When Melissa Hamel bought her house in Jamaica Plain in 1991, she was finally able to adopt the dog she’d always wanted. As a tenant, she hadn’t been able to own a dog in Boston because most landlords don’t allow it. She adopted her first pup, Murphy, from a friend and he immediately cemented himself as a beloved member of the family.
“When I bought my house, the first thing I did was adopt a dog. Or maybe a mattress and then the dog, ”recalls Hamel. Hamel was a single mother with a 10-year-old son who worked full-time at Boston University.
Hamel’s house is across the street, overlooking a large baseball field that seemed perfect for training their dogs. For years people didn’t mind sharing the field. As of 2016, over 7,000 dogs are registered in Boston. The city has only six official off-leash areas, and none is in Jamaica Plain. The three nearest dog parks are about three miles away – an hour’s walk in each direction.
Hamel spoke of how few restrictions Jamaica Plain had when she first adopted Murphy: “I don’t think there was a leash law, but things were starting to change in the city and across the country in how dogs are seen and regulated became.”
After over 20 years, Hamel still lives with Scout, her two-year-old brown Labrador, in the same cozy yellow house on Lamartine Street. Although many things have stayed the same in the neighborhood, the gap between dog owners and non-dog owners has grown. The baseball field, where she spent decades unleashing her dogs, has become a hotspot of aggression against dog owners.
Leader of JP Dog Parks’ friends and JP resident, Melissa Hamel and her dog Scout. (Photo: Courtesy Melissa Hamel)
Hamel lives alone with Scout with her son, who is now of legal age. She relies on them to go outside and meet with her neighbors. Instead of relying on the park for friendly interactions, she is often confronted with anger, saying that she was yelled at so many times that it makes you feel like a criminal.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that your neighbors may be filled with hostility towards you if they don’t know you,” Hamel said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic Dog ownership has increased 4% in the United States. Rough three million more dogs live in the United States as Children under 18 years of age. While she understands that not everyone wants to be around dogs, Hamel believes that common spaces are essential to building a community.
“I challenge you to watch a bunch of puppies play in a dog park and not be filled with absolute joy,” said Hamel, whose dog-keeping experience has brought so many loving neighbors into her life. “Because for me that’s part of what makes a church a beautiful place to live. Our pets, our children, our sporting events, our music events and our art – all of these are parts of the community that really bring us together. “
In addition to the hostility of some neighbors, “no dogs” signs quickly appeared in the field across from their home. That motivated Hamel to push back.
“I realized that instead of this constant conflict, why don’t we organize and work for a safe space?” She said.
Hamel is leading now Friends of JP Dog Parks, a volunteer-led, community-based group campaigning for equitable access to dog parks in JP and the city of Boston at large. She wants people to understand that dog parks are beneficial to them. “If you don’t like dogs and don’t want to be around them, the safest way would be to have a place where dogs can stay and not be bothered by dogs,” she said.
Hamel referenced cities like Brookline and Cambridge who have created joint space programs and free running lessons for dogs through various systems. Brookline’s system requires an annual fee ($ 100- $ 150 / year per dog). Cambridge requires a current Cambridge dog license ($ 10 / year per dog) to use their free running areas.
“I don’t want to see a pay-per-play model in this city because it would put an unfair burden on low-income families,” emphasized Hamel, who now works as an artist.
Hamel and friends at JP Dog Parks are open to fundraising ideas, but believe the government should fund dog parks like other community spaces in Boston.
Many efforts at designated dog parks gained momentum and then quickly came to a standstill. “Dog parks seem to be the only park where we’ve been told you have to raise the money,” said Hamel. “While I don’t see the same demands being made on people who want tennis, basketball or playgrounds. I find that interesting because we pay taxes like everyone else ”.
In April 2021, Hamel helped raise attendance at a public gathering to ask for more dog parks in Boston. “Unfortunately, there was no follow-up after this hearing,” said Hamel.
Dr. Dhruv Kazi, MD, Beth Israel Deaconess cardiologist and dog lover, with his puppy Rumi.
(Photo: Courtesy Dr. Dhruv Kazi, MD)
Hamel has since reached out to the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and Commissioner James Montgomery for a meeting to discuss dog parks. Friends of JP Dog Parks still want to be heard. You have also reached out to city commissioners who have also asked to meet with DCR. At this time, DCR has not responded to any requests for the meeting.
According to Hamel, the DCR will not meet with Friends of JP Dog Parks, nor are they interested in building dog parks.
“I don’t think you need a study to show that people see real value in dog ownership and it shows in the numbers even before the pandemic,” said Dr. Dhruv Kazi, MD, a Jamaica Plain resident and a member of Friends of JP Dog Parks.
After adopting his dog Rumi, Kazi teamed up with Hamel to shape the public health debate.
“The unmet need for dog parks is very clear. There are a lot of dogs in JP, and it’s surprising how little fenced-in dog space or even unleashed dog green space is available, “said Kazi.
Kazi explores the positive associations between dog ownership and heart health. In addition to spending more time outdoors and exercising, owning a dog will also improve immune function and mental health.
According to Kazi, the practice “reduces feelings of isolation and improves mood, both of which have been linked to improved cardiovascular outcomes”.
Kazi, who previously lived in San Francisco, was surprised at the lack of off-leash space in Boston and doesn’t think it was a coincidence.
“As a city, we have invested completely too little in this infrastructure [and] Some of this comes from thinking that we have many unmet needs in a city. Why should you invest in something that feels like a luxury to a handful of residents? ”Said Kasi. “I do not agree there. I no longer consider dogs a luxury. It’s not surprising that people are adopting pets to help tackle the negative mental health effects of the pandemic. “
Rachel Scheckman is graduating from Boston University with her dog Mack.
(Photo: Courtesy Rachel Scheckman)
Rachel Scheckman is an example of someone who adopted a dog during the pandemic. Scheckman, a graduate of Boston University’s Masters in Public Health, adopted her dog, Mack, in January 2021.
While it initially helped Scheckman use a dog to bond and fellowship with other dog owners, it also felt like it made Boston less friendly. In October, she moved to Washington, DC with her partner and Mack.
“One of the main reasons I went is because there are no dog parks in JP,” said Scheckman. “There are other restrictions in Boston as well – you can’t take your dog on public transport during peak hours, and you can’t have your dog outside on a terrace in a restaurant.”
She continued, “Cambridge and Somerville have no such restriction, only Boston.”
As a public health advocate, Scheckman argues that access to dog parks is an economic and potentially race-fair problem.
“It’s just a shame when you think about it. All dog parks appear to be in affluent neighborhoods, ”she said.
Hamel, Kazi, and Scheckman all believe the city will be made safer for both dogs and people by designating off-leash areas.
“Rather than looking at dog parks as something we do when we have an excess budget, let’s look at it as just another part of what cities need for healthy living,” said Kazi.
Friends of JP Dog Parks are planning a walk in the JP Dog Parade on October 30th to raise awareness of this unmet need of the community. They are also in circulation petition Get a designated fenced dog park in JP.