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Dogs often scapegoats in gentrification wars


It’s a familiar chain of events in many a city — a particular neighborhood, usually by virtue of its location, emerges as desirable. Young and affluent people move in. Real estate prices rise and, with them, taxes. The old neighborhood bars get upscaled. Mom and pop shops close down. Oldtimers start leaving. A Whole Foods opens. Then you step in dog poop.

The fancy word for it is gentrification — and while dogs are, for the most part, innocent bystanders (byrunners? bypoopers?) they often seem to surface as the issue around which gentrifications wars play out.

I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between a recent story out of Venice, California, appearing in the Santa Monica Daily Press, and our situation right here in South Baltimore.

The  story looked at a growing conflict between long-time black and Latino members of a Venice neighborhood and affluent newcomers and their dogs. Long-time residents are complaining about the presence of off-leash dogs in the park.

“When families in the neighborhood see the blatant disregard for the law and there is signage throughout the park, it sends a message that they’re above the law and privileged,” said Lydia Ponce, who serves on the Oakwood Park Advisory Board, “It sets up a cultural divide.”

Dog owners, meanwhile, say they are simply seeking a place for their dogs to run — an activity that, properly monitored, impinges on no one’s rights or space. “We’re law-abiding citizens and we don’t want to get tickets for exercising dogs in the morning,” said Dr. Douglas Stockel, who has lived in Venice for five years.

That’s the same  refrain heard from Baltimore’s dog owners when they rose up to protest leash law crackdowns and new $1,000- fines (later lowered by the City Council).  

Of course, non-dog-owning oldtimers don’t see it that way: If the law says leashes, and you’re not using one, you’re not law-abiding. To them, the upwardly mobile, dog-owning newcomers seem to feel they’re above the law.

“They basically want to take over the park,” Rick Selan, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, said of the dog crowd. “The newer people in the community aren’t really willing to sit down and listen to the side of the community as far as what that park means to those who lived in Venice their whole lives.”

Perceptions and stereotypes are really the far bigger factor in the gentrification wars — bigger than dogs, and bigger than race.

Walk through my neighborhood and you can see the divide — not a black and white one, or even solely an economic, or age-related, one.  You might see oldtimers drinking beer on their front stoops and young professionals sipping wine on rooftop decks next door. You might see a baby pit bull being hauled on a scooter or a yorkie in a monogrammed sweater walking on a sequined leash. Its diversity is what makes it interesting, especially for those willing to step across the divide.

Instead, most prefer stay with their kind, and reinforce the stereotypes. Some oldtimers tend to lump all the newcomers together — seeing them all as self-centered, uncaring sorts who have multiple cars and feel their dogs can run and poop wherever they want. Some newcomers tend to lump all oldtimers together — seeing them as riff-raff who curse at their kids all day and keep the neighborhood from fully turning the corner to upscale.

Yet it’s dogs that end up in the thick of the debate — if not the symbol of it.

A disgruntled oldtimer can’t do anything about his rising taxes, the shortage of parking spaces, or losing the sense of place his neighborhood once provided him. But he can fight back by calling authorities and reporting dogs running loose at the park, leading to crackdowns, citations and more ill will. Dogs are convenient to take it out on.

The sad irony of it is, there’s nothing better than dogs to bring us together. Oldtimer and newcomer, when they both have dogs to break the ice, made a connection they likely otherwise wouldn’t. Dogs are the great unifiers. I hate to see them being used for the opposite.


Comment from Don Davidson
Time June 17, 2009 at 10:43 am

So true that dogs are the great unifiers. Sounds like the newcomers in the mentioned neighborhood need to brush up on their dog ownership skills.

Comment from Lisa
Time June 17, 2009 at 5:47 pm

I lost any sympathy for the Venice gentrifiers when I got to the part about not wanting to go to the off-leash park just a mile away because it’s ‘unkempt and filled with unfriendly-looking pit bulls.’

Maybe instead of trying to change the rules to accommodate their every whim, they could work within the system that already exists. Go clean up the existing park, lobby to have it expanded, and stop profiling your neighbors and their dogs.

Comment from EmilyS
Time June 17, 2009 at 10:49 pm

or how about people keep their dogs on leash and clean up their poop?