It’s a Dog-Eat-Dog World For Loose Pooches in Park

‘A group of citizens is being punished for the acts of a few members of the group, and that seems to me profoundly un-American.’

-Andrew Kner, dog owner

For years, the dogs roamed free in Stuyvesant Park. Every night between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., liberated pooches played together, unrestrained by leashes, in the park at 15th to 17th streets around Second Avenue, while their happy owners chatted during an evening stroll or met over the day’s first cup of coffee. The pooches got their exercise; their owners made new friends.

The owners coalesced into a loosely structured group called Good Owners, Great Dogs, which emphasized responsible pooch parenting, like picking up the dog poop and keeping adventurous pups off the flower beds. It was perfect.

But then there were the bad owners. There were just a few, perhaps-those who were seen lifting their pooches over fences so they could have their way with the flower beds, the ones who weren’t so vigilant about curbing their dogs, the ones who allowed their dogs to shred the lawn. Not to mention, said Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, “some bites and near-misses.”

Yes, the bad owners ruined it for the good ones. And on April 10, Parks Department staff were handing out notices to dog owners-good and bad alike-as they entered Stuyvesant Park, informing them that the off-leash courtesy hours between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. were rescinded. No more free-range dogs in Stuyvesant Park.

On May 9, about 40 upset dog owners sporting green Good Owners, Great Dogs badges came before Board 6 to try to rally support to reclaim their best friends’ freedom. They emphasized the contribution of dog owners to rehabilitating and maintaining the park. They said the park was safer at night thanks to their presence. They promised to cooperate with the rest of the community, the Parks Department and Board 6 to make the off-leash courtesy acceptable for everyone. They pleaded and grew emotional.

“Most of us don’t have children,” Sangam Pande told the board. “My dog is my son.”

Mr. Pande said that his dog, Karma, has already gained weight since the courtesy was taken away, even though he’s eating less. “I’ll do anything,” he offered. “Just let my dog run free for a while.”

Said Andrew Kner, who as a child immigrated with his parents to the U.S. from Hungary, “A group of citizens is being punished for the acts of a few members of the group, and that seems to me profoundly un-American.”

Anna Guaica, a resident of the area for 15 years, told the board that “it cannot be stressed enough that we are the community that you represent.”

Certainly, dog owners aren’t inconsequential, with more than a million dogs registered in the city as of 1997. But there’s also plenty of park lovers who see the dogs as their enemy.

“I used to jog in the park,” resident Jon Schachter, who is also a dog owner, told the board. “I used to get chased by dogs, so I stopped jogging.” Then Mr. Schachter talked about dingo attacks on humans in Australia and how out-of-control dogs could strike anywhere. The audience chuckled. The dog people booed.

Despite the dog people’s ire, however, the law is the law-and city law calls for dogs to be leashed at all times. Off-leash courtesy hours are just that: a courtesy offered by the Parks Department.

“I have a dog,” Mr. Stern, the Parks Commissioner, told The Observer. “We’re pro-dog. We allow them off-leash where we can.” But Stuyvesant Park, he said, just isn’t a place where they can: the park’s too small, and it causes too many problems.

Board 6 agreed. Back in March, the board unanimously passed a resolution supporting the abolition of the off-leash courtesy hours. “We were asked by the Parks Department if we would support ending the courtesy period, and we said we never supported it, so we wouldn’t oppose ending it,” the board’s parks committee acting chair, Gary Papush, told The Observer.

But the dog people promise to keep up the fight. Be prepared for a four-legged protest in the next few weeks.

-Karina Lahni

Barge Theater Plans Kept Afloat

New York City can always use another theater, but architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld is a man with a unique vision: a floating, traveling, open-air, multi-use theater on a barge. And like a modern-day Huck Finn, Mr. Kirschenfeld is taking his dream up river.

These days, however, the architect has found himself, as Huck might say, in an awful heap of constarnation: He can’t build his “Theater at the Pier” without an arts organization to raise the building funds, find corporate sponsors and administer the programs. But he can’t get a developer until he can show that waterfront neighborhoods would welcome a performance venue on their shores.

So Mr. Kirschenfeld has visited Community Boards 1, 7, and 9 to try to garner support for mooring his fantasy at Battery Park, the 72nd Street Pier and Harlem Piers. His hope is to gain approval from several boards so that when he approaches potential financial backers, he’ll have more geographic options, he told The Observer.

But, like Huck Finn, he has met with mixed success and misadventures along the way.

Board 1 approved his concept, but a not-for-profit organization that tried to develop the plan for Battery Park City was unsuccessful in raising the $2 million necessary to build the 50-by-135-foot structure.

Members of Board 7 scoffed at the idea of 600 theater patrons creating more noise off of the West Side Highway.

Enter Board 9 members Walter South and Maritta Dunn, who invited Mr. Kirschenfeld to present his idea to the board’s piers committee. Mr. South said he “heard that the other boards turned him down, and I felt that this would be desirable. It would provide us with a cultural center and a place to have recreational events like dances,” he told The Observer. “This is something that could appeal to all the ethnic groups in C.B. 9.”

Mr. Kirschenfeld’s plan, presented at the public-hearing portion of the monthly full-board meeting, met with cautious enthusiasm from the board members, who requested that he gain approval from their parks committee before coming to the full board for a vote.

