The recent opinion column by Jon Kemp focused on a community effort to place an off-leash dog area in the French Quarter’s Cabrini Playground. As members of the Community Advisory Team for District C, which includes the French Quarter — CAT-C for short — we feel compelled to present our point of view in response to what we see as a very one-sided and flawed essay penned by the chief opponent of the off-leash dog area.
We want to clear up what our group is and is not. We are not the “dog people,” as Kemp referred to us. The CAT-C team does not exist to put a dog area in Cabrini or any other park. We are not solely interested in an off-leash dog area for Cabrini, though we are fighting passionately for one because of the preponderance of evidence that most neighbors are in favor of it.
What we’re passionate about is smart use of urban green spaces and other public lands. We’re passionate about putting public green spaces to the best and most relevant use of the community. Meaning: urban parks should serve the needs of their neighbors, and be used consistently year-round.
Well-planned urban parks play a vital role in the health and safety of neighborhoods because they bring residents together and encourage them to exercise, socialize and enjoy recreation right in the community where they live. They encourage urban neighborhoods to thrive holistically in a way that city living often hinders.
While a well-used park is an asset to the community, an empty park is a liability. Parks not used for hours, days, weeks and months at a time invite people and activities nobody wants in their neighborhood. A park used consistently keeps that element away. A steady stream of residents walking or biking to and from the park to their homes serves as an important grassroots element in community crime prevention. Neighbors meeting frequently and talking to one another is another.
We advocate for whatever the majority wants for their neighborhood park — be it an off-leash dog area, community garden, playground, sports field, outdoor fitness circuit, or many other possible uses. In this case, the majority of residents polled both by CAT-C and by Gambit Weekly, indicated they wanted at least part of Cabrini used as an off-leash dog area. Their stated reasons are both for the practical need to exercise their dogs, and for the greater benefits of a community gathering spot and enhanced crime prevention.
Many CAT-C team members live in the French Quarter and enjoy having a school in the neighborhood. Hardly any children live in the Quarter, so having a school there lends that vital community feel that kids provide. The Plessy school, opening in the fall, will be a welcome part of the greater French Quarter community, as were all the other schools that occupied the McDonogh 15 building over the years. To that end, the CAT-C team advocates for a large portion of Cabrini to be used for school activities. When the kids are there, the park will be well used.
But we do not advocate that the park be given entirely over to the school, as it would then serve only a fraction of the community. That would leave the park standing empty on evenings and weekends, holiday breaks and summers. This is clearly not the best use of the park for the greater good of the entire community, and takes the French Quarter’s only green space away from the people who live and work in the neighborhood, and who pay mortgages, rents, property and business taxes there. Of more concern: it becomes a hot spot for transients, drug users and criminal activity.
With smart layout, Cabrini is big enough to accommodate both the school’s needs for a sports field and the square footage of the off-leash dog area first approved and now being reconsidered by the New Orleans Recreation Department Commission. Our preference is a dog area situated in the back of the park along Burgundy Street, away from the playground, leaving the rest of the park open as a school sports field. Both areas can fit there.
We concede that our first proposal was flawed. CAT-C gave the commissioners a plan featuring an illogical splitting of the park down the middle, placing the off-leash dog area along Barracks Street next to the playground. Our team was not allowed to submit our preferred layout, we suspect because of the one household that regularly speaks out against it: a neighbor on Burgundy Street, columnist Jon Kemp. While we have taken Kemp and her husband’s objections into account, our directive is that the needs of the many outweigh the wants of the few. We also give weight to the fact that they are frequently out of New Orleans, unlike the majority of off-leash dog advocates who live in the neighborhood year round.
We are not a one-issue group. After the Cabrini situation is settled, whichever way it goes, we will be back at the monthly CAT-C meetings talking about other public parks. We will be attending meetings of the recreation department commission advocating for other urban green spaces and the communities they’re in.
The opponents of the off-leash dog area never speak up regarding other parks, nor about other issues at Cabrini – such as hours, lighting, safety, so we doubt that we’ll see them at future CAT-C or NORDC meetings. Their interests in this matter have nothing to do with greater community good. Their interests in keeping Cabrini used as infrequently as possible are for reasons entirely personal in nature.
We can, and should, do better than that. We will be discussing this plan further at the meeting of the full meeting of commissioners, April 4 at 5 p.m. at the Joe W. Brown Recreation Center, 5601 Read Blvd. We invite everyone to attend. If you would like to join the CAT-C team, or the CAT team that covers urban parks in YOUR neighborhood, get in touch! We’d love for you to get involved.
A once and future resident of the French Quarter living temporarily in Faubourg St. John, Anne Marie Hesson is president of CAT-C. She is a financial analyst with a master’s degree in business administration from Georgetown University and has worked in healthcare, charter schools and other nonprofits.
Hesson was joined in co-authoring this column by CAT-C officers Eileen Loh, vice president; Mark Gonzalez, secretary, and Wayne Wilkinson, former vice president.
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.