The carpet is all rolled out for the Duke of Dupont.
That’s the green carpet of synthetic turf at the S Street Dog Park in the District’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, mind you. And Duke is a 7-month-old English chocolate Lab who boasts close to 700 followers on his Instagram account, managed by his owner, Fabiola Calero, 28.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Duke was having a blast roughhousing with his dog friend Crosby.
There was a good bit of growling involved, but all was in jest, said Crosby’s owner, Mansi Shah, 22.
Around this triangular, 5,600-square-foot dog park in the heart of the city, dog owners and their four-legged friends have gathered at the end of the workday to mingle and let their pets roam. A Bernese mountain dog gleefully cooled off in a blue plastic tub. A corgi ambled around. Several dogs took off on a high-speed chase, and a Labradoodle was eagerly looking for a playmate.
For a lot of dog owners, the park is a melting pot, the water cooler of the neighborhood where people from different walks of life often converge in ways they don’t elsewhere. Sometimes the demographic mixing results in true connection; other times not.
“You see all the characters, the good and the bad,” said Jane Lee, 38, as Napoleon, her dachshund-cocker mix, circled at her feet.
Between 2007 and 2016, the number of dog parks across the United States grew by close to 90 percent, and dog parks are the fastest-growing type of park in American cities, according to the Trust for Public Land.
The District has 12 official dog parks run by the Department of Parks and Recreation, though none are in Wards 7 and 8, which are the city’s poorest. A dog park is set to open in NoMa, a neighborhood near Union Station, around November.
More than just a place for dog owners to socialize and for dogs to be off-leash, dog parks provide a window on some of the forces that are shaping the city and the tensions that arise as a result.
Some of the questions that play out: Who gets to use the limited but highly sought-after public spaces? How are these spaces regulated? And how can they be configured to increase inclusiveness and diversity in the city?
“Dog parks are a nexus of issues,” including the control of public space and the varying degrees of political power that citizens wield in shaping a neighborhood, said Toni Tileva, a PhD student in anthropology at American University who has written about dog parks.
Much like the appearance of yoga studios and trendy restaurants, dog parks are highly visible indicators of change in a city, said Chuck Wolfe, a Seattle-based lawyer and the founder of Seeing Better Cities Group, a consulting company focused on urban growth and change. They reflect shifting lifestyles and demographics, as well as the restructuring of the urban environment, he said.
And as gentrification continues, dog parks become sites of inclusion and exclusion, where distinctions between insiders and outsiders and newcomers and longtime residents are often drawn, intentionally or not.
This dynamic played out clearly in 2008, when the Shaw Dog Park was established on 11th Street NW between Q and R streets.
Before that area was a dog park, it was a canchita — Spanish for a small soccer field — where a largely Latino community would play nightly fast-paced games of four-on-four pickup soccer.
The soccer games were a neighborhood fixture until, one day, the canchita disappeared, razed to make way for the dog park.
“It was literally, one day there was a canchita and the next day we rode by on our bikes and it was no longer there,” said Joseph Schoenbauer, 35, who played soccer at the site. No warnings or reasons had been given for the removal of the field, he said.
For Tileva, the incident represented a clash of ideologies about public space, brought about and heightened by gentrification.
“[D]og parks are a microcosm of gentrification in the sense that just as dogs act as identity markers for their owners, so are dog parks markers of the regulation of public space,” Tileva writes in an essay about the Shaw dog park.
While advocates for the dog park emphasized the opportunities for inclusiveness and diversity — the dog park would be for everyone, and a place for organic, communal neighborhood interactions — the dog park also manifested exclusivity, said Tileva, not least because it uprooted a Latino soccer community that was less vocal and politically active than the newcomers.
But there are longtime Shaw residents who disagree with Tileva’s characterization of the dog park.
Lynne Smith, 62, was enjoying an evening at the park recently with her small dog Bernie. She is a Shaw resident of 42 years, and she has seen the neighborhood undergo dramatic changes — good and bad.
“The dog park is good change,” she said, as opposed to the “excessive” number of condos that have gone up in recent years.
“I pretty much grew up in this neighborhood,” said Smith. “We’ve always had dogs, so this is a bonus for us. It’s not a sign of gentrification.”
For Bobby White, 69, another longtime Shaw resident, the dog park is “like a community center” for the neighborhood.
“This used to be one of the biggest drug areas in D.C., and you could not do what we’re doing today,” he said as Macho, his Chihuahua, wandered nearby. “So I love it.”
But for all the social interactions that dog parks encourage, some D.C. residents still feel that the parks have an undercurrent of exclusivity.
At the unofficial Columbia Heights Dog Park, on vacant land owned by Metro, Carlton Knight, a lifelong neighborhood resident, described a sense of tension.
The park is “good for the dogs,” said Knight, 44, as he watched his terrier run around on the gravel. “But to be straight up, it’s like black people aren’t wanted . . . it makes you feel you’re not welcome because you’re not white.”
This sense of exclusion can also stem from financial concerns.
Devin Miller, 36, the co-owner of Brighter Days, a local dog-walking company, said he tends to avoid dog parks because he is worried about inattentive owners who fail to step in before dog scuffles escalate, potentially leading to vet bills, lost clients or even lawsuits.
“You have your collies or your Australian shepherds who want to herd, and older dogs who just want to sniff . . . and that can cause issues,” Miller said.
Calero, who spends about two hours a day at the S Street Dog Park, said that dog scuffles have been few and far between there, and that the community at the park has been overwhelmingly inclusive.
She pointed at a couple with a toddler, standing outside the gates of the park and watching the dogs at play.
“I used to be those people,” she said, recalling her days before Duke. But dog owners invited her in with open arms, and now she can’t imagine life without the park, which she said “absolutely” adds to the diversity of the neighborhood.
“Coming to the park is just therapy,” Calero said.
For Schoenbauer, the pickup soccer player whose field was razed to make way for the Shaw dog park, life goes on. He reminisces about how unique a place the canchita was. But he said he has no hard feelings about the pet area.
Dog parks are great, Schoenbauer said, “but there should be some kind of solution where it’s a win-win for everyone.”