Privatized puppy parks: a Bronx tail

Privatized puppy parks: a Bronx tail

by Tristan Cimini

Between stringed light bulbs neatly arranged outside a food truck and a densely packed parking lot, dogs of all shapes and sizes romped around a graveled back alley beneath the Bronx’s Third Avenue Bridge. Dog owners imbibed beers from an ice bucket with a steel patina. They discussed their pets’ personalities and fantasies of their pooches becoming Insta-famous. A demur and muscular pitbull stumbled through a puppy pile. A fluffy white terrier socialized with a fox-like mutt around the rectangular perimeter. And a skinny German Shepard slinked around its owners legs.

They were attending the first “Yappy Hour at Mutt Haven” hosted by the Third Avenue Business Improvement District. The event was heralded as a time to engage the public in one of Mott Haven’s newest amenities: a dog run.

Dogs prance around Mutt Haven. Photo credit: Tristan Cimini

“It’s great that they built this. We love it! We come here instead of a run. It’s close to home,” said Rich Torre, a millennial who lives a few blocks away and brought his dog, Zeppelin, to Mutt Haven. This new park, like much new development in the South Bronx, blurs the lines between public and private enterprise.

Dog parks are the fastest-growing type of park in the United States. One poll identified more space for dogs as the top reason to relocate for a third of millennials. Mott Haven’s wave of development is taking this into account, anticipating an influx of dogs to the neighborhood.

The Mutt Haven dog run is decked out with multiple benches, soft shale gravel for the dogs to run on, a doggy water fountain, trash receptacles stocked with puppy-poo bags, shady areas, and a pleasant row of bushes: everything the public dog run lacks.

It’s a stark contrast to the dog run at Saint Mary’s Park that’s a five minute drive away.  The dog run, which was once covered in mulch, is now just fenced in square of dirt with a few tires in the middle, one bench on the side, and an empty plastic bag dispenser attached to the fence.

The large, under-resourced dog run at Saint Mary’s Park. Photo credit: Tristan Cimini

“We could really use some more benches, water for the dogs, shaded areas…” said Annelly Chalas, who was visiting the nearby dog run at Saint Mary’s Park with her collie. Three owners of baby pitbulls nodded in agreement.

Another dog owner, Bryanna Colon was walking her two smaller dogs, Sunny and Jasmine, along the perimeter of Saint Mary’s. She refuses to take them inside the dog run. “I don’t take them in. It’s not well maintained,” said Colon who noted the prevalence of trash in the park, “There are too many big dogs. It’s all pitbulls. One person I know took their dog in and it got sick.”

The other big difference between the two dog parks: Saint Mary’s is a public park, operated and maintained by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Mutt Haven is privately owned  – the brainchild of South Bronx developer Keith Rubenstein. It’s not this businessman’s first attempt at wordplay. Back in 2015, Rubinstein garnered attention from local and national news for his malapropos “Bronx is Burning” party that celebrated the development of around 2,000 apartments along the Manhattan-adjacent waterfront.

Mutt Haven is operated by the Third Avenue Business Improvement District, which is funded by both taxpayers and private contributions.

Business improvement districts are funded by taxpayers and invest in programs that boost quality of life in neighborhoods. They provide a range of services from garbage collection to educational tools for business owners to community events. For all the things these organizations do with good intention, they have also faced pushback from anti-gentrification activists. They have been criticized for exacerbating gentrification and their formation has been connected to increasing rents.

According to news reports and the Third Avenue Business Improvement District that’s managing the dog run’s maintenance, the park is open to everyone. Yet, the dog run occupies private, residentially-zoned land.

No one at the public park had heard about the new, private park.

“I’m mixed about it,” said Chalas about the new park, “It’s benefiting business, but when you don’t know about resources, you can’t say it’s a community effort.”

Mutt Haven is discreetly tucked away behind the Bruckner Building, invisible to passersby. Unless, of course, you cross into the gated section of businesses that The New York Times called “the Center of Gentrification.” The park is so close to this hub that Olympic boxer Eric Kelly only 20 steps away from his studio, SouthBox, to stop by the yappy hour and say hello.

Rubinstein’s ‘Mutt Haven’ dog run is a microcosm of his larger vision to revitalize the neighborhood with private funds. And the Third Avenue Business Improvement District has gone all in to support it.

“We’re keeping it casual and fun because this is the South Bronx and we don’t need to be crazy fancy,” said Cate Evans, Program Director at the Third Avenue Business Improvement District. “We need to be real. And part of the community. Keeping it real.”

Evans is originally from California, and the event was partially inspired by her experience with yappy hours at The Barlow, which she explained is “kind of like an outdoor mall, but it’s in an industrial area. It has restaurants, wineries. It’s kind of in a hippie town.”

Evans said the goal is to introduce the community to the park. “People have been coming and using it, but it’s not like a community thing,” said Evans who explained that Mutt Haven is the first dog park the Third Avenue Business Improvement District has managed.

Ramona Ferreyra, who has visited Mutt Haven with her dog Brownie, said it was hard to find the park.

“The location doesn’t feel inclusive at all,” Ferreyra said. “I’m the only person I know who lives in Mitchel Projects who goes there regularly. And a lot of NYCHA residents have pets.”

Ferreyra is concerned that the Third Avenue Business Improvement District’s investment is serving landlord interests, instead of community needs. “Instagram posts are not enough to let the community know about what’s happening. You have to question what they are prioritizing,” she said.