It may sound hard to believe, but for almost a year residents of Lincoln Park have been waging a bitter little turf war over dogs.

In particular the issue is whether dogs should be allowed to run free in Trebes Park, an unassuming slab of land at Racine and Webster, just south of the Oscar Mayer school. The matter has reduced otherwise peace-loving neighbors to exchanging nasty letters and accusations and even doggie-pooh calling cards. It’s the kind of feud that veteran politicians know to avoid.

“This is not the first time a dog war has broken out in our ward,” says Edwin Eisendrath, alderman of the 43rd Ward. “Over the years, I’ve learned one great lesson about dog wars: I won’t touch them with a ten-foot pooper scooper.”

The conflict began last summer with a brief spat between several members of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association and an unidentified woman who was walking her dog.

“We were in Trebes Park having a picnic and planning our annual garden walk,” says Tom Lawson, who lives about a block from the park. “But there was this dog owner with three dogs running loose in the park. The dogs kept getting into our food. We said, “Do you mind if you leash that dog?’ And her first response was giving me the finger. Right to my face. I said, ‘Oh, that’s really mature.’ It bothered me a lot.”

As Lawson saw it, Trebes was more than a park; it was a symbol of the time and energy he and his cohorts in the association had donated to improving the neighborhood. They had painted out graffiti, chased away gangs, and now, working with the Park District, planted new trees, flowers, and shrubbery as part of a restoration project that will be complete when grass is planted this fall.

“There’s not a lot of open space around here and we want to create a beautiful park,” says Lawson. “But these dogs–not all of them, just the ones off of the leash. You’re sitting there enjoying the park, and all of a sudden some dog comes along and takes a crap right in front of you–what a lovely sight. Or maybe a couple of dogs get into a fight. Or they’ll get carried away and knock a kid down. That happened to my grandson. The owner didn’t even apologize. Some of these owners have the attitude that the rest of us owe them something.”

Emboldened by the support of several neighbors, Lawson posted a large sign in the park that read “No Dogs Allowed.”

“When the dog owners saw me putting up the sign, a bunch of them gathered around me and started screaming,” says Lawson. “This one guy in particular really went nuts. He called me a pig and told me that I don’t have a right to be in this park because, get this, he uses the park more than I do. I donate hours of my time for this community and I never see him lift a finger. Someone else says to me, ‘Where do you live?’ I told him. And he says, ‘Well, we’ll use your yard to dump our dog shit.'”

The dog walkers confirm most of the facts in Lawson’s account, but they assess them differently. For starters, they cannot understand the antipathy toward their dogs. They admit that on occasion some dogs do bark. Or get too affectionate. But they’re well trained. They come on command. They don’t bite. What’s to object?

“My German shepherd, Jackson, you should see him jump to catch the Frisbee,” says Steve Lapper, who lives a block or two away from Lawson and regularly walks his dog in the park. “Little kids come to my door and ask if they can watch Jackson jump. I clean up after him. I carry several plastic bags with me. Sometimes I clean up after other dogs, if I see the pooh.”

As for the sign incident, Lapper says that Lawson was as belligerent as any of the dog walkers. “Yes, some of us were upset,” says Lapper. “He was very disagreeable. You just can’t put up a sign in the park unless you are a Park District employee. And dogs are not even prohibited in the park.

“Lawson also had a portable phone with him, and the next thing I know an unmarked police car speeds up to the park and the cop says, ‘We were called here and we don’t want to make a big deal out of this, but put your dogs on the leash.’ That made me mad. I said to Lawson, ‘You’re a great neighbor for calling the cops on your neighbors.'”

Word of the confrontation spread throughout the neighborhood, and it got back to Lawson that Lapper had complained about him to Eisendrath. So Lawson wrote Lapper a six-page letter (with copies to Eisendrath and about 20 other residents and local leaders), declaring, among other things, that he had not called the cops and that he didn’t appreciate the threat to “have your dogs use my front parkway from now on as your dogs’ washroom.”

The dog walkers then decided to try a new tactic: reconciliation. They called Ted Wrobleski, president of the association. They bought him lunch. And they unveiled the following set of self-enforced guidelines for dog walking in the park: “Dogs must be kept under control. Dogs must be leashed during events. Dogs must (always) be cleaned up after. Dog owners and non-dog owners alike must be respectful. Use common sense. Dogs are forbidden on the playground area at all times.” Wrobleski eventually agreed to have the matter discussed at a November meeting of the association.

“Like good organizers we made sure we brought out people to the meeting,” says Andrew Hartman, a dog walker. “They brought a Park District official who said that it’s against Park District rules to have dogs off the leash in a park but that it’s not something they look to enforce. In other words, they and the police have more important things to do.”

Wrobleski then printed a copy of the proposed guidelines in the association’s newsletter. In the next issue, the newsletter ran a statement saying that they had received a number of phone calls and letters criticizing the guidelines.

“I brought these guidelines to our board and they declined to adopt them,” says Wrobleski. “They didn’t think it was right to condone having dogs off the leash.”

The dog walkers felt they had been set up. “They were employing Leninist tactics,” says Hartman. “They were not allowing free and open discourse on dogs in the park. They didn’t invite us to write letters. They basically printed only one half of the story to make it look as though there was universal opposition to our proposals.”

Hartman and two other dog owners, Virginia Holden and Michael Ginn, wrote a letter to the association accusing it of “mischaracteriz[ing] neighborhood sentiment” by mentioning in a newsletter article “only a few letters that [it] received in opposition–some suspiciously duplicitous and even unsigned.”

Now Wrobleski raged with indignation. He wrote back, characterizing their accusations as “simply outrageous. . . . Instead of trying to vilify those who do not happen to agree with you . . . I hope you will try to appreciate the fact that the great majority of people simply disagree with you on the issue of having dogs off leash in the park.”

The issue is far from settled. Someone painted over the no in Lawson’s No Dogs Allowed sign. A few days later the sign was stolen. And in the last few weeks someone has been dumping dog poop in the Lawsons’ front yard.

“It happened just the other day,” says Jeannie Lawson. “Right there in our garden–a big huge pile. It was just sitting there. It was fresh, too. It wasn’t dried out. It was just a big, stinking glob gathering flies. It could have been the collection from three or four dogs. I can’t believe that they would stoop to this level.”

Tom Lawson says that the easiest solution is for dog owners to run their dogs along a nearby railroad line.

“I told them they could clear the land out there and make a dog run,” says Lawson. “But they said it’s too much work. Can you believe that? We have people who donate their time for the garden walk and these guys won’t even lift their fingers to make a dog walk for their dogs? They represent the selfish generation of the 90s. It’s all me, me, me–what can you do for me? I can’t feel sorry for them. It’s like the guy who lives next to the el tracks and complains about the noise. If you’re worried about having space to walk your dog, you shouldn’t have moved to the city. Go live in the country.”

The dog walkers dismiss Lawson’s idea about the railroad line and accuse him of being overzealous. “The property along the rail lines is private,” says Lapper. “We have no right to walk along someone’s private property and use it as our personal playground. But the parks are for everyone so long as all people and animals remain responsible.”

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