Spaces: Is Dallas Going to the Dogs?

Like graffiti, rampant dog droppings can indicate a city in decline. In Dallas, however, they just indicate a city that hasn’t grown up yet. Our city girl explores how we handle our pets and what it says about our urban maturity.

George Edwards has a pet peeve. His eighth-grade son has attended the William B. Travis Academy on McKinney Avenue since it opened three years ago. Edwards thinks the school is great. But he’s not so thrilled about the neighbors’ bad habits.

“Before we got there, the school was vacant,” he says. “The community used it as a dog feces dump.” The community didn’t reform when the kids showed up. One woman used to unleash her Labrador retriever and let it run around the yard, even when the kids were at recess. One day, says Edwards, “the dog came right up in the middle of the kids and took a dump. She just shrugged her shoulders and took her dog and left.” Before the fourth graders could resume their ballgame, they had to clean up the mess with sticks and scraps of paper.

City law requires pet owners not only to scoop their dog’s poop, but also to carry the equipment for doing so. In theory, that means code enforcers can issue a ticket without waiting for the dog to do its thing. In reality, the poop-scooping law is as strictly enforced as the speed limit on the Tollway. In urban Dallas, you can’t take two steps from the curb to the sidewalk without fear for your boots.

Like graffiti, rampant dog droppings can indicate a city in decline. In Dallas, however, they just indicate a city that hasn’t grown up yet. Accustomed to wide-open spaces, Dallasites are still learning how to live in close quarters.

Dallas is gradually discovering the pleasures of urban living and the accessible amenities that come with population density. People are moving into downtown neighborhoods—not just the central business district but especially its fringes. The six census tracts that make up Uptown, Bryan Place, Deep Ellum, and the Cedars posted a population of 13,000 in 2000, up 54 percent from 1990. A thousand housing units are currently under construction on the fringes, with about 500 in the works within the central loop.

Dallas has a new urban character, but grown-up urbanity still requires some behavior modification. It’s not enough to have streets with sidewalks, trashcans, and functioning walk signs—the things city government can provide. We also need drivers who watch out for crosswalks, music lovers who lower the Luther Vandross late at night, apartment dwellers who tolerate a reasonable level of “domestic interaction” that sometimes results from exposure to Vandross, and dog walkers who clean up after their pets. We aren’t living in the boondocks anymore. There are other people around.

Like thriving businesses and vital neighborhoods, urbanity evolves gradually, through the actions and attitudes of people who live and work in the city. Social norms can’t simply be dictated by law, however sensible that law may be. As Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) often points out, law is no substitute for etiquette. “Law is supposed to address itself to the serious and dangerous impulses that endanger life, limb, and property,” she writes. “Etiquette addresses provocations that are minor but can grow serious if unchecked”—a pretty good description of leaving dog poop for the shoes of neighbors.

Outraged parents at the Travis Academy discovered the limits of law enforcement when they called the city about their dog-poop problem. Enforcers promised to stake out the campus and issue citations. But the one-shot effort made no visible difference.

Edwards took a subtle, but more persistent, approach. To teach dog owners some manners, he installed a series of alternately plaintive and threatening placards around the schoolyard:

“Children play here every day. PLEASE clean up after your dog.”

“Animal feces can cause a serious health risk.”

“It is a CRIME to let your pet defecate on public property. Clean up after your dog.”

“Call 311 if you see pet owners violating the law!”

The signs are an attempt to establish new social norms, to make it unacceptable to pollute the schoolyard even when no one is looking. “We have 400 students on that campus,” Edwards says, “and it’s a travesty to have them have to play in that stuff.”

He hopes the signs will also provoke good neighbors to “yell at these people.” It’s a questionable tactic. Judging from Edwards’ own stories, hectoring dog walkers just makes them mad. Instead of cleaning up, they get belligerent. Yelling requires confrontation and embarrassment. Besides, this isn’t New York. Yelling violates Southern mores.

Urbanity will have to evolve the Dallas way—not through yelling and fines but through commerce and volunteerism. Fortunately, those forces are already beginning to clean up the poop-filled yards of in-town neighborhoods.

Matt Boswell, owner of the Pet Butler cleanup service (www.pet-butler.com), reports that his 5-year-old company is adding more and more in-town condo associations and apartment complexes to its client list. One State-Thomas resident hires the service to clean up a particularly nasty area because she walks by the mess every day and is “disgusted by it.” She doesn’t own a dog, but she’s willing to pay the price to enjoy a cleaner neighborhood.

In-town property owners are also getting more assertive about posting signs reminding dog owners to keep things clean. Post Properties has even installed baggie dispensers and dog-waste containers around the sidewalks near its Uptown apartment buildings, encouraging good habits while welcoming dog owners.

Establishing new social norms, though, ultimately depends on the voluntary efforts of dog owners. Those efforts include not only scooping poop, but also finding ways to make city life congenial to dogs bred for open spaces. What many urban dog owners want is a place for their pets to run around freely. In response, dog parks are springing up in cities all over the country, providing off-leash playgrounds. One of the parks’ most important requirements is that owners clean up after their dogs—a habit they may take home with them.

The Mockingbird Point Dog Park near White Rock Lake opened two years ago, with fencing and equipment paid for by private efforts. (www.dallasdogparks.org tracks news on this park and others in the works.) This April, in-town residents got their own Bark Park, at the southwest corner of Good-Latimer Expressway and Commerce Street. The patch of land under Central Expressway is owned by the state, maintained by the city, and financed by donations and nearby public improvement districts. The place is still mostly mud, but once the grass grows, the Bark Park promises a convenient playground for urban-dwelling dogs.

More remarkable is the grassy fenced yard at Travis and Elizabeth streets, in the Knox-Henderson area of Uptown. It might be the most urbane place in Dallas. Susan Cole, who lives in the townhouse next door, bought the lot about two years ago. After she gave one dog owner permission to continue using the yard, word spread, making the informal park a community gathering place.

Now, on a given weekday evening, any number of business-suited bipeds and their naked four-legged companions can be spotted in the yard. Cole doesn’t own a dog herself, but she enjoys watching them play from her windows. All she asks is that the dog owners clean up their messes, and they do. Over time, they’ve also brought folding chairs, bottles of water, and plastic bags for everyone to share. These Uptown dog owners know their dog park is a private favor, not a public right, which may be one reason they feel so responsible for its upkeep.

In a famous joke, Jerry Seinfeld imagines aliens who come to earth and see humans bending over to collect their dogs’ feces, then carrying the stuff around in plastic bags. The aliens naturally conclude that the dogs are the masters.

Seinfeld assumes that his audience is made up of sophisticated urbanites, people who know the best tool for picking up dog poop is the opaque, heavy-duty blue plastic bag from the New York Times. Here’s to hoping that one day Dallas will grow up and be in on the joke.Contributing editor Virginia Postrel does not own a dog. She is an economics columnist for the New York Times and author of the upcoming book The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Culture, Commerce, and Consciousness.

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