By Ben Joravsky

A dog war has erupted in Bucktown, a sure sign the community really has become a west-of-the-expressway rendition of Lincoln Park.

The specific fight’s over whether dogs should be allowed to run free in Churchill Field, a small park on Damen just south of Armitage.

Some residents say the dogs are a nuisance. The dog walkers contend they have a constitutional right to let their dogs run in the parks. And most observers agree there’s a sociological explanation for the dispute. Bucktown, once a working-class neighborhood, is rapidly gentrifying as developers build on almost every available inch of land. Factories have been converted to condos; vacant lots are filling with duplexes and town houses. The population’s rising and as a result there’s less space for cars, kids, and dogs.

Yes, dogs. As with other gentrifying neighborhoods, many of the new residents are dog owners. Indeed, several new Bucktowners say they bought there in part because real estate agents assured them that Bucktown was “dog friendly.”

“I was told when I moved here from Lincoln Park not to worry–Bucktown would be friendly to my Tiny and Tina,” says Lora Chamberlain of her dogs (an even mix of Australian shepherd and Border collie). “I moved here last October, and by Christmas I had a lot of friends in the area. They were other dog owners, people I met just walking our dogs.”

Most of the dog-walking action takes place at Churchill, a choppy baseball field squeezed between a condo building and railroad tracks. “It’s not much to look at, but it’s a friendly place to come to,” says Will Petrovic, who lives in the area with his Labrador named Mutt. “For dog owners it’s the place to go.”

The dog walkers gathered on weeknights and weekends to swap tales about dogs and tips on how to raise them. In time they came to see Churchill Field as their special place. “For five months a year we’re the only ones in that park,” says Chamberlain. “In the summer the baseball teams play on the baseball diamond. But we respect them. We wait until the games are over before walking our dogs there. And we always clean up the poop.”

But not everyone was thrilled by the dogs’ presence. By the time March rolled around police were getting several calls a day from complaining residents. According to police, one lady said her son was so afraid of the dogs he wouldn’t come to the park to play baseball anymore. Another claimed the barking bothered her. Many said the dog owners weren’t nearly as diligent about picking up poop as they claimed.

“People may not come forward and go public, but believe me, we get a lot of complaints about the dogs,” says Ray Vazquez, the Park District’s regional manager. “The dog owners say they clean up, but parents are always telling us about some poor baseball player who stepped–splat–right in a dog mess.”

The complaints came in so fast and furiously that police sent out squad cars. And the dog walkers of Bucktown got a quick lesson in the leash laws of the city. “In some parks it’s illegal to have any dogs,” says Vazquez. “In others you can have them but they can’t be off the leash.” Fines range from $10 to $200, depending on the violation.

“The police would drive up. If you were standing there holding a leash without a dog at the end of it you would get a ticket,” says Chamberlain. “There wasn’t much we could do. And it really irritated us to think that we would have to go to court for having our dogs in the park.”

The ticketing outraged the dog walkers for several reasons. It struck them that the city was being ungrateful. “We are the eyes and ears of the neighborhood on a cold winter night. When we’re out there the bad guys might stay away,” says Chamberlain. “And you can’t tell us we’re bad for the park. We helped clean it up. Before we came here there were hypodermic needles.”

Moreover, it seemed unfair and unconstitutional to make them keep their dogs leashed. “We pay taxes too. We should have rights,” says Chamberlain. “The way I see it, we’re saving the city money because a lot of us have no children. We’re not asking the city to educate our two-legged children–we only want the right to exercise our four-legged children.”

To their owners the dogs are lovely, sweet, and smart, much more than pets, almost family. “You can’t just force a dog to stay inside or on a

leash all day–that’s cruel,” says Chamberlain. “And you can’t keep us from using the parks. This is where we go, this is what we do, this is our replacement for children. I chose not to have children because I felt it was a crime against nature to have children–there are too many people on this earth. So I had puppies and let me tell you, puppies are smart. I’ll tell you a story about my Tina and Tiny–they have practically toilet trained themselves. It’s true. By dumb luck when I got them I didn’t have a cage so I put them in the bathroom. They learned to jump into the bathtub to poo and pee. When Tina was about ten months she got something and had diarrhea. She jumped into the bathtub and had her diarrhea in the bathtub. That was so sweet of her because she didn’t mess up the house. I was like, ‘You are such a good puppy.'”

And what about dogs knocking down children or pooping on lawns or snapping at people?

“I’ve never seen a dog attack a human, never. Oh, once in a while a big rottweiler will run into you if he’s trying to catch a ball. But that’s no big deal. I’m not saying it can’t happen or it hasn’t happened. I’m a family practitioner and our association is coming out with a big education campaign about dog bites. And one of the things they want to teach kids is how to handle a stray. Stand like a tree or drop like a log. You shouldn’t run away or run toward the dog. So much of what happens is because people don’t understand.”

Some people aren’t understanding, either. There are those who just don’t like the sight, sound, or smell of dogs. Who don’t think it’s fun to have big noisy creatures barreling down on them. Who don’t want to walk in a field filled with crap. And who wish that dog lovers would realize that just because they love their beasts, not everyone feels the same way.

And there are those who see the dog owners as arrogant invaders who marched over to Churchill Field and claimed it as their own, apparently unaware that other people (and not just junkies and muggers) had been using it first. “When we talk to some of those dog people it’s like the kids who live in the neighborhood and use Churchill don’t exist,” says a city official. “It’s, ‘Give me what I want!'”

The fight reminds some of the squabble that ensued when the factory next to Churchill was converted to upscale condos. “There were people talking about making Churchill a passive park by taking out the baseball field,” says Vazquez. “We said, ‘No, you can’t just change it without going to the whole community.’ Part of the problem is that we just don’t have enough park space for kids to play in that area. And part of it is that people don’t understand that Churchill’s an important baseball field. A lot of the kids who played there went on to play at Tuley and Clemente [high schools]. It’s got a tradition.”

Vazquez says he’s willing to work with both sides, as he’s done with similar disputes at Oz Park, Trebes Park, and Wicker Park. He’s enlisted the aid of the Bucktown Community Organization and Alderman Terry Gabinski, all of whom (particularly the alderman) are walking a tight line, fearful of offending any faction. “We’re going to have a meeting in May to discuss all the alternatives,” says Caroline Goldstein, a member of the Bucktown Community Organization. “I think we can reach a compromise.”

Gabinski has suggested allowing the dogs to run at Walsh Playlot on Ashland near Wabansia. But the dog walkers point out that Walsh is an impractical site. “There are too many children there, too much going on,” says Chamberlain. “I say we fence off part of Churchill and have it reserved for a dog run. I wouldn’t let kids in–no one under 12, maybe even 16–so we can be sure that they don’t get hurt.

“We are a special-interest group but a very large special-interest group. The Park District can’t ignore us any longer. We want to recreate with our dogs. We want to socialize with other dog owners. We want to let our dogs run in the parks!”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Will Petrovic and Lora Chamberlain by Randy Tunnell.