By Ben Joravsky

To the surprise of no one who follows these things, another dog war has erupted in Bucktown. But in this one the dog lovers aren’t pitted against the rest of the universe. They’re pitted against the Park District.

About 40 passionate dog-owning Bucktown residents have asked the Park District to create a dog-romping area in Churchill Field Park with a relatively soft surface. The Park District says sorry, it must be hard pavement, either concrete or asphalt.

If that doesn’t sound like an issue that should get the blood boiling, well, you’re clearly not a dog lover–at least not of the Bucktown variety. “This is very important to us–I mean very important,” says Lora Chamberlain, president of the Churchill Field Park Advisory Council, a local residents’ group that advises the Park District. “I’m not sure the Park District understands or cares.”

Of course this is hardly the first time dogs have been an issue in the parks of Bucktown–not to mention Lincoln Park, Lakeview, West Town, and Wicker Park. They’re another telltale sign, along with Starbucks and Kinko’s, of rampant gentrification–young singles or childless couples move to a neighborhood, bringing dogs they love as fiercely as most parents love their children. “We are looking for dogs to provide us with family,” says Chamberlain. “And gosh darn it, they are a darn good family. They are loyal. They are loving. They have hearts.”

For these folks, dog ownership is no solitary ritual–it’s a communal thing. They like to congregate and socialize while their dogs romp together. In the late afternoon and early morning, 20 or more dog owners gather in Churchill Park to throw sticks and balls and chat about their dogs. But many other people are deathly afraid of dogs and don’t want them in the parks at all. They worry that a charging dog, friendly or not, might knock them over or bite them–or, more likely, lay a big pile they might step into.

So the stage is set for another turf battle like those that have been waged in such near-northwest-side parks as Holstein Park, Walsh Playground Park, and Erhler Playlot Park. “It can get really messy, very ugly,” says Eva Bergant, a Bucktown resident who owns a dog. “It got to the point at Erhler where someone had put a chain and lock on the gate at night to keep dog owners out.”

Churchill Park is a patch of green with a baseball diamond on Damen south of Armitage squeezed between a condo building and the railroad tracks. A few years back condo residents and baseball parents were up in arms about barking dogs and their uncollected waste. On several occasions residents called the police, who ticketed dog owners for violating the law requiring dogs to be leashed at all times. The summer of 1999 was a particularly “wild one,” says Bergant. “The squad cars came by all the time. The police would just line people up and ticket them.”

These days peace reigns at Churchill because Chamberlain and Bergant forged compromises with condo owners and baseball parents. They agreed to move the dog spot to the southern end of the park, away from the condos, and to have dog gatherings when the baseball teams weren’t playing. And to help keep the peace, Chamberlain and Bergant began running the Churchill Field Park Advisory Council, encouraging people to work problems out in a civil manner. “We began holding council meetings in the open right out in the park,” says Chamberlain. “It’s great for attendance. People walk over with their dogs. The condo people can see us gathering, and so they’ll come on out. We’ve met in the rain, we’ve met in the snow. It’s been a great thing for building community spirit.”

It was at one of these meetings earlier this year that they decided to ask that the Park District officially convert a portion of Churchill into a dog park–in city parlance, a “dog-friendly area” or DFA. There are now eight DFAs in the city, most of them in relatively affluent north-side neighborhoods; there’s only one south of Chinatown. By and large, they’re fenced patches of land, no larger than a play lot, where the leash law is waived and dogs are free to romp and fetch. The oldest and most popular is Wiggly Field at 2645 N. Sheffield, which is overseen by a consortium of dutiful volunteers led by Stacey Hawk. “It’s a lot of hard work to get a DFA and keep it running,” she says. “You have to do daily maintenance.”

The Park District has strict guidelines for establishing a DFA. Applicants must first “organize themselves as an official council.” Then they must “scout locations.” Once they’ve settled on a site, they have to conduct “four surveys,” one for each season, to make sure the area isn’t heavily used–the Park District wouldn’t want to give a field used by kids to the dogs. Then they must organize a public meeting, collect petitions of support from local residents, and win the backing of the local alderman. If they do all these things–and promise to maintain the DFA–the Park District will fence off the piece of land and pave it over.

Since last spring Chamberlain’s Churchill Field Park Advisory Council has held meetings, gathered signatures, wooed 32nd Ward alderman Ted Matlak, and won the backing of the condo association. They even had some designs drawn up. There was only one sticking point: they didn’t want a hard surface, which they say is too rough on the paws, bones, and joints of their dogs. “There are a lot of big dogs in this area,” says Bergant. “There’s a half dozen Burmese mountain dogs, two Great Danes, greyhounds, mastiffs. These are huge dogs who are prone to hip displacement. And it’s not just big dogs–golden retrievers are prone to hip displacement. It’s not good for any dog really. Orthopedists will tell you that you should keep your dog off of hard surfaces.”

