Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Jackson Bark—this is often what Todd Agosto, the architect of the Jackson Park dog park, will say, only half-jokingly, when asked about his pet project.
To compare the construction of a dog park to the construction of one of the greatest cities in history may strike some as odd—irreverent, even. But if not taken too literally, and if adjusted for scale, the comparison isn’t entirely inappropriate.
Jackson Bark occupies two full tennis courts—long out of use, according to Agosto—that butt up against the Jackson Park Driving Range. It is the third-biggest dog park in all of Chicago and the biggest by far on the South Side. And it’s luxurious, as far as dog parks go: the grounds are spotless and full of agility obstacles like seesaws and A-frames. Creative signage, a first aid kit, and hydration corners (“pup pubs”) are to be found along each side.
But perhaps most impressive of all are the five-star Yelp ratings, the Facebook likes, and the Twitter and Instagram followers that Agosto’s dog park has amassed in the two years since opening its gates to the neighborhood’s dogs. If you go by Yelp ratings, Jackson Bark surpasses other popular spots, like Rockefeller Chapel and Valois, to clinch the title for best institution in the Hyde Park/Jackson Park area.
It’s a “pup paradise,” a “little piece of dog heaven,” and “unlike any other dog park you have been to.” According to Yelp member Kristal S., the agility features had her elderly dogs feeling the spark of puppyhood once again: “They were doing agility exercises they had never attempted before.”
I visited Jackson Bark on a chilly Friday afternoon to speak with Agosto about what it is that makes Jackson Bark so special and why there are so few dog parks on the South Side. Our conversation was punctuated by Agosto’s dog Charlie, who yapped anxiously—and at a higher pitch than one would expect to hear coming from a German Shepherd—as he herded an orange, globe-sized ball into various obstacles and pairs of legs.
“People come in here with the impression that the city funded this park, that this is [their] tax dollars at work,” Agosto said as he carried fresh jugs of water to the doggie bowls in the park corner. But there are no tax dollars here. “I’m the Wizard of Oz behind it all.”
The idea came to Agosto some five years ago, when he realized that all twenty-three of the park district-approved dog parks are situated in the Loop or on the North Side—a long haul from Woodlawn, where he and his two dogs live.
He decided that if he wanted to see a dog park in the neighborhood, he would have to be the one to make it happen. With limited time on his hands and an aversion to “bureaucratic hoops,” Agosto decided to forgo the process of applying to the park district for official Dog Friendly Area status—a time-intensive process that requires a community council and an estimated $150,000, not a cent of which is shouldered by the park district.
Instead, Agosto took on the work of making the space dog-friendly himself. He cleared out the drains, the glass shards, and the decaying leaves, and began to deck out the court with features he had seen in some of the popular North Side dog parks: first a couple of hoops and jumps made from PVC piping, then ramps, then a tunnel and a seesaw, all made out of old street and construction signs, tires, and wood. He calls it the “Hazard Agility Course.”
He assembles everything himself, but insists on giving credit to his “Great Guru, Google” and the “Oracle of YouTube,” as he likes to refer to them. Sometimes he throws Pinterest into the mix, too.
Agosto picks up worn tires—useful for rounding off sharp edges and for decor—from Blackstone Bicycle Works, but scavenges most materials on his own. If he spots a wooden two-by-four or orange cones tucked away in an alley while he’s driving down the street, he’ll pull a U-turn and load them into the trunk of his car.
“You never know what you can make with this stuff, and I’m always trying to get creative with the park,” Agosto says. Up next on his agenda are a staircase-like obstacle for the dogs and a wheelchair-accessible entrance for owners.
Five years later and some $600 out of pocket, by his estimate, his vision has come to fruition. But he’s quick to remind newcomers that despite the park’s popularity, they are still, as he puts it, “squatters” on the park district’s land and technically could be removed at any point.
“We need to keep the city doing what it’s been doing—that is, nothing. If they decide to embrace us as an official dog park, that’s great,” Agosto says. He hopes that Jackson Bark’s social media presence and Yelp ratings will dissuade the park district from interfering with a good thing. If things go in the opposite direction, however, he says that he’ll put up a fight by calling up his media connections.
But for now, the most he can do is keep the park clean and safe, and keep spreading the good word to dog owners in the area via social media and good old-fashioned conversation.
“I get so fed up with talking to people about the dog park sometimes,” Agosto said to me after giving the park’s history and etiquette spiel to a couple of newcomers. “It’s just exhausting.”
Agosto is primarily a web and product developer; it’s in his free time that he works on the dog park. These two jobs are actually more similar than one might think, he says. “You’re always trying to build something up out of nothing.”
And it’s not always easy work. He’s there every day for an hour or two and, while Agosto will often talk about Jackson Bark as a community venture, there is no question that he has given the most for it.
Woofington and Wagsworth Dog Parks, two of his older projects, also unsanctioned, are evidence of the work it takes to maintain even the most informal of dog parks. The former is in a rundown tennis court without a net at the southwest corner of Washington Park. Agosto stocked the enclosure, but stopped his efforts when the park fell into disrepair, due in part to the weather, in part to repeated acts of vandalism. Wagsworth, meanwhile, will be gone once the University of Chicago Woodlawn Charter School completes its planned campus expansion.
When I ask if support from the alderman would help Jackson Bark gain official dog park status, Agosto shakes his head and says, “If politicians were the solution, there would be dog parks across the South Side.”
He’s not alone in his cynicism. Marion Brown of South Shore spent some time jumping through the bureaucratic hoops for which Agosto has no patience. She wanted to turn an unused, rocky strip of Rainbow Beach—she calls it Rocky Ledge—into an official dog park.
Brown said that she spent a couple years going through the official process—forming a committee, collecting petitions, working with the park district—before being rejected because the location was “not suitable.”
“I’d heard that if you want to get something [like a dog park] done, you have to bring it through the alderman, not through the community,” Brown said. But even the support of the 7th Ward alderman at the time, Natashia Holmes, didn’t seem to make a difference, and Brown isn’t sure what it would have taken to get the park district’s approval.
Although there are currently no dog parks sanctioned by the park district south of 16th Street, there are efforts underway to open an official dog park in Calumet Park: the Southeast Chicago Dog Park Committee’s proposed dog park was voted first of various proposed projects in the 10th Ward participatory budgeting election and will be awarded $100,000 in funding. With any luck, they might be the first to get through the park district application process.
The South Side stands to benefit from the installation of dog parks south of 16th St. and west of Wabash Avenue. It remains to be seen whether any of those that crop up in the future, whether sanctioned by the park district or not, will match Agosto’s Jackson Bark in intricacy of design or creativity of setup—it’s a Rome, of sorts, for others to aspire to.