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THE STATE

Downtown Lofts Draw New Breed of Resident

As the area continues to gentrify, it's becoming increasingly friendly for dogs and their owners. But some do have a problem with the smell.

September 03, 2006|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

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 Mount Washington 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 6th 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."

On a recent Friday afternoon, Riddle and Guinness were posing for pictures for Chip Latshaw, a fellow Pacific Electric resident who started his career as a canine photographer soon after moving into the building and noticing the preponderance of loft-dwelling dogs.

Latshaw was rolling around on the concrete floor of Riddle's unit, his elbows holding a digital camera aloft as Guinness nipped at a yellow squeaky toy.

"You meet all of these people with these great dogs," he said.

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 every weekday morning, about a dozen dogs gather in the marble lobby of the Metro 417 building at 4th 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 2 1/2 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.

With downtown perhaps the densest pet zone in the city, it's almost inevitable that pet-friendly businesses are taking off.

Brandon Hochman, co-owner of a company called Pet-a-Potty, which sells portable lavatories for the four-legged set, said the district represented a "perfect niche" for his business. Downtown dog walker David Cerwonka said that his company, Walk Fido, is growing by a dog a week.

In all, downtown has nearly a dozen pet-related companies. In addition to pet boutiques and dog walkers, the area features the city's only nightclub for canines, sponsored by Pet-a-Potty and Bark Avenue, among others, and benefiting a local dog rescue organization.

Dogs and their owners march down a red carpet -- lined by fake paparazzi -- on a rooftop. Both the dogs and their owners are decked to the nines in colorful outfits.

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