"The dog was running after a ball," said Dasha, who plays regularly in the park. Dasha's mother did not want to give her last name. "I was afraid he was going to run me over, but he didn't do anything."
The dog quickly veered away from Dasha and she discovered later that the big, 5-year-old mixed breed, named Layla, was friendly.
"She even let me pet her," said Dasha.
Off-leash dogs are one of the issues Dr. Clifford Waldman, co-chairman of the Friends of Van Vorst Park, would like to solve with a proposed dog run.
"Like many other Jersey City park communities, the Van Vorst area needs to fairly and effectively resolve the issue of providing at least some healthy and clean park areas for children and adults to relax and play on," said Waldman.
Along with the potential harm that could be caused by off-leash dogs, the problem of dog feces and urine on the lawns of Van Vorst Park have caused concern on the part of Waldman and other community residents.
"I'm not happy when I step out of the garden I cultivate in the park and I put my foot in feces," said Montgomery Street resident Marc Wesson. Wesson is one of seven Van Vorst Park area residents who regularly tends garden patches at the park. "I ask myself: 'Why do I bother doing this?' "
Organic waste left by both leashed and unleashed dogs in the park has not been just a problem for Wesson, but has kept his children from playing on park grounds, also.
"I have two kids, one boy and one girl, who don't play in the park anymore," he said. "They used to play soccer and baseball, but now they play in our backyard."
Wesson said he was in favor of the proposed dog run, hoping it would spare his garden located near Montgomery Avenue damage and allow his children to play in the park again.
According to Waldman, the Van Vorst community will vote on the issue on Saturday, April 5 from noon to 3 p.m. at the gazebo located at the center of the park. The election will decide if the community wants a temporary dog run erected at the northwest corner of the park, near the corner of Montgomery Street and Jersey Avenue.
"There will be two maps set up on April 5," Waldman explained. "One map will have the proposed dog run on it and the other will not. The community will vote on which it wants."
In the second part of the election, Van Vorst Park area residents will decide whether or not the park should have three special designations: "people friendly," "dog friendly" or a combination of the two. Waldman said the decision on what designations will go where in the park will be judged from the largest concentration of responses. Voters will use a color-coded system for voting on which zone they would like placed where, Waldman added.
"We want to work together with the community," said Waldman. "Dog owners and parents can work together to solve this problem."
According to Willie Brown, acting director of Parks and Forestry, if the Van Vorst Park community approves the dog run, plans will be forwarded to the Public Works Department for approval.
"The department would look over the plans and then forward them to the council, who would eventually vote on them," said Brown.
The design considerations for the proposed dog run posted on Van Vorst Park online include a gated fence designed to complement the existing fences in the park. Seating and running water outlets should also be provided in the dog run to clean up after the dogs, according to the proposal.
"There would also be lighting for people walking their dogs at night, and a garbage bag dispenser," Waldman added.
The proposal calls for the installation of rubber flooring for the run, but environmental designer Gabriole Van Bryce has suggested instead the dog run be lined with decomposed granite.
"Decomposed granite is reddish-brown in color," Van Bryce stated. "It is high in trace minerals, is organic and environmentally safe."
Van Bryce noted that in the past, dog runs have used small, yellow-colored rocks, known as pea stones.
"Unfortunately, pea stones can be rough on dogs' feet and cause their pads to become infected," said Van Bryce. "The decomposed granite would be better for the dogs."
Waldman added the proposed dog run would be set 10 feet back from park sidewalks. The space would be filled with grass and possibly shrubs, cutting back on sound and visual distractions that would bother people outside the run.
Was renovated in 1999
This is not the first effort the Van Vorst Park residents have made to rehabilitate the small park, which is located across the street from the Main Branch of the Jersey City Public Library.
In 1999, area residents worked with the city to replant lawns and flowers in the park, which were suffering from neglect.
"The park was in bad shape," said Wesson. "Cops were always coming in at night and chasing people out."
As part of the 1999 restoration effort, a temporary dog run was constructed on what is now the site of the Majestic housing project at the corner of Grove and Montgomery Streets. This served dog owners in the area, while a location for a permanent dog run eluded them. At-Large Councilman Mariano Vega, then the ward representative for Van Vorst Park, said two sites were looked at for a dog run. One was located on Grand Street, near the where the new Jersey City Medical Center is being constructed, Vega said. The property owners, however, declined to let his land be used for the run.
"We also looked at a location under the Turnpike," said Vega. "That was too far away from the community. The farther away, the less likely people are to use it."
By the spring of 2000, according to Waldman, the newly planted lawns in Van Vorst Park were in good shape. "Three or four months later, I saw the lawns were starting to get damaged."
The lawns of Van Vorst Park suffered, in Waldman's view, from the large amount of off-leash dogs let lose in the park.
"We began to see yellow spots on the lawns from the dog urine," said Waldman. "Along with the drought we had at the time, the lawns died."
Dog owners and parents agree
Both dog owners and parents interviewed on Wednesday at the park were in favor of a dog run. York Street resident Karen Schoemer regularly brings her 3-year-old daughter Loretta to Van Vorst Park. Along for the walks are Schoemer's two dogs, a terrier named Phoebe and a mixed breed named Shorty.
"I'd love to see a dog run here," Schoemer said. "We adore our dogs and they get along with my daughter, but they have issues with other dogs. Walking two dogs in addition to a child has a high chaos factor."
The chaos Schoemer was referring to is when an off-leash dog encounters her dogs and sometimes canine conflict ensues.
"Dog owners can be pretty militant about the right to have their dog off-leash," Schoemer commented.
An unnamed dog owner who had a small, white terrier off leash in the park on Wednesday was strong in his feelings about having a dog off leash. When asked if it was a good idea to have a dog running lose in the park, the resident replied: "You can go to hell." However, the same citizen later voiced his support for a dog run as a good idea.
"I think we can make the dog run happen," said Waldman. "We want to work with the parents and dog owners to make the dog run happen."