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A sign at Oakwood Recreation Center on California Avenue warns visitors to keep thier dogs on a leash. Some resident want to let their dogs run free during certain hours. Others are opposed. (photo by Brandon Wise)

VENICE — The long-standing gentrification issue in a historically black and Latino neighborhood is now going to the dogs.

That’s the problem that some residents near the Oakwood Recreation Center believe is underlying a growing conflict between dog owners who run their pups off leash at the local park and those who want to keep the animals securely tied and away from children.

The increasing affluence of Venice has been a sensitive issue that has popped up throughout the Los Angeles neighborhood, including along Abbot Kinney and Windward Circle where residents are trying to fight off chain stores, along Rose Avenue where a Whole Foods moved in last year, and for the past 10 years, the Oakwood area where long-time residents complain about the presence of off-leash dogs, which is in violation of the city ordinance.

“When families in the neighborhood see the blatant disregard for the law and there is signage throughout the park, it sends a message that they’re above the law and privileged,” Lydia Ponce, who serves on the Oakwood Park Advisory Board, said. “It sets up a cultural divide.”

The lack of canine-friendly facilities has also been an issue raised by many dog owners who point out that the only other real alternative to Oakwood is the Westminster Off-Leash Dog Park, which is located about a mile away but has been criticized as being unkempt and filled with unfriendly-looking pit bulls.

A group of dog owners comprised of neighborhood newcomers and old residents are proposing a pilot project to permit dogs to run off leash at Oakwood Recreation Center between the hours of 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., a time when the park is mainly devoid of any activity.

“We’re law abiding citizens and we don’t want to get tickets for exercising dogs in the morning,” Dr. Douglas Stockel, who has lived in Venice for five years, said. “We think it’s a waste of city funds to do what they’re doing. They’re public parks that are not in use at all in the morning hours.”

Stockel is among a group of 10 residents who are trying to push the pilot project, presenting the idea to the advisory board last month. He said that the group is made up of courteous dog owners who make it a point not to bring their dogs off leash when there are children in the park, and even clean up after other pups who leave their waste bind.

He said that there is animosity in the community that predates his involvement in Venice and that the goal is to close that divide.

“We can all live together,” he said. “There has been change but we are all part of the community.”

G.D. Young, who has lived in the neighborhood for two years, takes his French bulldog and Italian greyhound to the park several times a week, avoiding Westminster because it’s too small and “filthy.”

He said the safety of the children takes precedence over the dogs, but stresses that the park is empty during the morning.

“It seems like a win-win,” he said. “We’re all for doing whatever we can to help the community and be a part of the community.”

L.A. Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who complained in 2007 when Santa Monica city officials decided to restrict the off-leash dog facility at Airport Park to residents within the city limits, said he is waiting to hear from the advisory park board’s recommendation before introducing discussion to the City Council about the matter. The dog park at Airport Park has since been opened to nonresidents.

He said that no new dog parks have been created in the district since the issue in Santa Monica, noting that one in Westchester just shut down last week.

“We have this problem in every city,” he said. “It’s all about the responsible dog owner and picking up after their pet.”

Lizka Mendoza, the director at Oakwood Recreation Center, said that any changes to the off-leash dog rules at the park would have to apply to the entire city.

The park, which takes up about two blocks, is mostly enclosed, with a few openings near the athletic fields. Mendoza said that she sees dogs off leash all the time. The Los Angeles Police Department and Office of Public Safety are responsible for enforcing the rules of the park, she said.

Mendoza said the solution to the problem would be to refurbish Westminster Dog Park.

“There needs to be space for the dogs and a safe space for kids,” she said.

Rick Selan, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, said the dog issue hits on the gentrification problem in Venice that pits the long-time residents against the “gentrifiers.”

“They basically want to take over the park and are starting small by wanting to take over the park from (6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m.) with a dog park,” he said. “The newer people in the community aren’t really willing to sit down and listen to the side of the community as far as what that park means to those who lived in Venice their whole lives.”

But members of the group proposing the pilot project said they are willing to listen and don’t see themselves as the opposing side, hoping to instead work through a solution.

M.B. Boissonnault, a 10-year Venice resident, said that people come and go out of the neighborhood all the time, adding that she serves the community by volunteering with various organizations.

“To have an underlying issue with new people is a strange stance,” she said. “I think it transfers to the dogs than some underlying weird hometown pride that doesn’t make sense.”

She adds that its better to exercise dogs than leave them cooped up in a yard where they have no social interaction.

Many dog owners said they have been cited for having their dogs off leash. Jataun Valentine, whose family has lived in Venice for 95 years, said her 94-year-old relative was cited for simply carrying a daughter-in-law’s dog.

Valentine, who volunteers to help senior citizens, said her concern was that the presence of dogs results in fewer usable space for the elderly.

“There’s a big area where the seniors can’t use because most of them are walking with a walker and it would be too dangerous to sit,” she said.

Ponce said that she will take an objective look at the proposal, which will come back to the park advisory board this month.

“My heart is hopeful, not hateful,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of work to fight it and change it. This is a city ordinance they have to change.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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