IN THE NAME OF “DIVERSITY”
I used documents produced by the Charles Park Association to explore how it developed a definition of the legitimate way of being a dog owner, relying on visions of what a “good neighbor” is and what a “good neighborhood” is. The association used a word that is central to gentrifiers’ identity: “diversity.” In most cases, as I asked my interviewees why they moved to Dover, I heard very similar answers. A consultant, who moved in 1987 with his wife, a lawyer, from a central and upscale neighbourhood next to Dover, explained: “It's a small community of very different people. […] People are different, age-wise, racially, ethnically. They are different educationally. They are different economically, with regard to their sexual orientation.” Another consultant, a woman married to a corporate manager, also a member of a neighborhood association whose website praises the diversity of Dover, said: “We wanted to live in the part of the city which could offer what we consider the best of the city, which was diversity, in all its flavors: diversity in terms of the age of people who live there, ethnic mix, the vibrancy of art, the homosexuals, the low-income housings, the empty-nesters.” Members of the dog run association express the same attraction to diversity, but it goes hand in hand with the defense of de facto exclusionary places. Showing how the dog run contributes to diversity, they can highlight their openness to “others,” while obscuring any power issues related to the coexistence of racially and socially distinct populations.
I will analyze this ambivalent rhetoric through the three different themes that pervade the rhetoric of the association as well as the commentaries by people who signed the petition for the dog run: “diversity,”“security,” and “business.” The first rests on one main argument: the dog run is a major contribution to the community as a whole. Several documents from the association published on the website, including a prospectus and two lists of arguments, develop this idea. As explained in the prospectus, the “value of the dog run” lies in the fact that it plays a role in “connecting people”: “The current dog run is a hub of activity for Dover residents—it is where friendships among dog guardians, regardless of age, income, or race, have been created, where couples have met, and where real estate and business deals have had their start.” The rhetoric of “diversity” relies heavily on its association with a density of social links and interactions. Very much consonant with Jane Jacobs's praise of heterogeneous inner-city neighborhoods like the Village, diversity as a core value structures the identity of Dover's supporters of the dog run. They use the word in association with other words or expressions such as “community,”“vibrant community,”“diverse community,” and “sense of community.” In keeping with what Modan (2007) described, Dover gentrifiers further reinforce the opposition between suburbia and mixed areas with other contrasts, like interaction versus individualism, public versus private, and social ties versus fears.
Defending dog runs allows Dover's gentrifiers to reinforce the relevance of such categories, which also structure the way they define themselves. Because a dog run obliges people to share a small place repeatedly and for relatively long periods of time, the dog run directly generates interactions that are likely to develop into friendships. Dogs are “social facilitators” (Messent 1983). Numerous petitioners as well as the prospectus repeat the following story in nearly the same words. A new Dover resident said, “To our delight we discovered Charles Park right across the street. There, not only did we find a convenient spot for our dog to run, but a wonderful arena to meet our neighbors and feel a part of what we discovered was not merely a neighborhood, but rather a vibrant community in the richest sense of that word. Within a few weeks, (…) we met more people than we had in the last five years we lived in B. ‘[a suburban community]’.”
Numerous letters mention the socializing virtue of the dog run. Although dogs are likely to facilitate “engagements among the unacquainted” (Goffman 1963:124–148), shifting dog-related conversation to more personal discussion is not an easy process (Robins et al. 1991). Still, dog run users consistently refer to the connections they develop at the dog run as “personal” or involving “friendship.” For these residents, there seems to be an automatic and self-evidently beneficial effect of animals on human relations. No conflict is ever mentioned. Some excerpts from the letters prove this point: “I find the park not only great for my dog but also somewhere to socialize and meet other friendly dog owners”; “…in a day and age where urban life has increasingly become impersonal, this allows strangers to meet and mingle and develop a sense of community”; “…it has fostered many long-standing friendships among the humans who accompany their dogs to the park”; “I’ve made many close friends in the neighborhood at the dog park.” Even more explicitly, one petitioner contends that “dog parks are fantastic community builders.”
