Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Gone to the Dogs: An abandoned block of Harrisburg gets a new leash on life.

Illustration by Rich Hauck

Ginger and Matt Coleman are the happy parents of a 3-year-old boxer rescue named Apollo.

“He’s very, very active,” said Ginger, who lives on N. 3rd Street in Midtown Harrisburg. “So, he really needs a dog park.”

I walked with Ginger recently to a very green, very empty plot of ground at the corner of N. 7th and Granite streets, a dogleg-shaped parcel (natch!) that, if Friends of Midtown has its way, will be Harrisburg’s first dedicated, off-leash dog park.

“We’ve gone to the one on Union Deposit Road,” said Ginger, referring to Kohl Memorial Park in Lower Paxton Township. “But it would be nice to have one closer to home.”

After searching for several years, Friends of Midtown decided upon this three-quarter-acre patch of grass as the best option for pooches to get their run and sniff on. It even comes with some of Fido’s favorite playthings already in place: squirrels, groundhogs and rabbits, which, at least for now, run around unimpeded, blissfully ignorant of what may be in their future.

Ginger and I visited on a cool evening, a little before dusk, along with several other dog-lovers. The group reviewed the details—the timeframe (early 2018), how much money Friends of Midtown needs to raise ($18,000) and the design (separate areas for large and small dogs). Vartan Group, which owns the land, is letting them have it for the next two years.

A few people chose to walk the grounds, picturing, I’m certain, their own dogs jumping and frolicking and playing in the grass. As a student of this city, I saw things a little differently. I perceived emptiness and eerie quiet, and I began to wonder what had happened to this long-abandoned city block so that a dog park now constituted, to put this in economic terms, a higher and better use.

The story of the 1700-block of N. 7th Street actually tells a story shared by other parts of once-industrial Harrisburg. By the mid-19th century, one large family, Dr. Luther Reily and his children, owned the entire area—what would become 96 city blocks. Over the decades, pieces were sold off and subdivided so that, by 1889, there were eight landowners on this block and, by 1901, 14, with the Reily heirs still claiming several parcels, according to city maps.

The 1932 Polk city directory showed the block to be fully developed with dozens of small, attached houses, many likely occupied by the working-class, railroading families that populated the area. By the 1958 directory, the block had become almost completely industrial, home to small warehouses, paint shops and junkyards, with some houses remaining, mostly up Kelker Street.

The ensuing years were not kind to this now-gritty block of scrap-metal salvagers and junk dealers. As the city de-industrialized, businesses closed, owners died and properties sold for taxes. Investors and speculators moved in, renting out increasingly dilapidated houses to poor families. In some cases, the city became an owner of last resort. The Vartan Group has been buying up land there for some 20 years, knocking down whatever structures remained, so that it now owns nearly the entire city block.

On that cool, cloudy early evening, as I stood scanning the grassy field, I felt a bit like the character of the time traveler from H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” a man who, from his machine, witnesses a block of London rise and fall and rise again, ever changing, over the course of many years.

I suspect that Vartan eventually will find a use for the land and develop it. It may be many years away, but the seeds of the neighborhood’s redevelopment—the pending state Archives and U.S. courthouse buildings—are being planted right now nearby on 6th Street. Some day, new construction will overrun this block, too, putting the fallow property back into productive use, returning it to the city’s built environment, a contributing part of its urban density.

Until then, at least for a few years, the block seems destined to have happy hounds and terriers, spaniels and shepherds, romp and yelp, scamper and play. This will be the first, small step back for a forsaken, forgotten piece of Harrisburg at 7th and Granite streets.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

Friends of Midtown continues to collect money for the creation of a dog park at N. 7th and Granite streets. If you would like to contribute, please donate by visiting or mail a check, indicating “dog park” in the memo line, to Friends of Midtown, P.O. Box 5291, Harrisburg, Pa., 17110.

Author: Lawrance Binda

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