Dogs tussle at Mickey Markey Park, but not for long. Credit: Katey Reckdahl

Dog owners sitting on homemade benches and ragtag chairs in Mickey Markey Park earlier this week bemoaned that an imminent $500,000 redesign of the Bywater park will not include an off-leash dog area. Denise Caballero shook her head as she watched her pit bull Scout jump and snort and dig holes with two other mutts. “I think it’s terrible,” she said. “If you live in New Orleans, you know that we really don’t have yards.”

The overhaul, initially scheduled to begin on Monday, has been put off for a month or so, until lead contamination of the site has been dealt with. But that will be it for the de facto dog run that has been an unofficial feature of the popular neighborhood park for a decade or so.

The city, through mayoral spokesman C. Hayne Rainey, said that dog owners will soon be able to gather at a nearby off-leash area within the riverfront park now under construction and slated to open this spring.

Dog lovers are skeptical. Few believe that the riverside dog run will actually materialize. If it does, it looks so small on the maps that it may not work, they say.

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Vic Richard, head of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, owns a Pomeranian named Roofus and calls himself a lifelong dog lover. But he’s always made clear that “animals will not supersede humans” on the properties he runs, he said.

Richard also emphasizes that no NORD property, including Markey Park, has ever been a legal off-leash dog area. When dogs are off leash, people feel threatened, he said, citing phone calls he’s gotten, including one about a man in a wheelchair who was bitten. A few years ago after Markey Park’s Mirliton Festival, a clean-up crew couldn’t work because a few people refused to put their dogs back on leashes, Richard said.

A recent neighborhood survey found that two of the top three reasons people didn’t use Markey Park were dog droppings (44 percent) and dogs off leash (31 percent).

Then there was the time, about a year ago, when children were playing in the dog park and dog owners called police to make them leave. “That got a few people upset,” said Susan Brady, a board member for the New St. Claude Association of Neighbors (N-SCAN), which covers the part of Bywater between St. Claude to Claiborne avenues.

While most dog owners are cooperative and pick up after their dogs, those who aren’t are “a blemish” on others,” Richard said.

But Richard acknowledges the passion the issue has inspired. He recalls a meeting last year at Holy Angels Convent about Markey Park’s redesign. It got so heated that a nun had to take the microphone and calm the crowd, he said.

Over the past week, as word spread that the re-designed Markey Park would not include an off-leash area, dog owners mobilized. They set up a Facebook page to save the dog park, recruited people to create pro-dog sidewalk chalk drawings outside the park, and launched an online petition in support of their contention that “overwhelmingly, the neighborhood wants part of the park to remain an off-leash dog park.”

Salvos also were launched by fans of the park redesign. “Markey Park cannot ‘remain’ a dog park, because it is not, in fact, a dog park,” said a Bywater Neighborhood Association statement released Tuesday night. Municipal law requires dogs to be on leashes at all times, unless they’re in the city’s sole licensed off-leash area, the non-profit-operated City Bark in City Park, the statement said.

Dog owner Julie Jones, who has participated in numerous meetings on the issue, said there is wide support for having spaces where canines can run free. The decision by Trust for Public Land to exclude Markey from the list of those spaces disregarded hours of footwork and trips to City Hall by dog owners, she said. “It’s death by charrette,” Jones declared. “Death by task force.”

“They are correct, to a certain extent,” Richard said, noting that one of the early drafts for the park did include an off-leash area. “People feel that way because they didn’t get what they wanted.”

Eleven dog parks planned

When Miles Swanson and his dog Huey visit Cabrini Playground in the French Quarter, he hears that a crackdown on dogs is also imminent there. Soon, Richard confirmed, a children’s playground will be added to the park. And soon after that, dog owners will be ousted from Cabrini and directed to a new off-leash run a few blocks away.

The new run, part of the former St. Aloysius High School site on Esplanade Avenue at  Rampart Street, is one of the 11 sites where the city plans to create fenced, off-leash dog areas. The plan calls for creation of two such dog parks in each City Council district, with an extra one in District C’s Algiers Point neighborhood across the river, Rainey said.

The city’s list of official dog runs City Bark, in City Park The Fly, in Audubon Park 1542 Constance St. (near Kingsley House) Wisner Park, 4877 Laurel St. 1151 Esplanade Ave. (former St. Aloysius school) Reinventing the Crescent Park (along the river near Bywater) Algiers Point batture Lakefront, Lake Oaks Park Rome Playspot, 1900 Robert E. Lee Blvd. in Gentilly East Citrus Playspot, Morrison Road and Poitevent Avenue in eastern New Orleans Marais and Sister streets, on Industrial Canal in Lower 9th WardEight other sites included in the larger request from which the 11 sites were selected Mickey Markey Park, 700 Piety St. Cabrini Park, 900 Barracks St., French Quarter A.C.E. batture levee in Black Pearl part of the Lafitte Greenway in Bayou St. John 5200 Tchoupitoulas St. 3249 Tchoupitoulas St. 5822 Cartier Ave. in Gentilly Mardi Gras World batture on West BankFrom a request form, submitted before a July public hearing on the city’s Capital Improvement Plan

The site selection was based on the work of a Citizens Advisory Task Force on Dogs in Parks, Rainey said. At first, the list of 19 proposed off-leash sites included unofficial dog runs like Cabrini Playground and Markey and Wisner parks. The development commission reviewed the 19 sites and narrowed the list to 11, Rainey said.

All were included in a request to the City Planning Commission, which makes recommendations to the City Council for consideration in the city’s capital budget. But with money tight, and many other projects vying for the commission’s imprimatur, the new dog parks were ranked last out of 27 submitted projects and none made the cut this year. The riverfront dog run is already under construction and will not be affected by funding issues, Rainey said.

