Editor’s Note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s On the Ground West Douglas/Fairmont Neighborhood series.
When people approach strangers, maybe they should sniff one another.
Then accept any newcomer who smiles … or … wags his tail.
It works for dogs. They keep it simple. They find out most of what they need to know about anyone at the outset. And they quickly decide if they want to hang out or move on.
It turns out people can do the same – if they meet on common ground and don’t worry about what the other guy looks like. And if they don’t lead with ideas about politics, religion, economics, injustice, racism, sexual identity, or other issues.
Charles Young and a friend said they missed the spirit of community so two years ago they started bringing a grill and food to share with other dog lovers at Fairmount Dog Park.
The West Douglas Neighborhood has 12 acres of common ground at 1108 Prairie Ave. It’s called the Fairmount Dog Park. On almost any day, you can watch people learning from their dogs. The unspoken lesson: If my dog gets along with yours, maybe you and I will be alright.
“The more you come here, the more you’ll get to know people,” says Charles Young, who has lived in the neighborhood since he was 6 years old. He brings his dog, Butch, an American Bully, to the park about once a day.
“The more you see each other, you become acclimated,” Young says. “You talk to them. You get to know each other. And you become friends – just by having a common ground, which is this park.”
That’s how the 37-year-old independent paint contractor has become friends with Joshua Paris, a 30-year-old biology professor at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
“We have a little community going here,” says Paris, who visits the park three to five times a week with his dog Finley, a dachshund and miniature pinscher mix. “We’ve got a bunch of regulars who all kind of know each other. It’s a good place for them (the dogs) to socialize. It’s also a good place for humans to socialize.”
Josh Paris, left, is among those whose pets have found a regular place to socialize at the Fairmount Dog Park on Prairie Street in the West Douglas Neighborhood.
After teaching most of the day, remotely for months, he says, “The only time I really get to see anyone all day is if I come here or go hang out with somebody else. But sometimes it’s nice to, around 5 p.m., come here and I know that Ben will be here and other people.”
Ben is Benjamin Stanley, 33, who lives near Woodward Elementary School at North Street and Stuart Avenue. He discovered the dog park in 2019.
“The first time I came here it was locked and you had to pay,” Stanley says.
Young says, “It used to be an open field with a lot of trees and just neighborhood people would come to the park. And then they decided to make it a dog park for the city. I don’t know who made that decision. But this is what happened. This is how it is now.”
Ben Stanley has a moment with his poodle Maisey at Fairmount Dog Park on a recent Thursday.
Stanley says he returned with Daisy, his black labradoodle, and Maisey, his white poodle, after the City of Kalamazoo dropped its fees for using the area in July of 2019. Since then, he says he’s seen anywhere from a few dogs to a few dozen romping in the park at any one time.
“I would say that at maximum the dog park has had 40 or 50 dogs at once,” he says. “Sometimes there’s even more people.”
The park is enclosed by a fence and has a smaller enclosure that can be used to separate smaller dogs (those less than 25 lbs.). The park has benches for humans and water fountains for humans and dogs. It also has a paved, circular walkway that makes visiting easier for people in wheelchairs or those who are unsteady. At 5 p.m. on Thursdays during the fair-weather months of the past two years, it also has barbecued hot dogs and chips provided by some of the regulars.
How did that happen?
“Charles (Young) and I were talking at about 9 p.m.,” Stanley says. “It was dark out. We were talking about community and how people need to get back to when we talked to each other, and how we missed that. And Charles was like, ‘I’m going to start a barbecue.’ And the next week, I brought a grill and I was like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s stop talking about it and let’s do it.’”
Since then, visitors have contributed.
“Last year, it was kind of different,” Stanley says with a laugh. After he did a Facebook post about it, people signed up and took turns bringing food to grill. During that time, he laughs, “Everybody tried to out-do each other – trying to bring nicer things.”
Dogs have room to run together or sprint off on their own at the Fairmount Dog Park.
There was a taco theme, a breakfast-for-dinner theme, and a Hawaiian theme. “And this year it’s like, I’m bringing hot dogs and that’s it.” Stanley laughed.
Shelby Danley likes the mix of people she finds at the park. And it’s the only dog park she uses.
“My favorite part about the Fairmount Dog Park is the community,” says Danley, 23, who lives about 5 minutes away, near the Western Michigan University campus. She regularly brings her dog, Benji, an 8-month-old cross between a German mastiff and a Husky.
“Not only do we get to see all these dogs,” she says, “but every Thursday there’s people that meet up. And there’s always the same community here. We always get to see new dogs and old dogs. And we’re all just friends around here at Fairmount.”
There are plenty of people who don’t socialize, Young says, and that’s OK. They simply come to the park and let their dogs run. “It’s a mix,” he says of dog park visitors. “It’s just like society.”
But almost everyone respects park rules, he says, such as: Dogs must be at least 4 months old; they must be spayed or neutered; dog owners must be at least 18 years old; people must clean up after their pets; and there’s no smoking and no pronged or spiked dog collars.
Finley, a Dachshund and miniature pincher mix, stands on a bench seeming to supervise an afternoon meeting of other dogs at Fairmount Dog Park.
Regular activities include throwing tennis balls or Frisbees and letting dogs play tug-o-war with a length of rope or material. A water fountain at the park overshoots itself. That allows Young and others to fill a 6’ by 4’ swimming pool so dogs can “swim.”
“I’ve only been here (in Kalamazoo) a few weeks but I’ve been here a few times and every time has been fun,” says Jana Walker, 19. “That’s how we got connected with all the Great Dane owners.”
She owns a shy Great Dane puppy named Panini. Walker’s sister, Diara, owns Keelie, a 7-month-old Great Dane that doesn’t know how big she is.
Jana says she worried about her puppy during her first visits to the dog park. “But the other (pet) owners have been good watching their dogs. It looks like we’re in a good, safe space.”
Walker says, “It’s been a good community.”
Ivy, an Australian Shepherd, is all smiles.
“I absolutely love this dog park,” says her sister Diara Walker, 21. “No. 1, this is my third time here. We just moved over from the east side of Michigan. So we’re kind of getting a new experience with our Great Danes. And to start off there are a lot of other Great Danes in Kalamazoo. So it acclimates her (her dog Keelie) to the city as well as the people.”
Danley says her roommate has a dog and introduced her to the park.
“I dunno,” she says with a smile while preparing her dog to leave. “This is the only place I like to go. We come here once a day, sometimes twice a day, honestly.”
Jana Walker says, “I definitely recommend it – from the people to the animals to just the view. And a place for them to run free.”
Jana Walker, left, and Ben Stanley greet one another’s dogs on a recent Thursday at Fairmount Dog Park.