Turf War

Auschwitz!” snaps the less-than-fully-haired dog lover as he views the fenced-in South Lawn at the 72nd Street entrance to Riverside Park. He points to the Parks Department prohibition on the fence: quiet zone: no radios, no team sports, no barbecues – and, most important – no dogs. He ratchets up from snap to snarl: “Auschwitz-on-the-Hudson!”

He declines to give his name and turns to leave, barking polysyllabic commands at two fully haired golden retrievers. Lucy comes to heel; Max continues hunting the elusive Upper West Side black truffle deep beneath the battered roots of a maple tree. I make the observation that his analogy is perhaps a tad intemperate. It was, after all, at Auschwitz that dogs, specifically German shepherds, were encouraged by their SS handlers to rip Jewish prisoners to pieces. He tells me to fuck off. I continue my ramble up the delightful strip of riparian real estate and several minutes later arrive at the Holocaust memorial near 83rd Street, upon whose discreet plaque an adorable poodle, her hind legs in demi-plié position, is releasing a bladderful of piss.

Another fine morning in Riverside Park.

Turf battles in the city’s parks between dogs and people (or more fairly between dog people and ordinary people) are neither uncommon nor new. The Parks Department has correspondence going back half a century from canophile New Yorkers demanding or cajoling special treatment for pets frolicking in the city’s commons. Almost all involve allowing them off the leash either in specific places or at specific times. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, foresaw that his splendiferous rus in urbe would be a magnet for dogs; he promulgated strict regulations about leashing that were subsequently adopted by the city and remain in force today throughout the system.

Betsy Barlow Rogers, founder of the Central Park Conservancy and the leading force in the park’s transformation from seventies moonscape to nineties grandeur, says administrators are “always under pressure to give away pieces of the park to special interests … many of them extraordinarily worthy.” (One of her favorite examples: a proposal at the end of World War I to re-create the trenches of Verdun in North Meadow.) At the beginning of Rogers’s fifteen-year tenure (she resigned in 1996), Parks quietly began enforcing the leash laws after decades of non-observance. This became a major factor in the dramatic restoration of Central Park’s green spaces.

But now dogs are becoming one of the department’s biggest physical-management problems – it’s not simply the damage they do but the added enforcement the refuseniks, whose numbers are increasing, make necessary.

Ten to fifteen years ago, observes Adrian Benepe, the no-nonsense Parks commissioner for Manhattan, the parks were rife with crises: crime, drug dealing, graffiti, homeless encampments, rotting infrastructure. Many were resolved. “The dog problem is the only real problem we have,” he says.

And it’s getting bigger:

What is strikingly new, says Benepe, is the size of the breeds people are buying. For many decades, the typical New York dog tended to be a handbag baby – Pekingese, Maltese, Yorkie, Pomeranian, etc. – no doubt because rules against pets in apartments were pervasive and strict, and the little fellas were easier to smuggle in and out. Now, says Benepe, he and his staff are seeing bigger and bigger dogs coming into the parks: the obvious retrievers, German shepherds, St. Bernards, Rottweilers, huskies, and Labs, but also Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Irish wolfhounds, Great Danes. Several of these appear on the American Kennel Club’s top ten breeds of last year (the top two are Labs and Rotts). The Big Dog syndrome can be seen as an invasion of suburbiana into the city’s culture – the priorities of Westport, White Plains, and Saddle River abroad in Central Park. Benepe, however, believes they’re “a fashion statement.”

Henry, a corporate lawyer who lives “in the Eighties just off Park,” laughingly agrees. Henry had a good year in ‘97 and bought himself a colossal Great Dane we’ll call Dog Doe. But it’s not just fashion, says Henry; he likes “the feeling of walking along the street with a big dog in tow.” Perhaps it’s akin to that earlier-nineties chic: being trailed by a large bodyguard with a wire in his ear. Or perhaps – big dog being current media slang for an Alpha-male over-achiever – owning one makes you, by association, the meanest predator in the pack. Like sports utes, these often dangerous, always expensive dogs are symbols of boom times: They mirror the bulging pecs of an economy on steroids. Henry also bought a Range Rover last year, mainly to have something to transport Dog Doe around in. Big cur, big car.

Henry’s self-image is his own business, his choice of cur – and car – a private one. Until he goes outside. Then it becomes a public affair. Benepe points out that New Yorkers, charmed by the unquestionable grace and heft of these animals – many well in excess of 100 pounds – fail to realize that they’re working dogs, bred to be hunters, trackers, shepherds, and guards. (The Rhodesian ridgeback, for example, was bred to protect livestock and hunt lions.) No matter how steely your buns, if you’re a lissome 110 pounds, you’re going to have trouble holding back a Siberian husky whose vocation in life is pulling fully loaded sleds with large Alaskans standing on them.