Thus, the love of animals contributes to a broader commitment gentrifiers make to an active, tight-knit, urban community that stands in sharp contrast to the supposed anonymity, isolation, and homogeneity of the suburbs. Discourses about the dog run express a liberal attitude, which entails openness to ethnic and sexual minorities. The diversity that the Charles Park Association celebrates includes class, race, age, and religion. One document praises dog runs for being places “where people from different racial, religious, social, and economic backgrounds meet and recreate together with their pets.” Less often, at least in official documents, is sexual orientation mentioned. Only in a letter sent to the Park Department in May 2003, one leader of the association writes: “Our park […] is probably the most diverse pocket of activity you will ever see: Gay men walking their dogs, Hispanic kids playing baseball, Asian women practicing tai chi, white refugees from the suburbs planting flowers, African American toddlers tumbling about the tot lot, yuppie adults playing basketball, and homeless residents snoozing under the trees.”
At the same time as it invokes an egalitarian, community friendly vision, dog run supporters also deployed the “diversity” rhetoric to claim the particularistic rights of dog owners—as one element of the diverse neighborhood—to benefit from the park. The dog run is supposed to be good for the community and not only for dog owners. But pro-dog run residents also stress another—perhaps paradoxical—point at length in their letters: that dog owners pay taxes, and as such, are entitled to have a space adapted to their specific use. Like parents for whose children the neighborhood maintains playgrounds, “dog parents,” as one letter says, are also entitled to specific, dedicated space. The comparison between “parents” and, to use the association's expression, “dog guardians” is recurrent. This comparison does not yet rely on a “maternal” or merely emotional rhetoric, as the proportion of straight women among the dog run defenders might suggest. Probably because of their socioeconomic status, which reveals itself in a managerial tone, the letters in support of the dog run do not stress a gender divide: unlike the argument about the similarities between the oppression of women and the oppression of nonhuman animals (Adams 1990), women do not present themselves here as the quintessential dog owners.
The “embracing diversity” rhetoric relies on a specific perspective on differences that bear some similarities to the attitude of both progentrification groups and White progressive organizers studied by Berrey in Chicago (2005). The former use the diversity trope as a selling argument and claim that gentrification reduces the concentration of poverty and enhances diversity. The latter, who also advocate diversity, connect it to structural inequality; they nonetheless downplay the gap between White middle-class leaders and members and, thus, rarely question their relative positions of power. Contrary to progentrification groups, middle-class residents of Dover sometimes lament the escalation of real estate values and the displacement of minorities. They, nonetheless, never criticize gentrification as harshly as White progressive activists do in Chicago. Moreover, to them, diversity is never connected to the power structure. Differences are seen positively, as benefiting everybody. As Anderson explains in his history of affirmative action, “during the 1990s, diversity was the winner. Democrats understood that, as a political tactic, supporting diversity was less risky than endorsing affirmative action—it redefined the issue not as a preference for minorities or women but as a public good that supposedly utilized the potential of all citizens” (Anderson 2004:221).
The same positive idea of diversity pervades the discourse of the dog run's supporters in Dover. One petitioner explains that “it is a diverse community that is not fractured by the diversity but celebrates it and tries to work together as a family.” Dog run supporters almost never mention potential normative conflicts among the park users and among dog owners of different socioeconomic status or race, and when they do, it is only through heavy euphemism. Thus, the journalist goes on to explain to me the necessity to socialize her dogs and praise their good behavior by pointing to their hostility to breeds usually associated with aggression and minorities: “My dogs behave pretty well with other dogs. Harley, my oldest, does not care for aggressive breeds of dogs for some reason; so I keep an eye on him when we pass a German Shepherd or Pit Bull.”
