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Crazy Laws

Don't shoot me, bro!

Did you know that in California, it’s against the law for a woman to drive in a housecoat? You’re also prohibited from shooting any sort of wild game from a moving car — unless it’s a whale. In San Francisco, “persons classified as ‘ugly’ may not walk down any street.” There are lots of silly or antiquated laws still on the books all across the country.

We’re no different here in Oakland. Almost every park in our lovely city is off-limits to dogs and their owners — even if that dog is on a leash. People up in the Oakland hills have some respite, since they have the lovely off-leash area in Joaquin Miller Park. ODOG worked tirelessly to build it six years ago. It’s been a big hit with the neighbors. Initially, the Woodminster Theater adjacent to the off leash area was worried it would smell and wouldn’t be properly maintained. But, last March Harriet Schlader, the director of shows at Woodminster sent an unsolicited letter of praise to ODOG for how “clean” and “odorless” it’s been.

If you live near Lake Merritt you’re somewhat out of luck, and probably unknowingly breaking the law (much like those aesthetically-challenged folks across the bay). You most likely enjoy walking with your family and your dog near the lake and/or in some of our beautiful parks. Who wouldn’t? Walking a dog in a park is a natural occurrence that happens millions of times a day all across the globe. It knows no racial, age, religious or socio-economic barrier. But, people can (and sometimes do) get ticketed when paws touch grass in Oakland.

ODOG has worked with city planners and politicians for years to identify a suitable space for dog owners in the area to legally exercise their dogs and socialize with other people. Initially, Splash Pad Park was identified as the place. But, a separate proposal to put a Farmer’s Market there won out. (Incidentally, some neighbors fought the Farmer’s Market with almost as much veracity as they’re now fighting this proposal; and by all measures the market is an unqualified success).

Save Astro Park "fake out stake out"

Screen shot of the opposition’s Facebook page showing their recent “stake out" of the proposed site. Sports are clearly being played, despite their claim that the half of the field to be left unchanged is “unusable.” Also notice the patchy yellowish color of the grass. Click to Enlarge

Now a decade later and after literally dozens of public forums, Lakeview Park has been found to be the only spot anywhere around that an off leash area would be even remotely possible. And, why not? Sports will still be able to be played there despite what our opposition claims (see picture in sidebar). The tot lot will remain untouched, and is over 25 feet away.

This spot we’re asking for is less than one half of one percent of the parkland in the area. It would be space where we won’t be forced to break the law. And, for those that don’t want dogs in the other 154.5 acres of park for whatever reason, a study by the University of California, Davis confirms the obvious: “The establishment of a well-maintained and responsibly-used dog park may actually improve the value of some neighborhoods. Another benefit for a well-located park, according to park managers, is that the availability of an off-leash park reduced the tendency for people to allow their dogs off-leash in areas where it is not legal.” This proposed off leash area is a win-win all around.

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Dog Parks and Café Society

At a recent gathering of our volunteers, we were bantering about 1920s café society. Back then, community was forged in coffee shops. It wasn’t unusual for a wealthy industrialist to strike up a conversation with an unemployed poet. Nowadays, everyone at Starbucks is too engrossed in their iPhones for casual conversation. Or, too suspicious of a stranger talking to you at a café. One woman who spoke at the March 23rd meeting said she’d moved to the Lake Merritt area a year prior and hadn’t met any of her neighbors, and hadn’t made any new friends in the area.

We couldn’t help but notice the similarities between cafe society and the interaction we’ve seen at dog parks. Where else can you chat with complete strangers without feeling awkward or creepy? Mothers certainly get to socialize at children’s play areas. But what if you don’t have kids? Increasingly, people are turning to dog parks to forge a community, make friends, and socialize. Even the Catholic Church is getting in on the act.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has partnered with the Downtown Center Business Improvement District to put on Dog Day Afternoons, where people and their dogs can meet and socialize.

“The purpose of this is to create community,” explained Monsignor Kevin Kostelnik, co-sponsor of the event along with Joaquin, his black Labrador retriever. “It’s to allow residents, the humans, to get to meet one another because the animals are one part of God’s creation that brings everybody together. And I thought, you know, we’ve got a beautiful space here in downtown, and there’s a great necessity for dog parks downtown. So this was a great space I thought we could gather downtown residents and their pets.”

Hal Bastian, the director of the business improvement district said, “this is all about creating community, because downtown isn’t a place. It’s 15 different neighborhoods. And even those of us who live in a building, we never see each other ’cause we’re working and out and about.”

Dog parks are a great social equalizer: rich and poor, old and young, black and white, gay and straight. All gathering there have one obvious thing in common from the get-go, and conversation is not only easy but expected. Bonds are formed. Friendships are made.

“Dogs facilitate friendly interactions among people, as they so actively solicit play and offer greetings. Establishing a dog park creates a community center of activity where friends and neighbors gather to relax,” said Dr. Lynette Hart, director of the Center for Animals in Society at U.C. Davis.

Business improvement districts (such as the Lakeshore Business Improvement District that supports our planned park) know that having this kind of amenity in the area can only help business. You meet at the dog park (instead of driving to another town), meet your neighbors, make friends, then meet up later for cup of coffee, or grab lunch, or go to the gym. Right now, Lake Merritt dog owners are going to Alameda, and then stopping for coffee at South Shore, or some groceries at Alameda’s Trader Joes. All that money could be staying in Oakland.

The upcoming National Night Out is one night aimed at creating community, getting neighbors to know one another, getting people out of their houses, and reducing crime:  all benefits you get daily from a dog park. Shouldn’t Oakland support this type of thing?