Duboce Dogfest, held last weekend, is a unique San Francisco event — an annual elementary school fundraiser with a dog-oriented theme. Kids and dogs are too often pitted against one another, and it’s refreshing to see advocates for the two groups working together to make Dogfest a success year after year.
It wasn’t always that way. Ten years ago, tensions, anger and accusations were the norm around Duboce Park. How we got from then to now provides an example of how a neighborhood can resolve disputes and come out friendlier and stronger. But it didn’t happen overnight.
For decades, people walked dogs in Duboce Park, a relatively small neighborhood park not far from the Safeway on Market Street. Harvey Milk famously “accidentally” stepped in dog poop at Duboce in front of media cameras to drum up support for his pooper-scooper law.
After the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department finally allowed people to petition for legal off-leash areas, many of the park’s neighbors began to push for one in Duboce. Other neighbors objected. A community meeting on the subject, convened by Rec and Park in 2005, was extremely contentious. People were literally screaming at one another.
Then-Supervisor Bevan Dufty, whose district included the park, sought to cool things down. He convened a task force of people from the neighborhood representing all sides of the debate to discuss possible compromises. Advocacy groups from outside the neighborhood were explicitly excluded.
At first, there was a lot of distrust, with positions staked out and defended. But over the nearly six months that the group met, the members slowly began to look beyond the positions and see those with whom they initially disagreed as neighbors, not just opponents. They started to notice things they had in common. They began to listen and work together. Some who initially fiercely disagreed became friends and now visit each other’s homes for dinner.
Finally, the task force found a compromise on which they could agree. No one got everything they wanted. Duboce Park would have an area with no dogs, one where leashes would be required, and an area where dogs could run off-leash.
But in a stroke of consensus, they chose to refer to the area where dogs could be off-leash as a “Multi-Use Area,” not the more traditional “Dog Play Area.” In essence, the name indicated the reality — this wasn’t an area “just” for people with dogs. The name proved prophetic, and you can often find a variety of park users without dogs within the stylish bollard-and-chain fence that delineates the area.
This spirit of neighborly cooperation continued long after the task force disbanded. Nine years ago, when the PTA at nearby McKinley Elementary School was searching for a new fundraiser, they liked the idea of a school carnival, but one that also reflected the neighborhood that surrounds the school. Many Duboce neighbors had dogs and, coupled with the newly opened Multi-Use Area, the PTA landed upon the idea of a celebration of dogs and kids. Duboce Dogfest was born.
The primary entertainment at Dogfest remains dog-oriented. Competitions for Best Trick, Best Costume, Best Tail and Best Ears bring dog people from around The City to compete and support the McKinley PTA. Vendors include rescue groups offering dogs for adoption. A huge silent auction fills table after table with prizes. The organizers have added games for kids and bouncy houses. True to its roots, however, most of Dogfest still takes place in the Multi-Use Area.
Last weekend alone, Dogfest raised an astounding $109,000 for McKinley Elementary. The money will support academic and enrichment programs for the school’s 400 students.
The success of Duboce Dogfest is that it celebrates dogs and kids — and their respective parents — rather than placing them at odds, as some did before the Duboce task force. Kids and dogs are natural allies. And both look darned cute wearing a pink tutu.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park, and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.