“People are almost compelled to let them off the leash, because they need so much more exercise and space,” says Benepe. Dog owners make these choices and then expect their fellow New Yorkers to live with the consequences. “They say to us, ‘You need to allow us to exercise hunting dogs in crowded nineteenth-century parks.’ “

New Yorkers who grew up in the late fifties, sixties, and early seventies – okay, boomers – were accustomed to minimally managed parks whose work force, hidebound by union rules, did desultory maintenance. The most significant influence on the parks, up until then, had been Robert Moses, a modernizing commissioner who installed projects like skating rinks in Central Park that would have made Olmsted shudder. Moses’s guiding principle was: If the People want it, it’s probably fine.

By the mid-seventies, this anything-goes attitude had reached the point where you could do pretty much whatever you liked in the parks, according to your lights, short of mass murder. (Individual murder was frowned upon but tolerated.) A generation of dog owners came to see the parks as giant dog runs, and who could blame them? There was no grass in Sheep Meadow in those days, no flower beds and saplings to be destroyed, little wildlife beyond rats to be slaughtered. And, of course, far fewer users. Indeed, it was said that the presence of dogs at all hours helped to make the parks a little less dangerous.

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.

The least admitted, most antisocial motive for letting Rover off the leash is that you won’t “notice” when Rover takes a dump. The preferred M.O. is to maintain (a) a minimum 50-yard lead on Rover and (b) an air of intense distraction, as if you’re utterly swept away by the Symphonie Pathetique of your inner life. You will soon develop the uncanny ability to turn as soon as the turds have been deposited, and to whistle irritably for your pet, feigning ignorance of his whereabouts.

None of these nuisances are altogether new. In some form, they’ve always existed in a densely packed, vertically organized city. But the harshness of the discourse is alarmingly new. Among militant canophiles, Holocaust imagery is rampant and by no means confined to the West Side. PEP (Park Enforcement Patrol) officers are routinely heckled when enforcing the laws as “Gestapo,” “Nazis,” and “Brownshirts” (actually, their shirts are green, and they’re unarmed). Charles McKinney, the administrator of Riverside Park, is referred to in flyers as “a dictator.” One somewhat confused canophile, enraged by the “storm trooper” tactics of the PEP officers arresting her, gave her name as Eva Braun. Carolyn Dolgenos, who was arrested two years ago by PEP officers in Central Park during a celebrated fracas over her unleashed bichons frises, compared herself, according to the Times, to “Jews in the concentration camps.” She also likened her arrest to that of “blacks in the South,” an interesting take given that both the arresting officers were black and Ms. Dolgenos is a countess (which is to say she’s married to a count). Racism is sometimes quite overt: A West Side flyer giving tips on how to deal with PEP officers, a large number of whom are black or Hispanic, sneered, “Remember: it takes an average of 30 minutes to write a summons. Spelling is hard for them.”

Then there are the obscenities. Many letters received by Parks from people who have been harassed by unleashed dogs cite foul language on the part of their owners. Laura Meyer, dog lover and chair of the Parks Committee of Community Board No. 8, which serves the Upper East Side, says of Carl Schurz Park, “You ask people to pick up after their dog and they shout obscenities at you.” Big Dog and Tourette’s syndromes appear to be clinically linked. Passionate dog lovers like to think of themselves as gentle, genial, outdoorsy folks made even more gentle and genial by the love of a good dog. But let that love or its object be challenged and they adopt a snarling, bared-teeth defensive mode just this side of actual canine behavior. (Indeed, on several occasions, PEP officers have been bitten by dog lovers in the course of making arrests.) Call it Rover Rage.

To be fair, Rover Rage is more than just another wave of urban venting. It arises from a deeply felt conviction that great injustice is being done, that rights akin to, if not equal to, human rights are being trampled on. It’s here that the non-canophile enters territory entirely new and unfamiliar – terra indognita. Unprecedented claims are being made for dogs that only a few years ago would have been regarded as preposterous, satirical, or the ravings of cranks but are now widely discussed, disseminated, and accepted. The cozy sentimentality of Lassie, Snoopy, and Toto, the cutesy-poo of Muffy and Fluffy in matching boleros, is dismissed as exploitative and/or condescending. We’re entering the Age of the Dog As Person, the Dog As Other, possibly even the Dog As Citizen. Jeffrey Masson, author of Dogs Never Lie About Love, takes this to his own extreme: The Dog As Living Saint.

Extreme dog advocacy has spawned its own literary genre. Total immersion in it quickly reveals that while everyone pays lip service to scientifically “demonstrating” canine consciousness, a leap of faith in the Dog As Other has already been made. What is being formulated here is religion. “The dog is love,” writes Masson. “Dogs are all about love… . If any species on earth shares this miraculous ability to love the other for its own sake it is the dog, for the dog truly loves us beyond expectation, beyond measure, beyond what we deserve, more indeed than we love ourselves.” Substitute God for dog in this passage and the meaning doesn’t change one iota. (Fun fact: The slogan of The Berkeley Bark, a publication in Masson’s hometown, is “Dog is our co-pilot.”)

Modern canophiles are illuminati. There is no way into such a world if you have not made the crucial leap of faith, nor are the illuminati to be persuaded out of it. As Marjorie Garber notes in Dog Love – the only book I’ve come across that approaches its subject with some wit and self-awareness – canophilia’s obvious anthropomorphism is actually embraced by its advocates. “Why should science insist that there is a fixed boundary between human beings and dogs? … Why should we reserve humanness for humans?”

