Volume 78 / Number 5 - July 2 - July 8, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

Calvin Knight and his dogs at the Stanton Street Dog run.

A dogfight over an ‘unofficial’dog run pits vet versus board

By Gabriel Zucker

“When I first came down here, it was like ‘Night of the Living Dead’,” chuckled Calvin Knight, a Masaryk Towers resident who has spent 15 years cleaning up and maintaining a lot on Stanton St. for use as a community dog run.

“There was a lot of drugs, rape, crime in the area,” he said. “With the presence of the dogs, I knew a lot of the drug people would not keep coming.”

The “Stanton Street Alley Unofficial Dog Run” has long been Knight’s personal mission; though, recently, neighbor Kenneth Nievis also has joined in the project. Their work has brought not just dog owners but all kinds of community members to the lot — including groups doing exercise and playing dominoes.

The dog run is located in the Stanton St. alley between Pitt and Columbia Sts. directly behind the Hamilton Fish Recreation Center.

Last month, however, Community Board 3’s Parks Committee voted to close the dog run, resolving that the run was “not appropriate for that location.” At the subsequent C.B. 3 full board meeting on June 24, there was impassioned support from six speakers who called the run an asset to the community. But board members voted to support the Parks Committee’s resolution.

The board cited noise complaints from residents of Masaryk Towers, which are located about 15 yards away from the dog run, plus occasional police reports of dogfights. Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3’s district manager, said that when the board first put the issue on the agenda, so many Masaryk residents called C.B. 3 with noise complaints that she asked them to stop calling.

Stetzer also noted that the dog run had never been subject to community approval in the first place.

“If someone wants to have a dog run, the procedure is to come to the community board and the Parks Department,” she said. “That has never happened. This has come before the board previously, but there was never a real proposal and therefore no vote.

“There is no Stanton Street dog run,” Stetzer said. “There have been people using Parks Department property for their dogs.” Stetzer added that the land would be redeveloped by Parks, most likely for soccer, badminton or volleyball use.

Advocates for the dog run, however, questioned the noise complaints cited by C.B. 3. While testimony at the June 12 Parks Committee meeting alleged there are typically 15 dogs simultaneously at the run during the day, Knight put the figure at five. In addition to any noise from the dog run, there is also noise from the basketball courts at Hamilton Fish Recreation Center and the playground at the NEST + m School, the run’s backers noted.

Masaryk Towers management reported receiving only four or five complaints from residents about noise in the lot, plus several others about the odor of dog feces.

At the C.B. 3 full board meeting, two dog-run users who live at the corner of Pitt and Rivington Sts. said they had never heard noise from the dog run. Garrett Rosso, a leading dog advocate who manages the Tompkins Square dog run and lives near Knight’s run, concurred that the daytime is quiet at the Stanton St. lot. But he and Knight agree that drug dealers and other criminals noisily use the run for their own purposes at night. In a statement, Rosso wrote that the Seventh Police Precinct has only responded to nighttime incidents. The precinct did not respond to The Villager’s phone calls by press time.

The dog owners, Knight insisted, are blameless.

“There’s no problem with those people,” Knight said.

Knight used to keep the run locked at night, but Parks encouraged him to leave it open starting in 2004, leading to an influx of criminals abusing the space, he said.

“We have to address nighttime noise,” admitted Nievis. On Fri., June 20, Knight and Nievis took a first step toward doing just that.

“We started locking the run at night and we haven’t heard any noise,” Knight said. The men did not have Parks’ authorization to lock the lot, but Knight insisted it “has to be done for the sake of the community.”

Knight thought a taller gate would ultimately be necessary, however, to keep the criminals — and, thus, the noise — out.

“I would put up the money myself,” he said. “With that, we wouldn’t have no problems anymore.”

Stetzer, though, thought a nighttime gate would be insufficient because, she said, “Even during the day, people deserve peace and quiet.”

For his part, Knight called Stetzer’s allegation that there had been no dog run proposal “untrue.”

“We go way back. She received a letter a long time ago,” he stated, referring to one he has from 2005, and mentioning several more letters from the 1990s.

To Rosso, Stetzer’s accusation represents “a cultural divide in terms of how a man like [Knight] can advocate. He cannot go out and create a PowerPoint presentation like some people,” Rosso said.

“C.B. 3 has a track record of not approving dog runs in areas they don’t consider gentrified,” Rosso wrote in an e-mail. He pointed out that the board had rejected requests for runs in nearby Sara Roosevelt and Seward parks, and said he worried that the lack of an “adequate, enclosed dog park” in the area would push dog owners to irresponsibly use parks and playgrounds for their dogs.