Richard hopes to see the dog parks funded in future budget cycles. “We really want those needs to be met,” he said.

Once the new dog parks are established, enforcement will become an issue. Asked if,  after years of lax enforcement, there would be mass ticketings of people still running their dogs in former haunts like Markey and Cabrini, Richard said, “I’m not a crackdown-type person, but we’re going to ask people to abide by the law.”

Richard looks at the issue from a citywide perspective. That the dog parks weren’t funded affects some neighborhoods much more than others. “Certain parts of the city could care less about a dog,” he said. “The Lower 9 and New Orleans East, they really didn’t care about having a dog park or a designated area for dogs.” The push for dog parks is really confined to those who live in the areas near the river, he said.

Resource-strapped cities across the nation are seeing the same dog-park trend – and similar conflicts. The tension is reflected in the title of a recent report issued by The Trust for Public Land: “Creating Dog Parks Without Rancor.” The report calls dog parks “the hottest new city park issue to hit America.”

A USA Today piece about the report calculated that while parks overall had increased by 3 percent in five years, dog parks had increased by 34 percent in a nation where households of dog owners (43 million) now surpassed those with children (38 million).

A national public-parks roundtable last year also found that “(in) some cities, the need for playgrounds is on the decline, while the need for dog parks is on the rise.”

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, in the area commonly referred to as the Bywater—the section bordered by Chartres, Kentucky and Press streets, and St. Claude Avenue — 81 percent of residents are between the ages of 18 and 64. Only 9 percent are under 18. But Markey Park is supposed to serve “the original Bywater,” which runs all the way past St. Claude to Claiborne Avenue, said Bywater Neighborhood Association board member Lisanne Brown, who conducted the Parks and Recreation Department survey of the neighborhood in 2010 and was elected to the board the following year.

In the “original Bywater” area 26 percent are children. Brown, who now chairs the neighborhood association’s Parks and Recreation Committee and has worked in public health all her adult life, said that, like Richard, she believes public spaces should be created for people of all ages and for dog owners – but with priority given to people. “I’m not anti-dog, but people come first.”

A search for balance

“You want to do what’s right for the neighborhood,” she said. “So I can’t say that I’m against it.”—Betty Lilley, dog owner who regularly brings her dogs to run in Markey Park

A casual Markey Park visitor might conclude that Bywater has prioritized dogs to a ridiculous level. The grassy off-leash area, with its mudpit, freshly dug holes, and scattered plastic chairs, takes up roughly two-thirds of the land.

The dogs run within the ragged fenceline of what was once a baseball diamond. Dedicated in the 1970s, the field reverted to greenspace within a decade as the New Orleans Recreation Department stopped operating programs there, partly because foul balls ricocheted off nearby houses on a regular basis, neighbors said.

The park declined to the point where dog owners were removing hypodermic needles and condoms on a regular basis, said dog owner Randi Kaufman, who has been bringing her dogs to the park for a decade. After Hurricane Katrina, when no one from the city was mowing the park, she and other park regulars pooled their money to buy a riding lawn mower and cut the grass themselves. When neighbor Erica Knott spearheaded an effort to put new equipment in the rusted, decrepit playground, Kaufman helped her apply for funding from Allstate, which donated a playground that Knott, Kaufman and other neighbors helped to install.

Others who use the dog run built fence-mounted bag dispensers for people who have forgotten to bring their own poop-scooping bags. On a recent evening, Kaufman knew nearly a dozen dogs by name: Peanut, Paloma, Bernie, Jolie, Marx, Lorelei, Thelonius, Penny Lane and Claire. She said the park is where she comes every night after work to unwind. “I think dog parks are really great for people, not just dogs,” she said.

The almost-constant presence of dogs at the park makes it safer, said Linda Love, who comes there with Micah, her Doberman. Swapping information about recent burglaries and hold-ups spreads the word and makes the Bywater safer, she said.

So when the park redesign meetings were announced, Kaufman, who works in public health, made copies of meeting notices and distributed them far and wide. “Because that’s how you do it,” she said. The resulting turnout was “huge.” Dog owners didn’t argue for their current share of the park; they agreed that a lot of the space should be for kids and another part for people who had neither dogs nor kids.

At public meetings, some argued that everyone can get along in open, mixed-use spaces. Kaufman said she and others agreed with the neighborhood association that, because of sanitation concerns, any space used as a dog run precludes its use by children.

Kaufman was stunned by how things turned out. “You put your heart and soul into trying to make things better and making it fair. You get engaged.” And then none of it seemed to matter. “I’m going to miss it a lot,” she said of Markey Park’s days as a dog run.

Brady, the N-SCAN member, said she believes that Markey Park is the center of controversy only because, after Katrina, there was nowhere else to go. She’s lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, she said, and she believes that once Stallings Center on St. Claude Avenue is back up and running – a groundbreaking is scheduled in the next few months — people will have other options. That will alleviate some of the pressures from people descending on the park, she said.

Dogs may be another matter. Since Katrina, Brady has seen an influx of new neighbors, many of them with pets. “I’m getting used to seeing people with dogs up and down St. Claude,” she said.

Betty Lilley is a dog owner from Faubourg Marigny who regularly brings her dogs to run in Markey Park, while the two-year-old child she babysits enjoys the fenced playground.  The new plan doesn’t bother her. “You want to do what’s right for the neighborhood,” she said. “So I can’t say that I’m against it.”

But Lilley acknowledges that her brand of neutrality is in short supply when it comes to Markey Park’s future. She’s watched the neighborhood change a lot since Katrina. Maybe this conflict is part of that, she said — “growing pains.”