A debate over a proposed off-leash dog area at Martin Luther King Park in Minneapolis has divided the opposing camps along largely racial lines, but meetings on the debate have sparked new conversation within the surrounding community.
Opponents tend to be African Americans, while many supporters of the dog park are white. The dispute has inspired a series of community meetings designed to help heal the rift. Thursday night, dog park opponents and supporters, black and white, sat down together to talk about something they have in common.
Martin Luther King Park has baseball and softball diamonds, basketball and tennis courts, and has one of the best sledding hills in that part of south Minneapolis. But it lacks something that dog owner Ben Harris has long hoped for -- an area where his two dogs can run free.
Harris lives near the park, but usually doesn't walk the dogs here. He says his dogs need at least a good five-mile workout everyday. He said a dog park provides space for dogs to run around and socialize with other dogs. The same goes for people.
"I mean, if you've ever had a puppy come bouncing right over to you, with a person right behind them, a conversation usually starts," Harris said. "Whether that's someone you normally speak with or not -- probably not -- you're still going to have a conversation. And all of a sudden, you have a connection."
For Harris, who is white, bonding with other dog owners is one way to achieve Martin Luther King's dream of uniting people of diverse racial backgrounds. But some African American opponents of the dog park say they are offended by the idea because dogs were used against black marchers during Civil Rights protests around 50 years ago.
Since the idea of the dog park was formally introduced to the park board last year, public forums on the matter have featured some passionate discussion. Some community leaders worried the divide was becoming too wide to bridge, so they organized a series of meetings.
Mary Merrill Anderson welcomed a racially-mixed group of about 50 residents inside the King park building Thursday night. Anderson, a former park board superintendent and commissioner, said the meeting was necessary because the conflict over the dog park revealed a disturbing racial divide.
"I think it made people realize how different our worldview in community was; how differently we understood the reality of our community," Anderson said. "It's like people were talking to each other and just were not able to connect at all."
The meeting was inspired by the dog park conflict, but the focus of the night's gathering is to brainstorm about ways to use the park to better honor the legacy of its namesake. The group divided up into four smaller groups, and residents talked about their memories and impressions of Dr. King.
Adrienne Ratliff said there are many things that impressed her about the civil rights icon.
"One of the things that I think about is when they first approached him about leading the march, it wasn't something he really wanted to do," Ratliff said. "But he sacrificed because he felt this was something that needed to be done."
The park, formerly known as Nicollet Field, was renamed Martin Luther King Park in 1969. However there's little else that visually identifies King as its namesake. Some residents suggested posting the text of some of King's speeches inside the building. They also encouraged the park to do more to educate young people about King's life. One group suggested public sing-alongs and offered a demonstration.
For the time being, opponents and supporters of the dog park joined in unison over their respect and admiration of Martin Luther King Jr. Dog park opponent Virginia Richardson said the meeting probably didn't change anybody's mind, but it accomplished something else that's very important.
"I think it helps people anytime they come and can find commonality. With the dog park, we just disagree," Richardson.
Two more community meetings are scheduled before the park board votes on the dog park proposal in March.