Community divided on dog park proposal

Emotions soared at a racially split meeting about whether to build an off-leash area for dogs at Martin Luther King Park in Kingfield.

KINGFIELD — A tense, culturally divisive meeting about whether to add an off-leash area for dogs at Martin Luther King Park has prompted the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to step back and take a fresh look at alternative options for a dog park in Southwest.

More than 100 people attended the Park Board-hosted meeting Sept. 2 at King Park and dozens lined up at a microphone to offer their thoughts on the issue to the group, which included City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward), Park Board staff and several commissioners. With a handful of exceptions, the speakers were racially split on whether to add the dog park.

Supporters, almost all of them white, wanted the added amenity to socialize and exercise their pets, build community and reduce crime. Opponents, nearly all of them black, viewed Martin Luther King Park as sacred ground, a memorial to a great civil rights leader and a family park that is no place for dogs, which during King’s time were commonly used to attack civil rights marchers.

King Park’s name was changed from Nicollet Field in 1970 to honor King, who was assassinated in 1968. Several of the speakers recalled working hard to get the name changed and viewed the symbolism as the park’s key element and something that should not be overshadowed by a dog park.

Kingfield resident and meeting attendee Sandra Richardson, who is black, was at the park when it was dedicated to King. When she got up to speak at the Sept. 2 meeting, she brought with her a 40-year-old program she’d kept from the dedication to illustrate the importance of the park’s symbolism.

“This wasn’t just a slap a name on a building, this was a huge thing,” she told the crowd. “People came from across the cities. People came from across faiths.”
She said King’s name and legacy needs to be made more prominent at the park and an off-leash area would detract from that.

“Part of the issue here is that frankly, I do put children, two legged ones, before four-legged ones,” Richardson said. “And it’s not because I don’t like dogs. I like dogs fine. But what hasn’t happened is that carrying the name and the dream into the children hasn’t happened, so before the dogs get their dream, the children have to get theirs.”

Dog park supporters only had good things to say about King and his legacy, but argued the leader wouldn’t have excluded a particular group from the park. They urged opponents to view the addition as a way to bring more people to the park and build community.

Meeting attendee Paul Hudalla, who is white, lives in nearby Regina with his wife, two kids and a dog. He said a dog park would offer his whole family a place to go together. Right now, he said no other nearby park offers both an off-leash area and a playground, so his family often has to split.

Like many meeting attendees on both sides of the issue, Hudalla had difficulty wrapping his head around the conflict.  

“I respectfully have listened to all my neighbors here that oppose the park and I have to admit I’ve done some real soul searching while I’ve been listening to you,” he said to the group. “It’s very, very hard for me to understand your perspective… Moving forward I hope we can all just come back together and unite as a community no matter what’s decided.”

Former Park Board superintendent and commissioner Mary Merrill Anderson, who helped launch the city’s first dog parks a decade ago, said toward the end of the meeting that “we clearly don’t understand one another.” Anderson, who is black, encouraged the Park Board to further discuss options throughout District 6, which covers most of Southwest. It’s the only district in the city without a dog park.

At-Large Park Board Commissioner Annie Young, who is also black, agreed that the board should explore other options in the district. She said the area needs a dog park, but it shouldn’t be at King Park.

“One of the main things I’ve heard is that we need to go back to the drawing board,” she said.

Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6), a driving force behind the proposed off-leash area at King Park, said after the meeting he thought the issue should be discussed further and he didn’t plan to push it forward. Bourn, who is white, said in the long run, he still thinks the proposed park — along the freeway soundwall at King Park — would be beneficial to the community. But he said the symbolism issue needs to be addressed.

Park Board president John Erwin, also white, launched a separate effort at the meeting to start immediately restoring part of the park’s symbolism. He’s hoping to organize a citizen task force that will find a way to enhance the area around a neglected sculpture at King Park. The artwork was placed in King’s honor when the park changed names.

Erwin said he didn’t plan on bringing the dog park proposal forward during the next couple months. A neighborhood task force originally brought forward the proposal after more than a year of research, but Erwin said the Park Board has to do its own evaluation of options.

“I believe there is a need here,” Erwin said. “But we have to do our due diligence as the dog park folks did, to look at all the areas around the Kingfield neighborhood.”