Moreover, the dog owners say, a hard surface heats up in the summer, which hurts the dogs’ paws. Plus it’s ugly. “Think about how this is going to look,” says Bergant. “Mayor Daley likes green space so much he’s planting trees up on the roof of City Hall. What they’re doing here is taking green space and paving it over with concrete. Does that make sense?”

From the perspective of Park District officials, there’s no way to compromise. They can’t use grass because the dogs quickly trample it. And they can’t use gravel for health reasons. “DFAs are different from other areas, so we need special standards,” says Angelynne Amores, a Park District spokesperson. “There are good and solid health reasons for having these standards.”

The hard surfaces, she says, curb the spread of parasites that breed in the uncollected feces that dog owners who break the city’s pooper-scooper laws leave behind. “A hard surface can be hosed off and regularly cleaned,” she says. But uncollected dog crap works its way into a softer surface and will eventually be ingested by other dogs, which could lead to an outbreak of ringworm, heartworm, or other diseases. “This is not something we established on our own,” says Amores. “We have consulted many leading veterinarians.”

The Park District has on file three letters sent by veterinarians supporting the ban on soft surfaces. “Parasite eggs survive best in soil, as it provides the best microhabitat, especially concerning moisture,” writes Kevin Kazacos, professor of veterinary parasitology at Purdue University. “Other than certain harsh chemicals, heat and dry conditions are the worst enemies of parasite eggs, negatively affecting their survival. Above a certain temperature, eggs are killed (‘thermal death point’), and exposure to hot, dry environments or conditions favors and hastens egg death through dessication….Therefore, concerning parasite egg survival in the dog parks, I believe that an asphalt surface would have positive benefits.”

To keep the surface from sizzling in the summer, the Park District will paint it green and have it shaded by trees. Beyond that, they advise dog owners to be practical. “If it’s hot, don’t run your dogs–or take them out at dusk or dawn,” says Amores. “I don’t think there’s any perfect surface. A dog can hurt its paw on soft gravel too. It’s more likely that it would step on a piece of glass that’s hidden beneath the gravel.”

As for the impact of hard surfaces on a big dog’s joints, well, the Park District says it can’t meet the needs of every animal. If a big dog can’t take the pounding, the owners shouldn’t run them at the DFA. “I’m sympathetic to what Lora’s trying to do, and I know she cares very much about dogs,” says Wiggly Field’s Stacey Hawk. “But I know that people like to run their dogs really hard, and maybe concrete is not good for those dogs. Unfortunately, a DFA cannot meet every recreational and social need for every dog.”

Chamberlain and her allies remain unconvinced. They too have letters, articles, and E-mails from veterinarians who back them up, particularly regarding the damage hard surfaces can cause. They’ve also contacted dog-park operators in Utah, Oregon, San Francisco, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. “All of these parks have a soft surface, and not one has reported claims of dog-to-dog transmissions of diseases,” says Chamberlain. Many of the dog-park operators have expressed sympathy and support.

The surface the Churchill Park users want is crushed granite. “That’s used in the Riverside Park dog park [in New York City] that’s been widely praised,” says Chamberlain. “It has little chips of granite that get packed down, like a running track, so there’s a little give and it’s not as damaging to the knees. The waste sits on the top, so it doesn’t settle in. It’s not difficult to pick up. The big problem in the spread of parasitic disease is stagnant pools of water. The surface in Riverside Park is made of a porous material. The fluid gets sucked out of it, so there won’t be any standing puddles. You have a couple of inches of crushed granite above a limestone base that neutralizes the urine which filters through.

“What I don’t understand is why the Park District won’t even give it a try. We’re willing to pay for it. It won’t cost them anything. If it doesn’t work, OK, they can take it away. I can’t understand why they’re being so rigid about this.”

In the last week of November, Park District officials and area residents met to discuss the matter. Nothing was resolved, and the two sides remain as far apart as ever. Chamberlain and her allies vow to fight on. “In some ways, the surface debate is a secondary issue,” she says. “If you’re concerned about the transmission of parasitic diseases, then you need a more comprehensive immunization program for all dogs in the city. That’s what we should be concentrating on. That would lead to a decrease in the transmission of parasitic diseases. I want to get the mayor’s office involved in this. I think Mayor Daley would be interested. I’m looking at the bigger picture.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.