You’d be forgiven if you bought Joshua Stephens’s memoir, The Dog Walker: An Anarchist’s Encounters With the Good, the Bad, and the Canine, because it has a dog on the cover, expecting it to be about your favorite animal. It isn’t, though. A dog, these days, is almost never just a dog.
Stephens, who founded a local dog-walking company in 2006, grants passing glances into the extravagant quirks of Washingtonians’ relationships with pets—the pair of lawyers, for instance, who bar mitzvahed their pugs. But Stephens is, more than a lover of dogs, a hater of capitalism. The animals in The Dog Walker are only a catalyst for a more complicated discussion about race, class, and gentrification.
This is a role DC canines have come to occupy regularly of late. Go to an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting in a gentrifying area—someplace that might once have lacked a suitable playground for the kids to run around on—where a proposed dog park is on the agenda. You’ll quickly realize that the discussion has little to do with animals. If you still doubt the powerful politics of pet care, ask one-term DC mayor Adrian Fenty, whose dog-park ribbon-cutting ceremonies were used by detractors to portray him as out of touch with working-class African-American voters.
Stephens—who, in an interview with Washingtonian, equates gentrification to “ethnic cleansing” but spent more than a decade earning a living from well-to-do dog owners—has an especially pointed view of the way the city is changing. The son of a Defense worker, he arrived here in 1996 to take part in Washington’s then-thriving punk-rock scene. He enrolled in American University but at the same time threw himself into political activism. He trekked to a rural Virginia training camp to learn “direct action” tactics such as scaling buildings. He dropped out of college in 2000 and has since fought for animal rights, protested wars, and occupied Wall Street.
Dog walking, the kind of profession that depends on a capitalist economy’s wealthy class, turned out to be a good job for an anarchist agitator. The gig allowed Stephens to devote much of his time to political work, even as he got a daily gander both at the homes of the rich and at the once-humble neighborhoods being altered by that sector’s wealth. In the end, it became his frame of reference.
Most days, Stephens crisscrossed areas around 14th and U streets, which afforded a front-row view of then-mayor Anthony Williams’s push to stock Columbia Heights and Logan Circle with young, prosperous types. In a few years, he writes, he watched the neighborhoods sprout sparkling condos and titanic rents.
Stephens is honest enough to see that he is implicated in what he deems Williams’s “anti-family” strategy. All the new childless households, the author notes, resulted in an explosion in demand for pet care. In 2006, Stephens and a partner started a dog-walking enterprise themselves. (Though he doesn’t name it, the business is called Brighter Days Collective and operates to this day.)
Stephens insists the timing was happenstance—he didn’t make a conscious decision to take advantage of the yuppie influx. “It wasn’t like we saw the writing on the wall and thought, now’s the time for this experiment,” he tells Washingtonian. “It was just [when we] actually summoned the will to do it.”
Brighter Days was also founded as a “worker collective” modeled on anarchist principles. All of the walkers had equal stakes so they would “own their labor.” Still, Stephens says, the business “wasn’t perfect. We were all immersed in [gentrification]. We all had our hands dirty.”
Stephens’s takedown of gentrification only ends up highlighting how complex an issue it is. Nobody wants to see longtime residents shoved out by higher taxes and housing costs. On the other hand, everybody benefits from the safer streets and new businesses that urban development brings. Even the book itself may represent a publisher’s bet that it could capitalize on the ambivalence of gentrifiers.
Stephens left DC in 2010 after a falling-out with his Brighter Days colleagues, according to a Washington Post profile of the company, and has lived somewhat nomadically since. He spent a brief time as a dog walker in New York City but has mostly been traveling through Europe, the Middle East, and Mexico. He wrote a chunk of his book while cat-sitting for friends in Istanbul.
When he does come back to Washing-ton—as he has done to see friends and, on a couple of occasions, to guest-lecture at Georgetown about worker collectives—he says he doesn’t recognize the place: “DC, for the majority of the time that I lived there, had an incredibly beautiful and rich architectural landscape—the rowhouses, the old commercial buildings. And now it’s just all these prefab luxury condo surfaces.”
One section of the book reads like a love letter to Mount Pleasant, where young, underpaid scenesters lived in the 1990s and a place whose activist roots Stephens has a particular affinity for. He points out the neighborhood’s antiestablishment landmarks, such as the Lamont Street Collective, a group house that became a gathering spot for 1970s socialists.
But when I ask Stephens what he makes of today’s Mount Pleasant—where rowhouses can fetch more than $1 million—he hedges. Rather than denouncing DC’s new overclass, Stephens says he doesn’t know what “institutional forces” are driving the change. Plus, he adds, “my friend Nick [Pimentel] just opened Bad Saint,” a trendy new Filipino restaurant in nearby Columbia Heights. “That guy has been in DC for 20 years,” says Stephens. “He came out of the punk scene. I’m sure they wanted to preserve the space as a place for the community to enjoy.” (The restaurant, reviewed on page 158, serves coconut-marinated pig tails and other small plates.)
Stephens’s assessment is loaded with the questions that surround gentrification: Who qualifies as a legit occupant in a growing city? How long before a new resident can claim ownership? Or is gentrification okay as long as the gentrifiers are pure of heart? What counts as pure of heart?
In his book, Stephens never attempts to solve these conundrums. Perhaps, to a dog walker, arguments over who can stake a claim—and where—can seem overwrought.
“If you live in a city, pretty much every outdoor surface below knee height is covered in piss,” Stephens writes.
Which is to say there’s nothing pretty about marking our territory.
Senior editor Marisa M. Kashino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in our December 2015 issue of Washingtonian.