Off-leash Area Not Just for Dogs—It Brings People Together
While some are offended by the prospect of a dog park at Martin Luther King Park, Bryant resident Ben Harris makes his case for having one.
Editor's note: I solicited this opinion piece from Southwest dog park supporters in order to balance out a profile of dog park opponents we published earlier in the week. It doesn't constitute endorsement of either group, instead we want to help move issues forward and bridge divisions by offering space for an intelligent, sane dialogue. Other neighbors are welcome to email me to submit their own opinion pieces, on this or other topics.
By Ben Harris
The proposal for an off-leash area at Martin Luther King Park isn't just—or even mainly—about the dogs.
Not just constant companions in our lives, our dogs are ambassadors and ice breakers. They provide commonalities that we share with perfect strangers.
My wife and I have heard, from an elderly man passing us at a park, how much a visit from a therapy dog helped him during a hospital stay. Children of all ages and backgrounds run across the street to come pet our dogs and ask us about them when we walk to the library or the hardware store. People who have no other reason to stop on the sidewalk will pause to ponder the genetics of our mutts, "He reminds me of a dog I had as a kid!"
People will share personal stories you would never have heard if they were looking for differences with you instead—giving you both a point of empathy instead of mistrust or suspicion.
Martin Luther King Park has many seasonal amenities for families with children, athletes involved in organized sports in the ball fields when the snow melts, seniors looking for activities and connections, and others looking to shoot hoops, form pick-up soccer matches, or hit some tennis balls in warmer weather—but that isn't us.
We became involved with the Kingfield Dogpark task force because we would like to have an area near home where we too can come together with our neighbors for our activity of choice. An activity that is enhanced when shared with those around us.
Economics, race, religion, politics, sexuality, nationality, age differences, or any other divisive lines you can conjure up simply melt away when a puppy bounces over to you, trailing a human to talk with.
We had been trying to inform the widest audience possible in our outreach efforts when the Sabathani chapter of AARP was approached and told of our proposal, so the extra help certainly didn't bother us. However, from personal conversations with many members of the opposition at a community meeting in late July, and in other venues since, it is clear that many views are based on mistaken impressions.
Unfortunately, few of the opponents seem to have an accurate picture of the small enclosed area we have requested. An off-leash area in Minneapolis is a fenced-in location where people can meet one another with their well-behaved, licensed and vaccinated pets. Residents who have paid a small annual fee to maintain the off-leash areas, may let their canines run and play together while they make new acquaintances. Dog owners are required by law to clean up after their pets, just as they would elsewhere. Nobody wants a messy park.
It can be an immensely relaxing place to be. A gathering space that individuals and families of all types, with small children, teenagers, or none at all, with canines or unable to care for their own, enjoy visiting all year round, no matter the weather.
Our proposal is to fence in a stretch, less than one of the 18.51 acres in the park, of under-utilized land along the sound wall at the back of Martin Luther King Park. The site requested intentionally avoids placing the dogs near other popular amenities and is on the opposite side of the park from the picnic areas. This would help eliminate the current illegal practice, that some dog owners have, of letting their pets run free in the ball fields where it is harder to control or pick up after a dog. It would also improve safety in the otherwise more remote sections of the park.
The horrific memories and images of police using hoses and dogs to attack peaceful protesters affect us all, but it is important to remember that it is the human and the intent of the training behind the dog that is the problem, even in our current society where dogs are often misused for similar purposes, or just as bad, as violent entertainment in fighting rings.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, in its commitment to diversity, states that "by embracing and welcoming this world we come to a greater understanding of the people and the conditions around us. With that understanding light is shed on the darkness and our fears and hate disappear."
We agree. Friendships have already been built among off-leash area supporters from Kingfield, Bryant, Central, Regina, Tangletown, East Harriet, Lyndale, Lynnhurst and beyond. Holidays have been shared and dreams pursued in the hopes of creating this space. We want that to continue and grow in our community.
Martin Luther King Park is not the only location to be considered by a Citizen Advisory Committee, but it serves the widest and most diverse population possible, and we believe it would be accessible for the majority of visitors to come on foot.
And we agree with opponent Virginia Richardson that there isn't enough currently in the park to honor the legacy of Dr. King, nor her late husband Samuel Richardson and everyone else who has dedicated their lives to overcoming discrimination in the world around them.
The unmarked iron sculpture that "represents an outreach of friendship," according to the brief description on the Minneapolis Parks website, is indeed under-appreciated. It has been in disrepair for a long time. We agree that more should be done to improve its condition, better honor the past, and educate the public about the history of the neighborhood and our city. We believe that we can also do much more for the future.
We believe that rather than being disrespectful, a destination that brings together a diverse population, allows them to open up to their neighbors, share experiences, and build stronger bonds can only strengthen the ability for Martin Luther King Park to serve as a living memorial to the man and his dream.
Opponent Charles Mays used to walk his dog through the park. All we are asking for is a place to do the same, but to be allowed to slow down, unclip the lead in a small fenced area, let the dogs enjoy some playtime, and get to know each other better while we are there. Let that become a new symbol of such hard-earned accomplishments. One that opens a door to deeper understanding and increasing respect for each other.
An off-leash area at the back edge of Martin Luther King Park would help do just that. I would love to meet Mr. Mays there.