June 23, 2013 By Christian Murray
Sunnyside, Queens: It may have taken more than a decade, but it was well worth the wait.
The reopening of Lou Lodati Park, complete with a new dog run, took place on Saturday—after nine months construction and a decade of advocacy work by Sunnyside’s local dog group.
About 200 people attended Saturday’s ribbon cutting, along with 100 vocal canines. The occasion was particularly special for Rick Duro, the president of the Sunnyside United Dog Society, and many of that group’s new and long-serving members who helped make the day happen.
“Hey guys, we did it,” Duro said, to great applause. The park was filled with dogs—big and small– that had come out with their owners to mark the big occasion. Some dogs lay down on the new surface due to the heat, while others were restless sensing an air of excitement.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer described the completion of the dog run/park upgrade as an example of grass roots advocacy at best.
“When I was running for council in 2009, Rick [Duro] and members of SUDS invited me out to this site on one of the coldest days of the year,” Van Bramer said. “They put forward their idea [of the revamp] and I liked it,” he said. “I told them if I won, I would get it done.”
Within six months of being in office, Van Bramer said he had generated the funding needed to revamp the entire park—which the New York City Parks Department estimated to cost $1.4 million. He said $700,000 of it came from his allotment of discretionary funds [taxpayer money], with $700,000 from the Queens Borough President’s office.
“This is one of my proudest days as councilmember,” Van Bramer said, referring to the completion of the park—which is located just a few blocks from his house.
While the focus was on the new dog run, Van Bramer noted that the park received a complete makeover. A new asphalt surface was put down, softball lines were drawn and 2 ecuavolley courts were erected. Furthermore, the project included two basketball hoops, better lighting and plenty of new shrubs and trees.
The park showed little resemblance to its condition just 18 months ago, when there was litter everywhere and sightings of soccer or volleyball players urinating against the walls.
“This dog run is great for the neighborhood,” said Lev Gartman, a 49th Street resident who was there for the opening with his fiancée Becky. “Every Saturday, Becky will go to the Farmer’s Market [on Skillman Ave] and I will take the dogs here. It’s a great space to have.”
Duro, who was greeted to great applause when he spoke on Saturday, said the park’s overhaul indicated the strength of the community as well as its political leaders, business people and community board.
He said Sunnyside’s dog group was created in Lou Lodati Park shortly after 9/11 when dog owners would meet at about 9 pm and comfort one another.
He said the group became a formal organization in 2003, under the name SUDS, and has been a tight-knit group since.
“Our goal all along was to fix up this park for everyone to use,” he said, adding that the dog owners had cleanup days and fundraisers.
“The dogs ran around and played while strangers became lifelong friends and helped one another out,” Duro said. “They built friendships and networked; some dated, and some married and had children.”
He dismissed the notion that dog runs are for hipsters or yuppies, arguing that SUDS members were of all different occupations and backgrounds.
Van Bramer said he admired Duro and SUDS for their tenacity over the years in seeing the job through. “They didn’t get discouraged by all their setbacks along the way,” he said.
In 2004, SUDS approached Community Board 2 to request a designated space for their dog run in the park but were rejected, since the space was viewed as being too close to the children’s playground. In early 2005, SUDS tried once more, but its request was again rejected.
But in 2006, the community board approached SUDS with a proposal of its own. The board suggested the strip of land where the dog run is located today. SUDS plan was approved shortly thereafter.
SUDS members then asked Eric Gioia, the district’s councilmember at the time, for the funds from his discretionary budget. However, by that point SUDS had missed the deadline to apply for funds in 2007 and by the time 2008 rolled around the economic crisis had kicked in. They then turned to Van Bramer.
However, since it took so long before the dog run was complete, many of the founding members of SUDS or their dogs are no longer in the area. Many of the dogs have died.
Duro thanked many of the founding members of the organization—such as Joe Dineen, Jen Crammer, Ford Tronjanowski, Greg Smith, Michael Fitzpatrick, Juan Arache and Nora Connolly. He thanked newer members such as Mark Barberi and Debbie Hafner.
He said: “I want to dedicate the park to the original SUD dogs.”
“Shane, Katey, Guinness, Isabel, June, Scooby, Spencer, Walter and Sasha…you will always be here in spirit.”
“I also want to dedicate the park to Matilda,” Duro said, referring to his own dog.