Debate over off-leash dog park divided along racial lines

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 4, 2010 - 12:08 AM

With neighbors split over possible changes at MLK Park, other options will be explored.

After an emotional meeting Thursday night where neighbors split along racial lines over whether an off-leash dog site should be built at Martin Luther King Memorial Park in south Minneapolis, the Park Board president said other options should be sought.

More than 150 people attended the meeting in the park's gymnasium to hear suggestions from Park Board staff for a possible small, off-leash, fenced-in dog park and to air their views. Almost everyone who spoke in favor of a dog area at King Park was white, while most of those opposing it were black.

The park staff had come up with two possible sites, one at the northeast corner of the park and the other in the southeast section, but much of the debate centered on whether the dog park would dishonor King, the slain civil rights leader.

"We're divided, totally, right down the middle," said Mary Merrill Anderson, a former Park Board superintendent and park commissioner, near the end of the meeting. "This dog park has divided you along racial lines. Something is wrong, and we have to change the conversation."

Anderson, who is black, recommended that the Park Board find a site for a dog park elsewhere in the Sixth Park District.

Park Board President John Erwin, who is white, said after the meeting that while he would not rule out a dog park in Martin Luther King Park, the board should first seek out other options for an off-leash site that is near King Park, where neighborhood demand for a dog park is high. He said he will look for some public land, such as condemned property or land owned by the Minneapolis School District.

The discussion was generally calm, with numerous white speakers praising King, but saying they believed that he would have embraced a park that included a dog run. They said a dog park would increase park use, help pets socialize, and help diverse neighbors socialize as well.

But many black speakers said an off-leash site would desecrate the park. Several recalled how Bull Connor, the Birmingham, Ala., police official, used police dogs to attack civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, turning dogs into a symbol of hatred.

By the Star Tribune's count, 16 black community members spoke at Thursday's meeting and all but two opposed the dog park. Sixteen white citizens spoke, and all but three supported the dog park. One white woman said she was unsure and a man who said he was born in Indonesia endorsed the dog park.

Annie Young, an at-large Park Board commissioner, told the meeting the board should look elsewhere for a dog park site.

Brad Bourn, the Sixth District commissioner, said he favors a dog park at King Park and that not enough has been done to honor King. Afterward, he said he still hoped it could be built at King Park, and with more discussion, there could be an acceptable solution, supported by the community.

A decision about whether a dog park will be built is still months away, but the audience was assured that any proposal would be brought back to the community and include a public hearing.

Martin Luther King Memorial Park occupies 18 1/2 acres between E. 40th and E. 42nd Streets. It is bordered by a sound wall for Interstate 35W on the east and Nicollet Avenue on the west.

Erwin said at the start of the meeting that while park officials were offering two possible off-leash sites at King Park, park staffers were listening to public concerns and no longer planned to have a monument to King inside the dog run. That monument, placed in the park in 1970, is a tribute to King with two abstract wings, representing freedom. Erwin said the monument had been neglected and urged creation of a committee to see what could be done about that.

Both sides have been mobilizing support for their viewpoints. It was reported at the meeting that the Kingfield, Bryant and Tangletown associations have expressed support for a dog park.

Charles Mays, retired Midwestern regional youth director for the NAACP, said in an interview that the Minneapolis NAACP, the Minnesota Association of Black Social Workers, Sabathani Community Center and the Sabathani Chapter of the AARP are among groups that have come out against a dog park at King Park.

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382

(Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, Commissioner Brad Bourn was incorrectly quoted on his impressions about whether enough had been done to honor the Rev. King.)

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