When Dottie Johnson brought her miniature pinscher home eight years ago, he was one of the only dogs on her Point Breeze block. KP, for “killer pup,” had his run of the neighborhood but few friends. Now he’s rolling in canine company.
“There are so many dogs now, it seems like everybody has one,” Johnson, who has lived in Point Breeze for 20 years, said on a walk with KP last week. “There’s got to be five on my tiny block alone. Dog owners are good people. We’ll pass and I’ll say, ‘Friendly?’ and they’ll say, ‘Friendly!’ I don’t know the owners, but I know the personality of every dog around here.”
Citywide, the number of licensed dogs more than tripled from 3,927 in 2012 to 13,248 in 2015 — largely due to an easier online registration process and a public push by the Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia (ACCT) to get people to license their dogs. Adoptions increased from 6,400 to 7,500 in the same period.
Often, dogs are an early sign of gentrification. Four-legged foot traffic has been particularly noticeable in hot areas from Point Breeze to Northern Liberties, where younger residents moving to bigger homes bring dogs with them.
“There’s more and more people who are between the ages of 23 and 35 who will have animals — dogs especially — before having children,” said David Fiorenza, an economics professor at Villanova University who studies urban development. “With gentrification comes walking trails, hiking trails, biking trails, and dog parks.”
It’s not just any type of dog. Fiorenza said, in his experience, younger couples with dual incomes and no kids often gravitate toward bigger dogs in need of larger areas to run around.
In a nationwide poll funded by SunTrust Mortgage, a third of millennial-aged Americans (18 to 36) who purchased their first home said their primary motivator was better space for a dog. Millennials surveyed in the study ranked dogs higher than marriage or children in their reasons for buying a home.
In Philadelphia, the influx might be best illustrated in Point Breeze, where an increase in dogs and a lack of green space have converged. In the 19145 zip code, which includes Point Breeze, dog licenses grew from 55 in 2012 to 344 in 2015 (2016 numbers were not kept consistently, representatives from ACCT said).
Perhaps more telling, in the same three-year span, the number of dog licenses increased while the population decreased by about 1,100 people, meaning the number of licenses per person grew.
Overall, the biggest increases in license-to-person ratios from 2012 to 2015 were in Bustleton, Northeast Philadelphia, and Chestnut Hill, as well as Queen Village and South Philadelphia, two areas where the number of 20- to 35-year-old residents grew over the same period.
Tracking dog ownership is tricky. Only about 10 percent of people license their dogs, according to ACCT estimates, so the data represent just a sliver of the population but reflect the increase residents have reported anecdotally.
“We meet almost a new person every day that has a dog that’s moved into the neighborhood,” said Joel Serrano, 31, who bought a house with his partner three years ago in Point Breeze, where they live with their chocolate Lab mix, Charlie Brown.
Serrano walked Charlie Brown in Wharton Square Park on Monday morning, careful to stay on the perimeter because dogs are forbidden inside. Last year, neighbors tried to get the currently inoperable, fenced-in tennis courts converted to a dog park.
“We’re a desert of pretty much every green space,” said Joy Gillespie, of Point Breeze, who was one of several people pushing for the park. “There’s nothing left. Every lot is getting developed. Everyone moves here, gets a big dog and then goes, ‘S—, there’s nowhere to take them.’ Personally, for myself, I’m already thinking about leaving because of it.”
The proposal was met with resistance, and ultimately killed, after residents called it an encroachment on a park meant for kids and yet another infringement on the rapidly developing neighborhood.
Alex Brown, a retired Point Breeze resident who has lived near Wharton Square Park for 20 years, said his dog — a pit bull named Cutie — is happy in his backyard and with a daily walk around the block. To take a piece of the park, even if it is currently unused, seemed unfair, he said.
“People have been living here over 100 years and had a playground; now people want to come in new and change things. It didn’t seem right,” Brown said. “Go ahead, walk your dogs, but it just wasn’t right for people to think they could just come in and take over.”
Both residents agreed the conversation about the park goes deeper than dogs. “It’s race, it’s economics, it’s everything,” Gillespie said. “I don’t think there’s anti-dog sentiment. I think it’s anti-white-yuppie, to be straightforward, and I see why. It’s seen as another example of the neighborhood getting run over.”
The city has about a dozen off-leash dog parks. In Spring Garden there are already 100 applications for a soon-to-be opened Green Street Dog Park.
Justino Navarro, vice president of the Spring Garden CDC, helped secure the lot on Green Street that previously belonged to the Philadelphia School District.
“I think like 90 percent of new neighbors have dogs, and we’ve been saying for years there’s no safe off-leash area to run the dogs,” Navarro said. The park will have motion sensors, cameras, and 18-foot fencing. It will be accessible only to accepted members via an electronic fob, with membership starting at $50 for Spring Garden residents and $100 for nonresidents.
Jhoel Mercado moved to Northern Liberties with his partner and mixed black Lab, Porter, about a year ago. They were drawn to a spacious townhouse with ample room for 85-pound Porter and the proximity to Orianna Hill dog park. Mercado sees — and smells — the correlation between his burgeoning neighborhood and all the dogs quite intensely.
“You see the development, the construction, the revitalization all around,” Mercado said. “And then you see all the baggies of dog poop people leave on the ground.”
Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.