Last week I attended another public meeting on the topic of shared use, specifically the proposal to permit early morning off-leash hours for dogs in the lower end of Longfellow Park near Mount Auburn Street.
In a prior post about a similar meeting held this month to discuss potential off-leash hours in Joan Lorentz Park, I labored to present an even-handed account. After attending the Longfellow meeting, however, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that some people simply do not understand the concept of shared use.
The allegory of the dog in the manger came to mind, as I listened to a vocal minority air their strong opinions that dogs should not be allowed in a neighborhood park, even one that they themselves do not regularly visit. The very idea of dogs apparently frightens and/or offends some people so much that they do not think anyone should have to share a public park with dogs, leashed or not.
Without minimizing the emotional hardship of such cynophobia (the fear of dogs), I think it is fair to say that the extreme views of a minority of citizens should not dictate a policy of shared use of the city’s limited open space. In fact, it is out of consideration for the feelings of those who prefer to avoid dogs that dogs are already prohibited from being off-leash in all but a handful of public spaces.
Are dogs as polarizing as cyclists? The “Share the Road” slogan was originally targeted at motorists — still the majority of street users — but it applies equally to cyclists who ignore the rules of the road. A “Share the Park” campaign might help foster greater reciprocal respect among park-users of all types. Most dog owners are conscientious about picking up poop and controlling their animals, especially around small children who risk developing a lifelong fear of dogs from one bad encounter. A few owners, regrettably, do not hold up their end of the shared-use bargain, but their heedlessness should not jeopardize the rights of law-abiding dog owners to share public areas.
A Historical Note: What Would Longfellow Say?
Sarah Burks, preservation planner with the Cambridge Historical Commission, attended the meeting and spoke briefly about concerns that off-leash hours might increase wear and tear on Longfellow Park, a national historical site that attracts visitors from around the world. Ms. Burks said the current level of dog use is “manageable” and does not pose a problem to the grass, except when the park’s low-lying basin is heavily saturated. (The surrounding residential neighborhood is part of the Half Crown-Marsh Neighborhood Conservation District; the area near the river was an actual marsh in colonial times.) A couple of abutters noted that the park’s relatively secluded location near Harvard Square has long made it a magnet for vagrants who jeopardize the public safety and leave behind trash, which the dog owners find, and pick up, in the morning. Several residents said the close-knit community of dog owners serves as a de facto neighborhood watch that monitors park use at night.
Since the park was once the front yard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s estate, I wondered where he would have stood on the issue of dogs. Turns out, Longfellow, his second wife Fanny Appleton and their five surviving children were crazy about pets, dogs especially. In fact, the Longfellow House Bulletin from June 2009 includes several articles about the family’s affection for their pets. The newsletter reports that the last in a long line of dogs that Longfellow doted on (and overfed) was a Scottish terrier named Trap, who originally belonged to his oldest son Charles. When Charley went off to war in 1863, Trap stayed home and quickly became the by-then widowed poet’s favorite companion. Trap would doze on a heating grate in the study while Longfellow napped in an armchair by the hearth, and the dog would gently wake him if he started to snore.
Trap and the other Longfellow dogs had the run of the grounds and presumably were not kept leashed. In an 1867 letter to his friend George Washington Greene, Longfellow humorously describes Trap’s repeated attempts to escape the confines of the family’s multi-acre estate:
“The Prodigal Son of a —— called Trap has been recovered through the intervention of a dog-dealer in Boston. I went into Boston and brought him home. He looked degraded, demoralized and low. I put a new collar upon him, and had him fed; whereupon he ran away, and was stolen again on the same day. I have recovered him again and he is now asleep under the great chair. He has had hair dye put all around his eyes to disguise him, and is quite abject and forlorn. He evidently thinks Cambridge is a dull place. At the dog-dealer’s they gave him rats to kill. That is the charm, which he cannot resist. He had been trying to sneak away this afternoon; and will be stolen again tomorrow no doubt.” The poet was very sad when Trap died in 1869.
Trap may well be buried on the park’s grounds along with another Longfellow dog named Willie, who ate poison and expired gruesomely in the family’s dining room. Longfellow later wrote in a story for his children that Willie “was buried in the garden under a silver-poplar. When the wind blows the leaves part just as Willie’s hair used to do, when he was angry.”
I think I can guess how Longfellow might vote on the off-leash issue in his park.