"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."-from Animal Farm by George Orwell
It's approaching four in the afternoon on a sparkling, blue-sky day in April-time for Laura Emerick to jumbo-clip the curtains closed and lock the doors of her turreted Golden Hill home. Around the corner, Herb Foelber secures his front door and a side wrought-iron gate that leads to a backyard fishpond, which is fishless at the moment.
Why the simultaneous routines at this appointed hour in this historic neighborhood hugging the eastern edge of Balboa Park? For Emerick and Foelber, the answer is simple.
The dog people are coming.
They come in all shapes, sizes and modes of transportation-the dogs, that is. Some are chauffeured in pickup trucks and SUVs and sedans while others pull their "masters" behind them on foot, past Emerick's shuttered windows. They're heading for a section of 28th Street the locals now refer to as a parking lot. A wooden fence separates the lot from the beginning of what the dog people consider canine nirvana.
Welcome to Grape Street Park, where dogs are king and some neighbors are crying foul.
For Emerick, a married, 40-something photographer who currently makes pottery for a living, the experience has become all but unbearable. She seals her thick curtains with big black clips, she says, so certain dog-park activists can't peer into her house. Emerick's round, smooth face exudes no phoniness when she says it happens all the time unless she institutes the dog-time blackout.
Her wariness of the dog people manifests itself in many ways. She declined to be photographed for this story, and at one point wasn't sure she wanted her name mentioned, either. An avid gardener, Emerick no longer tends to her colorful flowerbeds during dog hours.
"I try to avoid being in front of my home during the afternoon," she explained, "because I don't trust those people."
While she won't go so far as to say she, her husband and her cats are prisoners in their rented home during certain hours of the day, Emerick did allow, "Well, I've definitely rearranged things so that I don't have to interact with these people."
A little-discussed consequence of the region's unbridled housing construction boom-especially the growing trend to build bigger homes closer to property lines at the expense of usable private green space (read: backyards)-has been the additional demand such decisions place on public green space.
"When I was a kid," one San Diego city government employee told CityBeat privately, "our backyard was like three lots. That's not so common any more in the urban areas. And with more people, you can't just let your dog run loose down the sidewalk any more because people get pissed off."
Couple the increased urbanization with a growing phenomenon whereby, as the city employee described it, "people's dogs are elevated to a status of a family member," and emotions are bound to run high.
Today, dog ownership appears to be on the rise and is occurring in parts of the city-downtown, for example-previously not considered dog-friendly. For those not sold on a dog's life, however, this can only mean one thing: Calls for dog-oriented public parkland will likely only get louder, and in the case of Grape Street Park, probably even more contentious.
"They are a requested and sought-after public amenity," the city worker explained. "People are passionate about their dogs, and people who don't really like dogs are also passionate, so both sides get persistent."
These days, dog owners are pushing in ever-increasing numbers for so-called off-leash areas, which the city generally describes as a place where dogs "run free, play fetch and socialize with other dogs." These areas-a dozen citywide with another planned for Rancho Bernardo-are scattered all over San Diego and range in size from two-thirds of an acre at Maddox Park in Mira Mesa to Grape Street Park's 5.4 acres.
Urban golfers will have an idea where this 5.4-acre park with the eucalyptus grove sits-just beyond the chain-link fence that marks the boundary of the Balboa Park Golf Course driving range. In fact, golf balls do occasionally travel into the park, which might explain why an investment firm recently donated some 30 trees that were planted along the park side of the fence.
But what makes Grape Street Park truly unique-and on this both dog owners and area residents agree-is its proximity to homes; a dozen or so are a tennis ball's toss from the park. Emerick's home is only two doors away. Foelber's canyon home sits only feet from the parking lot, where dogs are supposed to remain leashed until led into the park.
A resident near the horseshoe-shaped park since 1964, Foelber claims that rule isn't always followed. "I would say maybe 60 percent of the people keep their dogs on-leash," the mild-mannered retiree said. "The other 40 percent could care less."
On occasions, dogs have headed for his house instead of the park. One time, a dog plunged straight into his fishpond, he said. But mostly, Foelber said, dogs can't seem to resist peeing on his front door, which hasn't held a proper finish in years. Other times, dogs "run into the house, and then they're not sure what to do," he said. The owners, he added, typically seem surprised that their dogs would be such eager trespassers and promise to be more careful the next time.
Dog owners are currently required to keep their dogs leashed from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. at Grape Street Park on weekdays, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends and holidays. Dogs can run free from 7:30 a.m. until 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and beginning at 9 a.m. weekends and holidays.