Suzanne Travers, a Stanton Street run user, agreed, saying, “There really isn’t another place for responsible dog owners to exercise their dogs.”

Stetzer, however, denied that her board had a negative dog-run record, given a run they recently approved in Coleman Park.

“Living in New York is difficult, and there’s not space for everything we need,” she said. “It’s not appropriate to have a dog run right under people’s windows.” C.B. 3 also recommended that Parks investigate creating a run in East River Park, she noted.

Currently, Knight’s dog run is in a kind of limbo. The day after the committee vote, Knight removed the fence to show the run’s users that it was closed. But he was subsequently asked to maintain the fence and the run until renovations started, since, as he explained, “someone has to keep it clean. I don’t mind,” he said. “I’m a workaholic.”

Stetzer said she did not know when the work on the space might begin.

Knight suggested that personal tensions may have led to the run’s closing; one of the major speakers at the committee hearing, according to Knight, was the Masaryk co-op board’s president, whom Knight has spoken out against for allegedly canceling customary board elections. Rosso agreed with Knight’s analysis, referring to “bad blood” between the parties. Rosso recommended that Councilmember Rosie Mendez get involved and review the case.

The fuss over noise seemed to be beside the point for the six speakers and 10 other supporters who cheered them robustly during the full board meeting’s public session.

“It’s wonderful for the dog owners, and I really commend both Kenneth and Calvin,” said one speaker. “They took something that was previously unused and made it something beautiful,” he said of Knight and Nievis’s work on the lot.

Last week, the dog run’s pavement was impeccably clean; brooms, garbage bins and Knight’s own makeshift pooper-scoopers lined the fences.

“I come out early to clean up the place [with Nievis],” Knight said. Every week, he drives bags of garbage to the compactor himself. But things were not always this way.

“Before I put that fence down there, you used to have a line coming down here every morning buying their drugs,” he said. “This fence I found on Delancey underneath the bridge,” he explained, resting a hand on the wrought-iron barrier. Knight lifted his hand toward the lot’s only streetlight, explaining that he called the city to have it fixed.

“Now, I had a lot of problems with the Blood gang, this gang, that gang,” he said. “Before that light was put on, you couldn’t see at all, and they could do whatever they want.” Knight said there was once a killing in the lot.

Sixty-six years old, Knight describes himself as a musician, churchgoer and workaholic. He endured two tours in Vietnam and was the very first tenant of Masaryk Towers in 1967. A retiree who collects disabled veteran benefits for a spinal injury, he devotes his time to his soul music and his dog run.

Knight wore a Vietnam veterans vest and a beaming smile as he gave a tour of the run on a recent afternoon. While his three dogs — Rottweiliers Sheba and Ginnie, and mutt Alex, Knight’s “assistant” — enjoyed their second of two daily scheduled hours in the run. Knight produced two portfolios from a leather briefcase, documenting the run’s history in photos and letters.

“I even planted grass out there,” he said, showing photos of flats of grass, which were torn up by “the drug people.”

Another photo showed used syringes; another displayed Knight’s birdhouses, broken. Yet another featured trash bags maliciously filled with bricks.

Soon, however, his work began to pay off.

“This is back in the ’90s,” he explained nostalgically as he flipped past a photo of six dogs and owners. “Before, people were afraid to come back out here, and after we got it cleaned up, now you see senior citizens playing dominoes, having a good time.”

“I even had people coming out here at 6 in the morning doing exercise,” he said, laughing, flipping past photos of exercise benches.

Knight’s biggest goal was to create a flea market with 20 spots for vendors.

Lower Manhattan Together, a local community-empowerment organization, never got behind this proposal, he said. Still, he persevered; in 1998, he received a phone call from the city “saying they wanted me to continue with the project because the crime rate went to zero” in the lot, he boasted.

Knight and Nievis worried what would happen if dogs and their owners left the lot. Nievis reported that when he and Knight returned to the run after two days of abandonment following the committee’s vote, vagrants, drug dealers and Bloods gang members had infested it — even during the day, according to Knight.

Yet, despite fears that 15 years of dedicated work would be undone, Knight refused to dismiss the community board with negative anger.

“I’m a positive thinker and a positive worker,” he said. “Only good will prevail, in the end, you understand what I mean?”

Still, for Nievis, C.B. 3’s decision represents exactly what a community board should not do.

“You’re going to be seen as mean people, you want to be seen as heroes,” he concluded in his public statement at the board meeting.

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