Diversity is an inclusive notion based on openness. But as used by Dover gentrifiers, it obscures socioeconomic differentiations and inequalities that are at play in this gentrifying neighborhood. New residents recognize the right of the underprivileged to be there without raising the issue of the uneven distribution of socioeconomic resources. In other words, they praise the presence of low-income and non-White residents in their shared space, but never criticize the structural system of inequalities. In this way, the very rhetoric of diversity allows residents to draw social boundaries between themselves and long-time, less advantaged neighbors. Thus, such rhetoric legitimizes a particular use of public space entailing interlocking exclusion and inclusion. On the one hand, the championing of “diversity” expresses a desire for a park that low-income, middle-income, and upper middle class residents could use. Thus, they embrace, and partially materialize a vision of public space as “facilitator of civil order” (Orum and Neal 2010:4). On the other hand, upper middle class residents use the same language to assert their right to have a space specifically devoted to their needs. In doing this, they never explicitly define themselves in terms of economic status. Exclusionary practices work through symbolic phenomena, such as strong, although denied class-based, norms. Duneier and Molotch (1999) describe how middle-class White women living in the Village manage unwanted conversations with certain black street men, who use the women's dogs as an excuse to interact. What the authors call “interactional vandalism” challenges these women's “political liberalness.” Analyzing a similar social and urban environment, I show how the rhetoric about dogs and dog runs helps upper middle class gentrifiers negotiate the contradictions stemming from life in a mixed area.
The second theme of safety, with similarly ambivalent connotations, likewise contributes to social boundaries between upper middle class residents and “others.” Advocates describe the dog run as a safe place that reinforces safety for the whole neighborhood: in their view, because they have to be walked, dogs bring people onto the streets and into the park during the day and in the evening, thus, deterring crime and enhancing neighborhood security. One main argument of the association is that “Dog parks promote public safety,” considering that “Charles Park has historically been a magnet for crime and unsafe activity.” This is an ongoing theme that draws on Jane Jacobs’ rhetoric and her “eyes upon the street” argument. “Everyone knows each other and we say ‘hi’ to each other. There is a sense there that everyone looks out for each other,” one resident writes. Anderson develops the same thesis, noting that dogs might even help residents feel safer, and as a consequence, interact with unknown black residents (Anderson 1990:224).
At the same time, dog park supporters extensively developed an elaborate if euphemized way of speaking of people and behavior whose presence in public places is considered dangerous and is, thus, not wanted. Ultimately, the way the wealthier dog park supporters mobilized, advocated, and created the space worked to prevent homeless people from entering the dog park and implicitly denied the homeless the right to use public spaces. During a neighborhood association meeting, a resident asked a member of the Charles Park Association about the potential use of fountains by non-dog owners, implicitly the homeless, who otherwise do not have consistent access to water. She immediately dismissed the possibility, arguing that dogs do not like homeless people. And she added: “We don't want people who are not here for the dogs.” There might not be any antihomeless laws and campaigns in Dover. But, as Don Mitchell explains in his study on People's Park, we see how the exclusion of homeless people from parks contributes to defining who is “part of the public” (Mitchell 2003:134–136).
Clearly intersecting with the discourse of security, the themes of homeless people and “illegal behavior” were recurrent in the letters. Residents underline the positive impact of the influx of dog owners in Charles Park on displacing deviant populations. A retired engineer wrote: “Over the 15 years that I have lived here, that area of the park has been transformed from one that was dangerous, neglected, and infested with weeds, debris and illegal behavior, into one that is popular, safe, much cleaner, planted with flowers and filled with people enjoying themselves.” Three other letters explicitly mentioned this issue. One underlined the fact that the park “could be very easily lost to a criminal element,” pointing to “the homeless people that sleep there, and the drug dealers that hang out there.” Another, responding to an opponent complaining about the smell of urine, said that it “may very well be caused by some of the human residents of the Park rather than its canine visitors.” A couple mentioned “a decrease in undesirable activity.”
Some defenders of the dog run also expressed an element of wariness toward people who do not live in Dover, that is, residents who are not part of the community groups and are less likely to contribute their time or money. A member of the association explained during an interview: “It's a continuous education process, because you always have new people coming (…) from other places, S. [a predominantly black neighborhood]. (…) You just have to try to educate them. We ask them for money. If you’re going to use it… It is a privilege, not a right to have this dog run. This is not something that you should feel entitled to. You should contribute with good behavior, with money, with time in order to make this thing work. (…) We do all kind of things. We go up there on Saturday morning, talk to people.”
These sentences express a clear opposition between residents and nonresidents that overlaps a more subtle opposition between residents who pay for or get up early to maintain the dog run and, therefore, have the right to use it, and the other ones who should not feel “entitled to” use it. Here, we also see, as Berrey explained, how the rhetoric of “diversity” tends to take the place of a rhetoric of “rights” guaranteed to everyone, especially minorities.