It doesn’t take a constitutionallawyer to move from this postulate to the next step. If dogs share our humanity, they also share our rights. In New York City, where everyone is a constitutional lawyer, that’s an explosive idea. And if you happen to be one of the estimated million or so constitutional lawyers who also own a dog, the result is – Rover Rage.

There’s an unpleasant corollary here. If dogs are quasi-human, what conceivable right do full humans have to “own” them? Not addressed in the New York Dog Debate is the sadism of keeping a quasi-human in a confined space twenty floors up, with only half an hour’s exercise a day. Maximum-security lifers in Attica get better treatment, and they’re not – currently – being neutered.

But inconsistency never deterred an activist, and New York dog activists are the real thing. They’re overwhelmingly boomers, comfortable, settled people anywhere from early to late middle age. Their tactics – confronting the PEP, scattering and regrouping when PEP vans hove into sight, ripping down fences, civil disobedience, graffiti, anonymous inflammatory leafleting, giving false names from their overeducated liberal-arts past like “Anna Karenina” or “Pagliacci” – all echo the activism of their collective long-lost youth. “Parks belong to the people,” says Jeffrey Zahn of FLORAL (Friends & Lovers of Riverside Area Life), recalling the slogan chanted in Berkeley’s People’s Park almost 30 years ago. Perhaps what we’re seeing is the last gasp of activists who once expended their energies on liberating blacks, women, Vietnamese, gays, and Native Americans but became disillusioned when they discovered that such groups were just as capable of violence, corruption, and prejudice as the people from whom they were liberated. Now they’ve turned their attention to the one minority that won’t talk back, purchase firearms, or make embarrassing political demands – dogs. It’s hard not to conclude that canine activists are people with far too little on their conscience.

I owned a dog once – in the country, where dogs belong – and I loved the old moron dearly. But make no mistake about it: Freckles was a lower life form. All dogs are. We’re talking science here. Dogs don’t have opposable thumbs, they can’t walk upright, the size of their neocortex is a fraction of ours, and not one of them can make a passable crème brûlée.

Of all the parks in our quite extraordinary Parks system, Riverside is potentially one of the most exquisite. It shares with the others some of that inimitable grass-and-granite drama that is Olmsted’s aesthetic legacy to the designers who came after him, but what makes it unique is the majestic river that hurries or ambles past it, a river greater than all other city rivers, muscular and moody, a Robert Mitchum of a river, a river so generously huge and all-encompassing it even makes New Jersey look good. None of the turgid floods in more celebrated capitals can hold a candle to the Hudson. The Thames, the Seine, the pathetic trickles of the Tiber and the Manzanares, acquire grandeur only to the degree that it’s reflected on their murky surfaces. The Hudson’s grandeur is all its own. It’s a New York river. It owes nothin’ to nobody.

And it deserves better in a park. Far better. For several decades now, Riverside has suffered terribly. The same fiscal misfortunes as elsewhere, the same social scourges, but more than any other park, it has been decimated by dogs. Hardly a square inch of it has not been ripped up by countless claws, pissed on and crapped on to the point of infertility by countless doggy loins. Not a block of turf can be laid in Riverside without being covered by the next morning with dumb chums; not a fence can be erected without being immediately ripped down by those pseudo-populists peculiar to the Upper West Side. The park’s configuration makes it susceptible to damage; for a lot of its narrow two-and-a-half-mile length, it’s a steep riverbank, descending to a causeway. Ironically, some of the damage is a result of Central Park’s rebirth in the Betsy Rogers years; a lot of dog lovers migrated west. As the West Side became richer and more fashionable, real-estate agents compounded the problem by telling new residents that the park was “dog-friendly.”

Which is all going to get far worse when the Trump Follies start debouching their well-heeled occupants into the park’s south end.

I have a dream. I see green from 72nd Street to 120th: riverbank and mini-meadows absolutely off-limits to dogs. I see flower beds in profusion, tended by volunteers, like the gorgeous spread that dazzles you all spring, summer, and fall at the north end of the Promenade. I see ample dog runs at each end (instead of the current ones at 104th and 87th, ridiculously long treks if you don’t live nearby) and at least two others, not in the park proper but in the occasional green medians above Riverside Drive. I see families finally able to play and picnic without fear of harassment. I see singles and couples strolling with their dog children, license tags on their collars costing $500 a year for dogs up to 50 pounds, $500 more for every extra 50 pounds. (Special dispensations for senior and low-income dog lovers.) I see signs forbidding dogs to urinate or defecate anywhere but in special conveniences in the dog runs. (To those dog parents who might protest, I would offer a crisp “Diapers.”)

I see the largest neighborhood park in Manhattan not having to be policed but run by its users with a modicum of decency, politeness, and give-and-take. But above all, I see the Hudson, hurrying downtown as if late for an appointment, or whipped into a frisky gray-green chop by a brisk nor’wester, or in one of its other hundred moods. And I see it without getting tripped, as I marvel, by a Flexi-leash.

Turf War