By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Country Dog comes to visit City Dog at his railroad apartment in the East Village. "I don't envy you," says Country, a leggy golden retriever with a shaggy coat and drooly mouth. "You spend your days in a cracker box. When you go outside, you're leashed to your owner. I can't imagine life without a backyard. How do you cope?"
City, a French bulldog with a curlicued tail, manicured fur, and a spiked collar, looks up nonchalantly from his favorite napping cushion and replies, "It's all about the dog runs, Country. I can't imagine living without the poodles, greyhounds, and beagles. How many butts a day do you get to sniff in your yard?"
Being a dog in New Yorklike being a human herehas its spatial drawbacks. We can't read dogs' mindswell, most of us can't, anywaybut we suspect that a daily trip to one of the fabulous dog runs the city boasts might dispel some of the negatives. Not all runs are equal, so we rated some of our favorites using these criteria: digging (D), running (R), ball playing (BP), poop cleanup (PC), and the all important wild-card factor, human entertainment (HE)e.g., people-watching, pickup potential, street performers, annoyances. On our scale, 0 means nonexistent; 1, poor; 2, average; and 3, excellent.
The oldest and most popular downtown run, at TOMPKINS SQUARE PARK(East 9th Street and Avenue B), attracts an eclectic mix of dogs, owners, and rubberneckers, from punks with pugs to dotcommers with dachshunds, to its wood-chip surface. About one-quarter of the run is reserved for pooches weighing less than 23 pounds. Water available. D3, R3, BP0 (no toys allowed), PC3, HE3 (great pickup spot)
Nestled between a rusting on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge and the Fulton Fish Market, among cute cobblestone streets, the brick-surface run at FISH BRIDGE PARK (Dover Street between Pearl and Water streets) overlooks a community garden. The hard surface and long, narrow layout make this cozy run fun for bouncing a ball, but the bricks make cleanup a pain. Water available. D0, R2, BP3, PC1, HE2 (pastoral garden setting)
For sheer entertainment, you can't beat WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK's well-situated doggy play zone (West 4th and Thompson streets). On one side, a magician wows a crowd; on the other someone tries to sell you drugs. Yes, there's something for everyone, including the mutts, who dig in the gravel, jump onto the benches, and zoom around the ice-cream-cone-shaped area at full speed. D2, R3, BP2, PC2, HE3 (fun street performers and cute college students)
On weekday afternoons, the stragglers at the sandy UNION SQUARE run (Union Square West and East 15th Street) often get a free concert from a man who strums his guitar while his shaggy black-and-white hound curls up beneath his feet. The smallest of the runs surveyed, this one caters more to canines and owners who prefer to strut (or strum) than run and jump. D2, R1, BP2, PC2, HE3 (people-watching bonanza)
At first glance, the brand-new run at THOMAS SMITH PARK (Eleventh Avenue and West 23rd Street) looks like a dog habitat at the zoo. Boulders jut from the asphalt-and-concrete surface, and a fallen tree trunk provides a "natural" bridge for dogs to play their own version of King of the Mountain. The only disadvantage is that this hound Habitrail sits on a traffic island between the West Side Highway and Eleventh Avenue. Your dog can always pretend the automobile din is the call of the wild. Water available. D0, R3, BP3, PC2, HE1 (the traffic)
Sandwiched between the skyscrapers, with the Empire State Building at one end and the Flatiron Building at the other, MADISON SQUARE PARK's gravel run (Fifth Avenue and East 24th Street) provides the most urban landscape. But it's also surprisingly large, given its location. Professionals' pooches predominate in this park, which seems busiest after work. D2, R3, PC2, HE2 (panoramic views)
Don't see one near you? Central Park, Riverside Park, and Carl Schurz Park (near Gracie Mansion) give uptown a good rep among Fidos in the know. Brooklyn boasts some desirable real estate too: McCarren Park in Greenpoint, the dog beach at Prospect Park, and DiMattina Park in Carroll Gardens, to name a few. The Bronx has at least six dog runs, while Queens has only three (too many backyards?). Check out nycgovparks.org or urbanhound.com for a complete list.