Meanwhile, Board 9 members welcomed, at least in theory, the plan to build a structure that would create jobs, provide space for neighborhood events and draw theater-lovers from all over the city into Harlem. And technically, the theater would not be moored at the Harlem Piers but just south of them, at the end of Cherry Walk, where there are few residences and no community-board policy of turning down commercial ventures. Board members said they envisioned a space to house outdoor classes or children’s events during the day and moonlit jazz festivals at night.

Best of all, if they don’t like it, the theater can leave after a few years. The theater, which would have an all-weather fabric and cable roof for rainy days, can be tugged away. In fact, said Mr. Kirschenfeld, “the original idea was to move it around every couple of years. That was the idea-a traveling outdoor theater making its way up the Hudson. My big fantasy is to tug it to Miami and have a winter season there and a summer season in New York.”

-Sarah Bronson

Gay Group Can March In Indian Day Parade

Like a 21st-century Superman, State Senator Thomas Duane swooped into the May 10 meeting of Board 5 and saved the day. No, he didn’t make the earth reverse on its axis. But he did manage to get the Federation of Indian Associations to agree to include a group of gays and lesbians in this year’s Federation parade, a feat which had come to seem no less miraculous.

The battles between the Federation and the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) had come to resemble a certain other parade’s conflicts, which erupt each year shortly before March 17. Despite SALGA’s inclusion in last year’s Federation festivities, the Federation leadership resisted including the homosexual group in this year’s Indian Independence Day parade on Aug. 19.

Former Federation president Vijay Gupta explained to Board 5 in April that he did not want SALGA to march in the parade. In last year’s march, he said, a member of the gay and lesbian group allegedly carried a sign with an expletive. SALGA members vehemently deny the offender was part of their group.

On the grounds that the Federation was discriminating against homosexuals, Board 5 took the unusual step of at first voting to deny the Federation a permit for a street fair, which the group wishes to hold in conjunction with the parade.

Faced with the possibility of a protracted battle for his street fair, Mr. Gupta agreed to put in writing that SALGA could march-if, he said, they put in writing that none of their members would carry signs with expletives. In light of this agreement, Board 5 rescinded their vote and agreed to give the Federation and SALGA another month to finalize their agreement.

But by the beginning of the May 10 meeting, the Federation still had not made any dovish overtures. SALGA members came to the board meeting armed with a lawyer and copies of the letter they had sent to the Federation via registered mail, in which they stated that their representatives would use no expletives in the parade, although they would not accept responsibility for the actions of spectators.

The Federation had not responded in any way. They had not even sent a representative to the meeting of Board 5’s consents and variances committee, which reconsidered the Federation application for the street-fair permit. It was looking more and more as if SALGA would not march in the parade, and the Federation might not have a street fair.

Twenty minutes after the board meeting started, Mr. Gupta arrived and the wrangling began. He had never received SALGA’s letter, he told their reps. Moreover, the letter is unacceptable, he said, because SALGA does not accept blame if a spectator with a dirty sign joins their ranks during the parade.

Besides, Mr. Gupta said, he no longer has the power to guarantee that SALGA can march, since the Federation had elections on May 6 and he is no longer the president.

As the clock ticked on and the board’s vote on the Federation street-fair application drew closer, the discussions between Mr. Gupta and the four SALGA representatives showed no sign of movement.

Enter Senator Duane.

The tall, bulky, openly gay Senator loomed over the relatively diminutive Mr. Gupta and did some role playing about spectators with offensive signs. “You are a member of the Indian Nurses Association,” the Senator told him. “I am a random New Yorker. I’m holding a sign that says ‘Shit.’ I’m walking next to you. What are you gonna do? Make me take down my sign? You can’t do it. [SALGA members] can’t hit someone or rip up their sign. [They] could be arrested.”

Finally Mr. Gupta agreed that SALGA could march. But there was still the problem that he was no longer the Federation president.

“You’re powerless,” Mr. Duane pointed out. “What difference does it make what you say?” Suddenly Mr. Gupta had the authority to act on the Federation’s behalf. Within minutes, he had scribbled down that “SALGA group will be allowed to march in Indian Independence Day Parade 2001″ and had read his declaration to the community board, who then voted unanimously to support his application for a street-fair permit.

The new Federation president, Subhash Dalal, told The Observer that he was not aware of Mr. Gupta’s actions at the Board 5 meeting, but took a benign view of his predecessor’s promise to include SALGA in the parade.

“Whatever he did, he must have done in the best interest of the community and the F.I.A.,” Mr. Dalal said. “I understand that SALGA will do the right job. They will be a positive part of the community. Whatever he has done is done, and I cannot change it.”

-Sarah Bronson

May 16: Board 8, Ramaz Lower School, auditorium, 125 East 85th Street, between Park and Lexington avenues, 7 p.m., 758-4340.

May 17: Board 9, Community Board Office, 565 West 125th Street, between Broadway and Old Broadway, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200.

May 22: Board 3, P.S. 120, 166 Essex Street, between Houston and Stanton streets, 6:30 p.m., 533-5300; Board 12, Milstein Hospital, 177 Fort Washington Avenue, 7:30 p.m., 568-8500.

May 24: Board 2, St. Vincent’s Hospital, 170 West 12th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 10th floor, 7 p.m., 979-2272.