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Fur Flies as Dog Lovers Protest Bid to Add Playground to Park

March 07, 1985|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

By conventional standards, it isn't much of a place, just a four-acre flat spot covered with grass and trees and placed far enough down a slope from Mulholland Drive to have kept it out of sight of most of the world.

But in the minds of those who know it, love it and think of it as their own, little Laurel Canyon Park above Studio City has become a battleground of heroic causes.

As one might suspect in a fight involving public land, the antagonist is government, in this case the City of Los Angeles. Arrayed against its bulldozers and bureaucracy is a band of citizens who go by the name Park Watch.

Children or Dogs?

The bone of contention is whether a playground should be built in a park that now is dominated by dogs.

The members of Park Watch are dog lovers. In this neighborhood of million-dollar homes and vast views, they bring their pets to the park to walk them, train them, play with them and even, in open acts of petty lawlessness, let them cavort without leashes.

Often 30 or 40 dogs cavort in the park. The only amenities they require are the 14 "pooper scoopers" stored against the park's trees, courtesy of Park Watch members.

Park Watch founder Jane Purse, a spunky, white-haired woman, believes that any change would ruin what she calls "our park."

She quickly becomes emotional when giving her version of what is at stake. Dog people are often single and have no one else in their lives but their dogs, she says.

"That's why at 5 or 5:30 you see people come with their dogs. It's an event. It cuts through a certain layer of loneliness for a lot of people. This park has been a great social event in these people's lives," she said.

A children's playground, along with the lighting and telephone that would go with it, would break the spell, she said.

"I would feel it wasn't any longer the park that I really love."

If Park Watch is vague in explaining its opposition to the plan, there are those who think the reason is clear.

"I think the bottom line is they don't want the children," said Renee Witzer, a deputy for Councilman Joel Wachs. "They have taken this little park for themselves. By us putting in a little kid's play area, it is going to interfere with the use for them."

At one time a little diplomacy might have helped. But the rhetoric has apparently gone beyond easy solutions.

Wachs believes the city's integrity is at stake.

Park for Everyone

"It isn't going to be any one person's park," he said. "I think dogs are wonderful. But they've got to be kept on leashes, like everyone else."

Purse, on the other hand, sees a personal mission in the struggle.

"You can look upon this as my obsession," she said. "It probably is. I've agonized over every tree in that park, I find it a very lovely, healing place. I'll fight for that park till the last breath I've got."

Purse is not daunted by the city. She said she and Park Watch have already defended their park against more redoubtable opponents.

Three years ago, Purse said, Laurel Canyon Park was being terrorized by a notorious group of auto racers called the Mulholland Racers, and by drug dealers, rapists and hoodlums.

"Trees and grass were mutilated," she said. "Tables and benches were vandalized. Fences were leaning, and every morning the park was littered with cans, smashed glass and assorted trash."

Purse organized Park Watch to battle the park marauders. Its members, now numbering about 300, contributed to buy locks and chains for the entrance gate and to hire a security patrol to open and close the gate, Purse said.

"We fought the Mulholland Racers for five months," she said.

"We spent $174 on locks and chains. The Mulholland Racers did everything in the world to make our lives miserable. I said, 'They're winning some of the battles, but don't give up. We'll win the war.' "

And win they did, Purse said. She attributes the victory to the dogs.

'It Wasn't Safe'

"Nobody would go into that park unless you had a dog," she said. "It wasn't safe if you didn't have a dog. I think that's how dogs got started in that park. They were the people who were willing to go out in that park and keep it clean. There were no mommies and daddies and kiddies in that park."

Not everyone in Laurel Canyon reads the story exactly that way, however.

Rick Kahn, a member of a group called Committee for Laurel Canyon Park, was interested in the park before Park Watch came into existence.

His committee led a community effort, in cooperation with Wachs' office, to have the park developed in the 1970s. Kahn said the group has always wanted a playground there.

Now, he said, the group is getting fed up with the dog owners.

"My position is that the park is being usurped and is being used for things no park is intended for," Kahn said. "We feel this organization, which calls itself Park Watch, is a group that has only one purpose for existence, which is to have a place to exercise and train dogs. They don't want any kids down there for any reason."

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