may provide security; outside, off-leash, they can be a deadly menace. Parks officials say attacks by big dogs on smaller dogs are multiplying, but fast-moving dogs (and owners) are rarely apprehended.


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