Tensions were high at the beginning of last night’s public consultation over how to replace the Africville dog park, but as the meeting progressed dog owners and city staff seemed to zero in on a possible solution agreeable to all: A new, large and fenced dog park at the Mainland Common.
To back up, former residents of Africville have long objected to a dog park being hosted at the former community site. The city had established the off-leash dog park at what was then called Seaview Park, long before the bureaucracy had developed a process for siting dog parks; when that process was finally developed, it precluded new dog parks at sites designated as historic places, as is Africville. The dog park has always been disliked by the former residents, but calls to close the dog park have received more traction after then-mayor Peter Kelly issued an apology from the city to former residents as part of a broader settlement agreement that included renaming Seaview Park as Africville Park, rebuilding the community’s historic church, and having the city and the Africville Genealogy Society jointly manage the park to more highly profile the history of Africville. In that scheme of things, the dog park could play no part. It had to go.
The dog park, however, is very popular with dog owners. It’s a large site, over four acres, completely fenced in, relatively flat with trails accessible to people who use wheelchairs, and of course has spectacular views of the Bedford Basin.
Last month, councillor Jennifer Watts asked council to permanently close the dog park before this weekend’s Africville reunion, and to shift the dog park to an acre lot to the east—stretching from the Africville Park parking lot to a line under the MacKay Bridge—until a better replacement dog park site could be found and developed. The negative response to Watts’ motion among some dog owners was overwhelming, creating an awkward and contentious conflict between the dispossessed black community and the often-affluent and overwhelmingly white dog owner community. In the comment sections of newspapers and in social media, that conflict sometimes slipped into open racism.
Council passed a compromise motion: the park would be closed, but not until the end of this calendar year. Between now and then, staff was to consult with the public about how to proceed, hence last night’s meeting at the Halifax Forum, which was attended by about 120 people, mostly dog owners, but also about 15 former Africville residents and their supporters.
As the meeting opened, there was some outright hostility. A security guard helped defuse a couple of situations, but one woman continued yelling in the parking lot until she left on her own accord. Tempers were high.
City staff had framed the meeting as a consult on shifting the dog park to the east, to the one-acre parcel. This angered many dog owners, who saw that proposal as foregone city policy, and so therefore regarded the consultation as a “farce.” But one man in the crowd helpfully pointed out that “if they (city staff) don’t know what’s wrong with this site, they won’t know what we want in another site,” which seemed to bring focus to the group.
After talking among themselves for a half hour, each table presented its objections to the MacKay Bridge site: It’s too small. It’s not fenced in. The noise from the bridge will scare skittish dogs. Debris and ice falling from the bridge could injure people and dogs. A knoll on the site makes much of the area inaccessible to both people and dogs; “we have 16- and 17-year-old dogs who can’t climb hills,” said one woman.
Karen Pitt, who uses a wheelchair, said she has three dogs and the flat and accessible trails at Africville Park have enabled her to get outdoors. The proposed new site, she said, would be entirely inaccessible to her. “You’re embarking on a different kind of discrimination,” she said, comparing her situation to the eviction of the Africville residents.
That comparison was seconded by Terry Downey, a black woman who said she works in human rights. The proposed site is inaccessible, said Downey, and “violates human rights, so don’t go there.”
Some of the arguments bordered on the ridiculous—one person said people hired by the shipyard would be disappointed by the small size of the proposed park, another said dog owners spend $2 billion a year in HRM, a third reminded us that “the same demographic of people most likely to move downtown are also the same demographic most likely to own dogs.”
But as the evening progressed the anger at losing the Africville dog park turned to a consensus that a new park should be “nowhere near Africville,” as one speaker put it. That meant rejecting the proposed site near the MacKay Bridge, but also the Seaview Lookoff Park, which is on land that was also once part of Africville. Several speakers spoke of creating a new dog park at the Mainland Common in Clayton Park.
“Are you willing to travel off the peninsula?” city staffer Peter Bigelow asked the crowd, which universally gave its assent, and provided a possible way forward.
I asked Bigelow after the meeting if the Mainland Common site was a realistic option. “Everything has a price tag,” he told me. “But it’s 10 minutes away, and there’s lots of room.” Bigelow has two different sites on the Mainland Common in mind, both on the Main Street side of the Common, one in a wooded ravine area and the other on flatter cleared land. He said he would figure out the costs of fencing the areas, as well as look at a third potential site at Exhibition Park, and ask council for guidance in a few weeks.