But a group of activists that calls itself Dog Owners of Grape Street (DOGS) now wants those hours expanded-leash-free from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Already, the Balboa Park Committee, which oversees the park, has approved the longer hours. The proposal is now expected to head to the San Diego City Council's Land Use and Housing Committee in mid-June, followed by a final public debate before the full City Council, which will consider it along with a slate of dog-park-related measures.
If the previous public debates on Grape Street Park are any indication, the City Council might be in for a barnburner. Folks on both sides of the issue agree that the discussion so far has been anything but friendly. Talks between the factions ended long ago. Cindy Ireland, who formerly chaired the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee, which has frequently sided with DOGS, said a talented mediator gave up trying to bring the parties together after only three sessions.
Emerick said she was served with a defamation lawsuit after alleging that a Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee member had a conflict of interest because she frequently used the park in connection with a pet-care business. The suit was later dropped, but Emerick said the board member has threatened to renew the suit, including during a heated encounter with her husband at a South Park pizzeria.
Tim Doyle, considered the unofficial "mayor" of Grape Street Park, said opponents simply want the dogs out of the park, and he vowed that would never happen.
Doyle, who officially serves as president of DOGS and as a Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee member, acknowledged that a majority of committee members now are dog-park supporters, evoking memories of last year's planning-board purge in North Park over the city's needle-exchange program.
Is it fair to say a takeover occurred in Golden Hill? "Yes it is," he said, but he stressed that the committee has tackled more issues than simply the status of dogs at Grape Street Park. "We turned down a Kentucky Fried Chicken that wanted to put in a drive through," said Doyle. "That was a big fight. It's not just dog issues."
On a recent afternoon, Doyle held court as a frenzied gathering of at least 30 dogs dashed through the park in utter bliss, their owners showing nothing but smiles. Doyle, who is currently unemployed ("I was fired from the South Park Bar & Grill," he said, "because "nobody likes me.' That's a quote"), said he has visited the park every day for six years with his pound dog, Cami (named after Ken Caminiti, the former Padres third baseman), and enjoys the camaraderie.
"I've come here in a bad mood from work, life, the girl-whatever," he said, in a voice reminiscent of Al Pacino. "Ain't never left in a bad mood. What does that tell ya? This is the best damn dog park around."
Warren Edelson, a retired Philadelphia transplant, started bringing his tennis-ball-loving boxer, Superdog II, to Grape Street Park about nine months ago after he and his wife moved out of a downtown condo near Pantoja Park, where off-leashing is banned. "The dog control got a little bit obsessive," he said, heaving a ball, much to Superdog's delight. "This, on the other hand, is a wonderful park. The openness is great, to begin with. The hours are a tad inhibiting, but infinitely better than nothing."
He said a recommendation by the city's Park and Recreation Department to divide the park with fencing to accommodate shared uses by large dogs, small dogs and the dogless public has not been met with any support among the local dog people. Edelson said he doesn't see the need for "subdivisions"-which has occurred successfully in Poway and to a lesser extent at one of the city's newest off-leash areas at Pacific Beach's Capehart Park-but said other uses should be welcomed.
That kind of talk gets folks like Don Steele tied up in knots. Steele worked for the Park and Recreation Department for 23 years before retiring in 2000. He now sits on several committees that he once staffed as a city employee, but his particular pet project these days is Grape Street Park, which he calls a "problematic" off-leash area.
Steele has argued-so far unsuccessfully-that the park should be partitioned with fences, thus allowing seniors and children and others without dogs to use a portion of the park without concern of being overrun by playful pooches. He said he's also concerned that so many people from outside the neighborhood have discovered Grape Street Park, which, while part of the regional Balboa Park, is still considered a neighborhood park.
A dog park there "is something that I never would have advocated." He believes the city has exposed itself unnecessarily to potential lawsuits should anyone be bitten or otherwise injured there. Fencing, he added, is a nationally recognized standard for dog parks, and the city knows it.
"This is not rocket science, people," said Steele, who walks with two canes due to severe arthritis but still enjoys visiting dog parks. "It's just common sense and prudence. It's an issue of land use, safety and equitable access for people in the community. That's why it's a dangerous condition and why the current proposal"-of expanded hours but no fencing-"is very troubling to me. That's why I'm still involved.
"They have essentially made this into a dog pasture, and that's not why this park is here."
The proponents of expanded hours say their move into the park 10 years ago has helped chase away bad elements that had claimed the park for years. They say homeless people, prostitutes, drug dealers and gang members frequented the park until the presence of dogs made such activity hit the road.
San Diego Police Lt. Boyd Long, whose command includes the park, said such claims are somewhat overstated, but he sympathizes with both sides of the debate. "The real problem here," he said, "is the convergence of the residential population on the edge of a park where now we have dogs running around. I think it's fairly unique."
He said his officers, along with park rangers, make random patrols of the park and will occasionally issue citations for illegal dog behavior. He's heard most of the complaints, including the failure of many dog owners to leash-walk their dogs into the park.
