Land Use
 

Kids win a round in fight to keep Cabrini from going to the dogs

And King Solomon said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.”

Soccer games, currently a mainstay of school activities at Cabrini Playground, would be squeezed out if dog owners succeed in splitting the park in half.

Soccer games, currently a mainstay of school activities at Cabrini Playground, would be squeezed out if dog owners succeed in splitting the park in half.

Last fall’s proposal by the New Orleans Recreation Department Commission to split the baby and give half of Cabrini Playground’s sports field to the children and half to the dogs was the opposite of Solomonic.

It was unwise, unfair and left the poor kids stranded without the sports field long used by McDonogh 15, a public school that serves the French Quarter, and adjoining neighborhoods, including Treme, the 7th Ward, Marigny and the central business district.

At its most recent facilities meeting, March 9, the commission wised up and took a giant step back from depriving New Orleans school children of an irreplaceable space for team sports and general recreation.

Commissioners, to their credit, did not cave in to the forces of gentrification  — dog people, as the community has come to call them. Instead they voted “to rescind” or “to reconsider” a wrong-headed motion last fall that would have allowed fencing off half the park for use by unleashed dogs. Whatever the nuances of difference between rescinding and reconsidering that misjudgment, the vote was unanimous. The issue now goes before the recreation department’s full board of commissioners. Their next meeting is April 4.

Disregarding the city’s well-reasoned determination that Cabrini is too small for a fenced, off-leash dog park would be, of course, a shameless violation of the commission’s principal responsibility. That responsibility is to support and augment opportunities for recreation — by humans, not dogs, I should not have to add.

In all fairness, the commissioners, who are unpaid volunteers, can be excused for last fall’s collapse into the arms of local realtors, gentrifiers and dog people.  The fate of the Quarter’s Little Red School House was unclear then. The charter school group KIPP, which had used the Cabrini sports field as did McDonogh 15 for decades before, was moving out, and the School Board had not yet decided whether to recycle the venerable building.

But now there are no excuses. A K-8 school named for civil rights icon Homer Plessy is on the way, along with 500 kids. They’ll put the school’s traditional recreation space to good use.

Commissioner Nolan Marshall Jr., a former president of the Orleans Parish School Board, has made clear that he will never sanction fencing off a portion of the Cabrini field for the exclusive use of unleashed dogs. That would be the dispersal of a public school asset and a theft from the parish children — the very opposite of the “shared community space” that the dog people argued for.

Dog owners do not come away empty-handed. Commissioner Louis Lauricella, a reasonable voice, threw them a tasty bone: a bigger, better dog park and one more centrally located for downtown residents and their four-legged friends. It would be in the Lafitte Greenway by the French Quarter RV park.

Cabrini never did meet city site-selection criteria for a dog park, as Commissioner and City Councilman James Gray noted all along in opposing the maneuvering by dog people. The Lafitte Greenway site is not only big enough, it has these added virtues: no school gets ripped off; there is shade, lights, water and — a big bonus — parking.  Of course the dog owners who live closest to Cabrini will gripe, but the commission should stand strong.

Cabrini’s sports field is in daily use by about 220 school children, say the coaches who walk them over in groups between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. I know. I live next door. That’s more then a thousand kids a week.

Sure, Cabrini is empty sometimes, but ride around town. So are other NORD sports fields; so is the Superdome and so are legitimate dog parks, such as the new one in Crescent Park, not all that many blocks downriver. This does not mean they are not important recreational assets.

Currently, the whole of Cabrini is shared by everyone in the community: children, teenagers, adults, young, old — and dogs, provided they’re leashed, as city law requires in public places.

Posted at each entrance to Cabrini, the leash law is widely ignored by dog owners.

Posted at each entrance to Cabrini, the leash law is widely ignored by dog owners.

The plan that threatened Cabrini’s future would have sliced the field in half, rendering it too small for the soccer, baseball, football and kickball games that have been its traditional use. That would leave school children with insufficient space to exercise and play sports, a valuable component of their education. For some kids, developing athletic skill is the ticket that carries them to success in high school and then on to college.

The news that Homer Plessy is taking over the Mc 15 building is terrific, a welcome development that gives the Quarter a better shot at remaining a neighborhood rather than the Disneyland tourist attraction that it’s in danger of becoming.

Taking a sports field from a school named after Homer Plessy and giving it to dogs would be wrenchingly ironic. Plessy was the civil rights pioneer thrown off a train in an early battle against what would become Jim Crow-era segregation.

Read “The Underground Railroad” if you need reminding that racial oppression has always worked hand in glove with miseducation. Black Americans were once killed for learning to read.

In its wisdom, the commission seems ready to sustain a French Quarter tradition. While the school’s needs are paramount, Cabrini has long accommodated community athletes as well. For years the French Quarter Family Association operated a soccer program for kids in the park. Some of the more illustrious volunteer coaches included Suleyman Aydin of Café Istanbul fame and Latin crooner Fredy Omar.

A Doberman at large in the playground betokens the indifference of many 'dog people' to the posted leash law.

A Doberman at large in the playground betokens the indifference of many “dog people” to the leash law.

Ah, but how the dog people coveted that space, no matter that City Hall had exhaustively studied the dog park issue and taken Cabrini off the list of parks eligible to become one. The tensions worsened around 2008 when someone falsely announced on the Internet that Cabrini was now a dog park. Conditions quickly became so unsanitary that locals started calling it “Dog Shit Park.”

Consistent with its traditional use as an open, multi-use field, the city spent more than a $250,000 re-sodding Cabrini for team sports and group activities and built a play area for little kids. The park reopened in 2015 to rave reviews and everyone was happy — except dog owners. They continued to demand half the field so their dogs could, as stated in a handout, “walk about, sniff, run, wrestle, chase, train, relax.” No ball playing would be allowed. You might hit a dog.

The spin-meistering that really disgusted me was the contention by dog people that taking the sports field from children was for their “Safety: it HAS to be away from the children,” the pamphleteers insisted (their caps). But Cabrini’s small size makes this impossible.

For a while, the gloves — like the leashes — really came off. It was in part a strategy calculated to drive out the kids. From my home alongside the park, I have seen Dobermans and Rottweilers barking and snarling and chasing kids and adults. McDonogh 15 School signs were defaced and torn down.

From the gallery of his parkside home and studio just across Barracks Street, the late George Dureau, one of the city’s leading artists, would howl: “You are breaking the law!” Tensions reached the point where the city had to post an armed guard at Cabrini to keep the lid on a playground rendered chaotic by adults defying city ordinances with their unleashed dogs.

Black, white and brown kids matter — more than dogs. When  privileged folks can take public land away from inner city kids and give it to their pets, something stinks worse than canine feces on a school playground.

Commissioners are charged with making a major land-use decision. They finally seem poised to comply with the city’s decision that Cabrini did not meet eligibility standards for a dog park. After being buffeted by sometimes noisy public debate, they deserve applause for opting to do the right thing.

Jon Kemp is a French Quarter resident and longtime community journalist.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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