It’s a dreary, drizzly Saturday morning in Somerville, and most residents have opted to stay indoors. There’s almost no traffic as I cross Washington Street at Buddy’s Diner and follow an industrial side road to the liveliest spot in the city: the Zero New Washington Street Dog Park.
“I don’t think I really understood that dogs have so many personalities,” one Somerville resident observes, as a half-dozen canines race happily around the park. He’s a new dog owner, and his pup—a five-month-old Pomeranian-husky mix named Pixie—is holding her own against the bigger retrievers and hounds. But when Pixie first arrived a few minutes ago, she was instantly tackled by two dogs her own size.
“It’s an initiation,” chuckles another owner, a Charlestown resident who frequents the park on weekends, as she intervenes.
Somerville’s first dog park at Nunziato Field opened 10 years ago in April. At the time, Mayor Joseph Curtatone predicted that dog parks would be “a genuine win” for the city: a safe place for dogs to exercise and socialize off-leash without disturbing others in the community who had concerns about safety and cleanliness. Since 2006, the number of registered dogs in Somerville has almost doubled from 729 to 1299, according to Somerville Animal Control records, and the city now boasts three “Off-Leash Recreation Areas” (dog parks), with a fourth planned for the redesigned Lincoln Park.
Today, the mayor remains an ardent supporter of facilities for Somerville’s dogs. “Over the 12 years of this administration, I am proud that we have added or renovated more than 30 parks and open spaces that all of our residents can enjoy,” Mayor Curtatone tells Scout, “including our four-legged residents.”
Zero New Washington is the crown jewel of Somerville dog parks. With tunnels and ramps, a gazebo and water fountains, the park spans approximately half an acre and draws dogs from across the city and the region. Its location—a desolate lot with inconvenient pedestrian accessibility—isn’t a deterrent for Somerville resident Anu Gopala and her miniature poodle Zoe. “It’s perfect since it’s out of the way,” Gopala says, “and there is plenty of parking.” The only complaint from visitors is the mud. “We all end up covered in dirt when we leave this park,” says Angie Flight, whose cockapoo, Mookie, is otherwise a big fan of the space.
After Zero New Washington was completed in 2010, “landscape architects from other companies and other towns were calling us and asking us how we did it,” reflects Arn Franzen, Somerville’s Director of Parks and Open Spaces. He points to Curtatone and the late Alderman Tom Taylor as enthusiastic champions of dog parks over the past decade. The new Lincoln Park’s dog park will be modeled after Zero New Washington. Somerville is “trying to make [Lincoln Park] the best park in the Boston metro area,” Franzen reports, “so a dog park was a natural inclusion.”
While it’s showing its age, Nunziato remains the city’s default dog park, likely due to its accessible central location—particularly for those traveling by foot or paw. Located just a few short blocks from bustling Union Square, Nunziato sometimes attracts an audience of dogless spectators. This year, on April Fool’s Day, a thoughtful prankster dropped 100 tennis balls into the park.
There’s also Ed Leathers Community Park, Somerville’s third dog park. Nestled between Pearl and Walnut Streets, and separated by a chain-link fence from the Lowell-bound commuter rail tracks, the park is tucked behind a commercial property that displays a “Beware: Attack Dog On Duty” sign. It’s not exactly a scenic spot for out-of-town guests. Most dog owners I asked, even those who frequent other dog parks and recreation facilities in the area, had never heard of this spot. But it’s perfect for pups who might get overwhelmed at the more crowded locations. Would-be visitors occasionally continue on their way if they see the park is occupied at the moment, proof that a small and simple setting like Ed Leathers can be an in-demand resource for some residents.
Caelli Craig and her French bulldog, Eloise, commute almost an hour from Framingham to visit Zero New Washington. They’re attracted not only by the amenities but by the park’s social culture. “We’ve noticed the people are generally more friendly toward each other and more attentive to their dogs” than they are at other dog parks in the area, Craig observes. This is a sentiment echoed by others: Gopala has found Nunziato lacking in owner oversight, and Charlestown resident Janel Helibrunn and her dog Stanley prefer Zero New Washington as well: “There’s usually a good crowd, and the people are very nice.”
Somerville Animal Control officer April Terrio-Manning said that tickets for park rules violations are rare, but the most common infraction is having more than three dogs per person. Dog park regulars suggested those culprits are often amateur dog walkers. Overall, though, residents are generally pleased with the city’s efforts to accommodate its canine constituents. It helps to have a mayor who maintains that dog parks are “important to the fabric of our community and to quality of life.” But there is still room for improvement. The west side of Somerville lacks official dog parks, and some owners there risk fines by letting dogs roam off-leash along the Community Path or in other open spaces.
For resident canines who don’t frequent the city’s three dog parks, there are other sanctioned social opportunities. The organization som|dog, which advocates for dog parks and responsible canine ownership, also coordinates social events and fundraisers. On May 22, som|dog’s annual Spring Fling Community Social will be held at Bull McCabe’s in Union Square—and it’s open to all. “We plan to connect with the community of dog owners, have a beer and discuss upcoming community activities and goals for the non-profit,” says som|dog president and chairman Brian Davis. “We’re excited to connect with everyone.”
Back at Zero New Washington, about a dozen dogs and their owners come through the park over the course of a progressively rainier hour, though I’m told that number is much higher in better weather.
Everyone starts to head home as the rain worsens, until there’s just one dog remaining: Milo, a tiny dachshund. This is his first-ever visit to the park, and owner Che’Risse—who is presently involved in a never-ending game of fetch—tells me that she was hesitant to bring him here because he gets “excited, then scared” around other dogs. Let the record show: Milo handled his first visit like a pro.
Thanks to Paws in the ‘Ville for providing the four-legged models who appear in this story.
“A Decade of Dog Parks” originally appeared in our May/June print edition, which is available for free at more than 150 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.