Parris Weaver-DuBose was walking Marble, her French bulldog, when she ran into a community leader who asked whether she had any concerns about their neighborhood, a predominantly Black enclave on Washington’s eastern edge.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Absalom Jordan, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 8. This article has been corrected.
“Ward 8 deserves the same amenities as other wards,” Weaver-DuBose, 29, a special-education teacher who is Black, told a panel of neighborhood leaders recently. “Black people have dogs, too.”
In the year since a police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, political leaders and advocates have invoked the ideal of racial equity to press for changes in a broad spectrum of public policy areas, from health care to housing to criminal justice.
Now a group of Ward 8 residents is adopting the same language to decry a “dog park desert” in their part of the city and push for what is available elsewhere — fenced-in, publicly funded playpens where their four-legged friends can run, bark and commune, leash-free.
In the realm of social justice issues, dog parks are not exactly front and center. In fact, their opening — along with bike lanes, latte shops and yoga studios — have been mocked as a sign that affluent White newcomers have arrived, a fact that Ward 8’s dog park advocates are quick to acknowledge.
“Dog parks reek of gentrification,” said James Earle, 29, Weaver-DuBose’s partner in advocacy, who recently wrote a blog post titled “Ward 8 Has Zero Dog Parks and That’s a Problem.”
But Earle, an unemployed marketing and communications specialist, said nearly 200 people have signed their petition to create a dog playground within Oxon Run Park, a 100-acre expanse in Congress Heights. Several advisory neighborhood commissions have also endorsed their proposal.
“I’m comforted by the fact that this is something my neighbors want,” Earle said recently, seated in his backyard near Southern Avenue SE, alongside Cooper, the beagle he and his wife adopted in February.
Not everyone is wagging their proverbial tail, however.
The most vocal skeptic is Absalom Jordan, 80, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and lifelong Washingtonian. Jordan says the idea of a dog park in Ward 8 triggers worrisome thoughts of a changing community — and memories of Blacks being displaced from neighborhoods such as Georgetown and Southwest in the 1950s and ’60s.
“My experiences raise my antennae — danger! Danger!” said Jordan, who is Black and described himself as poor and an advocate for low-income constituents, many of whom can’t afford a pet.
He recalled visiting a dog park in Arlington once, and he considers them “endemic to a young, upwardly mobile White population. It’s antithetical to our culture. It’s not consistent with our socialization. I don’t want something imposed on me. I see this as one of those movements steamrolling us into conformity.”
That said, Jordan voted for a resolution supporting the dog park when Weaver-DuBose and Earle presented their proposal before his commission, although not without grumbling about outsiders imposing their influence. He also insisted that the city investigate the potential environmental impacts of a dog park on Oxon Run.
Jordan later said he was bothered to learn that Earle is White and questioned his credentials to represent the needs of Black residents. “He can’t do that for me,” Jordan said. “I don’t say what White people need.”
Earle, who has lived in Ward 8 for six years, said he is only “echoing and amplifying the needs and concerns of my Black neighbors.”
“I’m listening to them and doing my best to share their concerns, using my voice,” he said. “I’m trying to use the power and privilege I have to make their voices heard. Please don’t shoot the messenger.”
As idyllic as they might seem, dog parks have been known to provoke less than utopic discourse, even in long-established, demographically homogenous communities. Protests over excessive barking, for example, led the village board in Chevy Chase, Md., to close down its dog park a couple of years ago.
In nearby Norwood Local Park, a proposal for an 18,000-square-foot dog park is roiling residents who fear that the canine world is commandeering what many consider sacred public space.
When then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) spent more than $600,000 on an artificial-turf-lined dog park near Logan Circle in 2009, there were more than a few residents who questioned the wisdom of such an expenditure in a city with a multitude of more pressing needs.
“It’s about public space and public resources, and how they are being used, and who are these investments catering to,” said Derek Hyra, an American University professor who has written about the demographic and economic transformation of Shaw, where a dog park battle erupted years ago.
“There would be less emotional reaction to dog parks if other amenities, like affordable housing, were coming at the same time,” Hyra said. “When people see a dog park come in, it’s just another signal they’re not wanted in the city.”
A total of 16 public dog parks have opened in Washington since 2009, ranging in cost from $200,000 to $600,000. There are four in Ward 6, which includes rapidly developing neighborhoods such as NoMa, Navy Yard and the Wharf.
Only Wards 7 and 8 do not have public dog parks, though the Department of Parks and Recreation in 2019 approved a 10,000-square-foot canine playground for Ward 7, near Benning Road and East Capitol Street. No construction date has been set.
For the city to consider a dog park application, a sponsoring group has to pick a site and submit petitions of support from individuals and organizations in the neighborhood. A committee that includes a veterinarian and a representative from the Department of Energy and Environment reviews the application and makes a recommendation to the parks department’s director.
Darren Thompson, 37, a program analyst who organized a petition drive for the Ward 7 dog park, said he grew tired of taking Barrow, his bull mastiff-Rottweiler mix, to a park in Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood. He said he found plenty of neighbors who also wanted a dog park, as well as those who thought their community has far greater needs, including quality retail and dining options and more supermarkets.
Nevertheless, Thompson said, “At a certain point, every argument fails if you talk about it rationally. That us getting a dog park doesn’t stop us from getting a grocery store; that us getting a dog park doesn’t mean a White person is going to buy your house.”
Thompson, who is Black and grew up in and around the city, said he understands the fears that changing neighborhoods cause. Many of his friends have departed from neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, he said.
But he also said: “We don’t know the real trigger of gentrification. Correlation is not causation.”
“I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t any White people who want a dog park,” he said. “They do. They want to be part of our community, and this dog park presents a possibility, a chance for Black Ward 7 to say, ‘Hey, let’s get together and talk.’ ”
In Ward 8, a question about creating a dog park that was posted on Facebook by a White resident several years ago prompted more than 250 comments, many of them unfavorable.
“How about more playgrounds for the children?” one person wrote.
Ayih’nah Ford, 33, a Ward 8 resident who runs a nonprofit group, was among those dismissing the notion of a dog park, saying that proponents should divert their interest in dogs to “mobilizing around our young people.”
“We are giving more value to the life of dogs than to the young people who live here,” Ford said.
Ford herself owns two Yorkshire terriers. But she said she would be too afraid to take them to a dog park in her ward. “I would want to bring my dogs home,” she said. “We have people dying every day. You can hear gunshots. You might be dodging bullets at the dog park.”
As he sat in his backyard, Earle said he understands that a dog park seems like a frivolous focus in a ward with a plethora of profound needs.
But a campaign for a dog park, he said, is also the chance to fight for “equal opportunities and restorative justice.” A dog park, he said, can be a place where residents talk about “all those issues” and develop connections to influence public policy.
“Obviously there are more important things — I’m not denying that,” he said. “We struggle with all these problems. We should organize to address them. But we also deserve nice things.
“Ward 8 deserves nice things, too.”