Doris Richards - "We're going to miss your leadership, doggone it!"
- by Sasha Futran
LIKE so many other 'firsts,' dog parks started in Berkeley, California. In true Berkeley fashion, it grew out of the People's Park Annex struggle.
While the Annex evolved into a playground, the Martha Scott Benedict Dog Park, commonly called Ohlone Dog Park, was established by the city of Berkeley in 1983. It was the first of its kind in the nation. The story of how it came to be - and the various threats to its existence - is one of those wonderful Berkeley tales of activism, politics, and social concern, in this case, for dogs.
Doris Richards, who was in the thick of things from just a hair - or should I say fur - short of the very beginning, is a colour-ful story teller. She's the park's historian, its recently retired, long-time Ohlone Dog Park Association (ODPA) president, and the person who the people of Berkeley can all thank that the park still exists.
For over 15 years, Doris has held off threats to shut the park down while also helping lead others through the process of establishing dog parks throughout the Bay area, indeed all over the country as well as in Europe.
It all began when People's Park Annex was established by local activists during the early eighties in Ohlone Park in the area along Hearst St, just west of Grant Ave. The city had just fenced off that area along with the section that is now the dog park just to the east. No one was supposed to enter that strip of land, but political activists had their own ideas.
The entire narrow strip of Ohlone Park from MLK to Sacramento was once all homes. When the tunnel that runs below to the North Berkeley station was built, the homes were razed. Then, in 1980, the huge hole created in the process was filled and the city leased the rights to use the land and created a park at the Sacramento St. end of the strip while fencing off the rest.
Doris relates what happened next . . . "The People's Park activists planned a takeover to establish the Annex. They cut the fencing at various points the night before so it would just fall when pushed. That whole period was a festive time. There were demonstrations, food, music and a march from People's Park on Telegraph to Ohlone. The takeover and creation of the Annex became a Berkeley happening."
The fences co-operated and toppled appropriately; people and dogs began to use the area alongside those who were dogless. They gathered daily, found and painted lawn furniture, collected food for demonstrators and bail money for those jailed. Doris became involved because, well, it was just around the corner from where she lives and, hey, this is Berkeley. "I remember once sitting down on one of those chairs in wet paint," she says, even now still chuckling at the memory.
When asked how part of the area became a dog park, Doris says it just happened. "We knew there was a need to have an area just for dogs. People were learning that dogs need outings, a social life, and places to run. Neighbors and friends started using it as an off-leash area. Eventually, we asked the city to create a dog park."
Establishing an official dog park in 1983 had the support of the city council, although, at first there was concern about insurance and lawsuits. "Bill Montgomery was then head of Parks and Recreation," she continued. "He was very support-ive and basically felt that the concerns were no different than for children's playgrounds and, by the way, the city hasn't had a lawsuit since the dog park was created."
In fact, the current head of the Parks Department, Lisa Caronna, said at the last ODPA (pronounced odd paw) meeting that there are fewer complaints about the dog park than other city parks. "You do a great job of educating people and taking care of the problems yourselves," she commented. People using the park enforce the rules, remind one another to pick up after their dogs, point out when a fight might break out and monitor the park pleasantly, for the most part.
The community of park users came together and formed an organization to assure that things would run smoothly and also in response to various threats to shut the dog park down. When Doris became president, ODPA was incorporated as a non-profit, although, ironically, when she first wanted to join she wasn't allowed to because she was between dogs. How-ever, it wasn't long before she had a new dog, became a member and was quickly elected as the second president. Then ODPA got rolling.
Along with educating dog owners, under Doris's stewardship, ODPA has been active in other ways. In 1985, it more or less adopted the park from the city and takes major responsibility for maintenance. ODPA had the extra-wide tables built so that dogs and people can fit on top, bought trees, paid for half the double gates, built the walkway and disabled access at the eastern end. It had a doggie blood donor programme that ended when UC Davis stopped typing blood; held dog washes before they were available in stores; and had several dog carnivals complete with dunking for hot dogs, dog relay races and people/dog sack races. Doris also fielded many calls from other people seeking to start dog parks elsewhere and talked them through the process step by step. ODPA still arranges for and spreads the chips to help keep mud down and moni-tors the political winds.
The force behind all the work has been Doris Richards, who was president from 1985 - 2001. She brought ODPA members together to defeat the city's plans to close down the dog park and build stores with apartments on top. "Do you have any idea how much weight that would have been on the tunnel," Doris mused. ODPA also successfully fought a neighbor's attempt to close the park shortly after they bought an adjacent house. She has gone to dozens of commission and city council meetings, workshops and public hearings. She designed and sold ODPA tee shirts for members to wear to city meetings so that elected officials and staff could look out at a "sea of blue" and know how much support there was for the dog park.
Doris also started, wrote and edited SCOOPS, ODPA's newsletter and vehicle for educating people about their dogs and she has been active in the community promoting spaying and neutering, monitoring that dogs at the park have their shots and licenses, and encouraging new dog owners to take their dogs to obedience classes.