"It infuriates the people that live there when they see that happening, because they believe that's a blatant violation of the law," he said. "The tough part is, we've got to balance that with the spirit of the law.... Could we write up every one of those persons? Without a doubt we could do it. Is it in the benefit of everyone to do that? Probably not."
John Kroll, another member of DOGS, said only a few residents object to the expanded hours. Like Emerick, he noted that some opponents have moved away and described others dismissively as "renters." He also boasted that the mailing list for his group contains nearly 200 names. A writer by trade, Kroll visits the park twice a day with his two golden retrievers. He said the park is typically empty during on-leash hours. He said another park to the south is suitable for non-dog users.
Kroll later returned to soften his tone about the opponents. "We think there's room for other activities as well," he said. "But in as much that the park isn't used and there are people with dogs who want to use it at other hours, we think we should allow that."
Emerick conceded that the park is little used during non-dog hours, but she said that's because people are at work and children in school during the available hours. She also suggested that the conditions at the park are not always sanitary.
Meanwhile, Edelson, the Philadelphia retiree, is busy picking up a stray poop that someone left behind. Park users, he said, monitor the activity at the park, and he insisted that rules violators are dealt with swiftly. "You'll definitely hear people yelling, "Whose dog is this?' when problems arise," he said.
In this debate, there is no shortage of rumor and innuendo. Doyle, the unofficial mayor, said he's read a letter sent, he said, by an opponent urging the city to cut down the trees in the park and build housing on it. The homebuyers would certainly be thrilled with the scenic views of downtown, but stray golf balls and the outcry from losing a park would certainly make such a suggestion unfathomable.
Emerick acknowledged that the opposition is small in number, but she and Steele wonder why the political winds seem to favor the dog owners. She's convinced the park's fate was set while Christine Kehoe represented the area on the City Council. She also noted that Kehoe's successor, Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins, lives nearby and once brought her dog there.
Doyle, however, noted that Atkins no longer comes to the park, because if she did, "people would hound her. Some people just want to alleviate the animosity." He also said if his group had as much political sway as opponents claim, "We wouldn't have obstructed [dog] hours now."
Atkins, in an e-mail to CityBeat, said she has observed the park for the past decade-going back to her days as a Kehoe aide-and has seen little use of the park except by dog owners, although she noted that since the city officially sanctioned off-leashing there two years ago, "tons of folks" have come forward to say "they now can't use the park" because of the proliferation of dogs there.
"I can tell you," Atkins added, "we have tried to work out the issues between the two sides for many years," calling the situation now "pretty polarized." She did state categorically that she is opposed to "carving up Grape Street Park" with fences.
As for not visiting the park of late, Atkins said her 15-year-old Lhasa Apso, Shiloh, is "less capable of running the park like he used to like to do" and that she is sensitive to, but not in agreement with, opponents' calls that she refrain from voting on the matter because of her past use of the park.
"In that case I should recuse myself from 99 percent of the issues we vote on, since I'm a San Diego citizen and resident and almost everything we vote on at council affects me as a resident!!!" she wrote.
So what's the answer for this polarized neighborhood? Lt. Long suggested that nearby residents "fortify" their homes with fences and hedges. "I think a lot of them have gone to this," he said. The one thing he said he can't do is "station a cop up there. I don't have the resources to do that. I'm really hard-pressed to assign somebody up there and say, "Your job is to watch dogs that are off leash, dogs that run into people's yards.' That's where I'm kind of stuck."
Ironically, with all the political intrigue, Doyle said he recently found out that the Greater Golden Hill Planning Committee has never had any oversight authority of the park-that belongs solely to the Balboa Park Committee. So, now the Golden Hill group has a pro-dog majority that can't weigh in any more on that subject.
"Not to worry," Doyle said. "You have to be in this for the long haul. South Park is changing. We have 18 new businesses here. It's a lot like Mayberry. Don't write that. See, I don't want people coming to my neighborhood, you know?"
And perhaps Doyle offered a sliver of hope that there may come a thaw in the tensions at Grape Street Park. He offered to repaint neighbor Herb Foelber's pee-stained door. "If there's a legitimate problem, I'm more than happy to help."
And then he made an interesting admission: "I sure the hell wouldn't live across the street from this park, either. No way!"
Doyle said that if he ever hears what Emerick said was shouted at an earlier planning group meeting (someone threatened to "key" an opponent's car), "I would jump on their ass, because that tends to cause no good.
"We are passionate about things that breathe," he added. "And when you get passionate about something, you do get emotional. Sometimes good, sometimes not good."
And then he was off to cater to another constituent.
"Who wants a belly rub!" he said to a dog that had rolled onto its back seeking attention.