Miércoles 27 de Septiembre de 2006, Ip nº 172

Downtown L.A. going to the dogs -- and that's a good thing
Por Cara Mia Dimassa

When Joseph Cornish moved to downtown Los Angeles in 2000, he had just endured the breakup of a personal relationship and was searching for "something different, in all kinds of ways."

Downsizing from a home in Los Angeles' Mount Washington area to a loft in the Old Bank district, Cornish brought few belongings with him other than clothing and a 5-year-old bull terrier named Ruby.

He and Ruby became a near-constant presence on the streets of downtown, and at first the sight of the burly man and his white-and-black dog was an oddity, out of character for an area more used to office workers and homeless people than a new resident and his devoted canine.

But, slowly, more dogs began to appear on the streets.

"Somebody stopped and told me Ruby was the sign that things are starting to change," said Cornish, 56, recently. "We are visible, out there walking the streets, claiming the territory block by block as we walk with our dogs."

As downtown Los Angeles shifts from being a purely commercial center to something a bit more residential, perhaps the most visible sign of gentrification is this: The dogs have arrived.

Some estimates say that half of downtown's new (human) residents are dog owners.

"Downtown has become ... dog-friendly," said Jay Blumberg, president of Bark Avenue, a pet boutique and boarding facility that offers grooming and dog-walking, and even delivers dog food to downtown lofts.

"It's not unusual to see a guy walking a couple of beagles, or even bigger dogs, in an area where you would never see residents walking dogs before," said Los Angeles police Capt. Andrew Smith.

Demographic surveys of downtown residents help explain why the area has become a destination for the canine set. Residents are mostly young and childless, either singles or couples with a fair amount of disposable income.

The dog owners among them say they are drawn to the area in part because most downtown buildings accept pets -- a standard unmatched elsewhere in the city -- and are dog-friendly, with open rooms and concrete or tile floors.

When they step outside, the animals offer a sort of balm on the rough stretches of some streets.

Lauren Riddle, a resident of the Pacific Electric Lofts at Sixth and Main on the edge of Skid Row, said that her 1-year-old bulldog, Guinness, acquired soon after she moved downtown, is her safety net.

"For the most part, people on the streets are afraid of dogs," Riddle said. "I don't think I would have made it without Guinness."

For Riddle, almost every walk with her bulldog is an opportunity to meet people.

"The people at restaurants know him and know that he loves bacon," she said. "I have just been able to meet everybody through this dog. He is my No. 1 social life planner."

Developer Tom Gilmore, whose buildings in the old bank district are home to about 150 dogs, said he is more likely to remember the canines in his buildings than their owners.

"The sad truth," he said, "is that I am not great with people's names. But I know all the dogs' names. So everyone is Apollo's father and mother, or Ruthie's parent."

Around 6:30 a.m. every weekday, about a dozen dogs gather in the marble lobby of the Metro 417 building at Fourth and Hill, where they are all residents, for their carpool to doggie day care at Bark Avenue.

Melissa Esquivel, Bark Avenue's director of retail, lives in the building, and she said it's always fun to buckle the pups into her Lexus four-door and drive them the 21/2 miles to the store.

Esquivel said that downtown pet owners pamper their pups -- some shelling out nearly $400 a month for the day care and purchasing "paw-dicures," doggie nail polish and swimsuits, and designer carriers.

Whether intentionally or not, downtown dog owners have become a cultural and political force.

Behind discussions about gentrification, green space, pedestrian-friendly zones and clean and safe streets, dog owners are often guiding the debate.

When dog owners complained about the drug dealers they saw on their daily ambulations -- providing police with specific information, including photographs -- the police cracked down and made arrests.

Residents broached the idea of a dog park in a discussion about the 16-acre civic park being built near City Hall.

Less than a month after moving to downtown from Fresno, Jaime Campbell found herself in a fight to reopen Pershing Square, all in the name of her massive 31/2-year-old Newfoundland, Bear.

Campbell and her husband live with Bear in the Barry Lofts on Fifth Street. Downtown, she said, was one of the few areas where she could easily find a home for a dog Bear's size. But she's already frustrated by the lack of areas where Bear can do his, uh, business.

A large portion of Pershing Square had been cordoned off behind yellow police tape since the beginning of the year, with little explanation from authorities.

So Campbell posted notes on a Web site for dog owners, urging fellow "big paw" advocates to take up the issue.

She and others placed petitions in all of the downtown lofts and circulated them online. They organized a letter-writing campaign targeting Councilwoman Jan Perry and the city's Recreation and Parks Department. Soon, said Campbell, "we're going to start bombarding them with phone calls."

A few days after those efforts began, a portion of the park was reopened.

But downtown dog owners said it's not enough, noting that one of their biggest challenges about living in the heart of the city isn't the crime and homelessness but finding a place for Fido to relieve himself.

In some cases, developers are trying to create private areas for dogs.

Metro 417 reserves specific floors for pet owners. Other buildings have special layouts.

When the Pacific Electric Lofts opened last August, the developers advertised the dog-friendliness of the building, including a dog run.

Several residents have said that the long hallways are a perfect place for a game of catch or Frisbee with their canines.

But those efforts suffered some growing pains. The rooftop area set aside for dogs quickly became a source of conversation on the electronic bulletin board that residents use to keep in touch.

"I am shocked how bad it smelled up there," wrote one resident, who had taken out-of-town guests on a tour of the building. "It was breathtaking."

Neighbors complained online when dog owners failed to clean up after their pooches. They debated whether the synthetic grass that was part of the dog run's design was retaining odors.

"Gotta feel bad for the guy next to the dog run," wrote another resident. "Washing the artificial grass over and over is killing me, but it is a needed evil task as others have not done it out of pure laziness."

Building manager Terry Burns said that construction has already begun on a dog-run remodel.

"It's being done the right way," she said, "so we do have proper drainage. We're putting synthetic grass down in a (different) way that will be able to deter any smells, things like that."

The project will cost close to $10,000, Burns said, "but they love their dogs!"


  17/09/2006. SFGate.com.