AT THE THIRD and final "Doggie Tales" discussion in Northeast Portland on Monday night, October 13—a seminar organized by the Sentinel newspaper in collaboration with a staffer from the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) at Concordia University—15 neighbors debated the pitfalls of dog ownership in gentrified Portland.
Before people introduced themselves, Sentinel Managing Editor and Publisher Cornelius Swart explained his motivation for putting on the event.
"I had a dog, and for me a dog was a pet," he said. "But you'd hear these conversations where African Americans were saying dogs were being used to intimidate people and that it reminded people of the South."
Swart, who apart from running the newspaper has made a documentary about gentrification in North Portland, suggested collaborating with ONI's Effective Engagement Specialist Judith Mowry to organize the discussions and write about dogs and gentrification, back in the spring. Mowry, who says it's her job to help the community take on "issues of chronic conflict that get in the way of civic involvement," agreed to facilitate the sessions.
"I've been here 40 years in this neighborhood," said one discussion participant, Sheila Warren, who is African American. "I was raised with a dog, but we kept them outside. In my generation, dogs are to stay in their place, stay outside.
"I thought that gentrification was a wonderful thing," Warren continued. "But then I started seeing that people cared more about their dogs than they do about my grandchildren. When a dog is running up on your grandchild and pushing him over, and they say, 'It's okay, it's a friendly dog,' it's dismissive."
Others had different perspectives to share. One man said a lot of the African Americans he had grown up with in Missouri, a former slave state, were nervous around dogs. Meanwhile a white woman said she's dating a guy with two big dogs. She spoke of "really not wanting to impose my values on people around me."
At the end of the 90-minute discussion, Swart apologized to everyone for having bought a dog without being aware of the cultural associations it might have in his neighborhood.
Afterward one participant, Janet Sanderson, confessed over a cup of coffee to having been surprised to read Swart's article.
"In my neighborhood, it's the black people who have dogs, two families," she said. "So I was surprised that there was this big to-do about things."
Swart, who plans to tackle a different topic using this method in a few months, says he agrees that not many people are aware of the issue.
"And it shouldn't be sensationalized that everyone's carrying around this loaded cultural association to do with dogs," he says. "But it's out there. And people do need to be aware that there are different associations with dogs in mixed communities."