Stop the car--pull over. You need to look at this. We're downtown, and there are people all over the place walking dogs. No, not blind people. These are people taking their pooches for a stroll.
Think about it. There never used to be people walking dogs in downtown Dallas. I don't know how far back you go, but I go way back. When downtown was goin' and blowin' in the '80s, the sidewalks were jammed with suits and spike heels. No dogs. Then in the '90s, after the real estate collapse, we had scary-bad downtown: The sidewalks were empty except for people whimpering and running to their cars. No dogs.
Now these people are all over the place with big old smiles and dogs on leashes. They're popping up all over like they think this is Dogtown. What does it mean? Who are these dogs?
Brian Campbell at Petdata.com, the private firm that handles dog licensing for the city, told me the 75201 ZIP code, right downtown in the office tower district, is home to 222 registered dogs. Can you believe that? More than 200 dogs living right downtown, to say nothing of dogs people may be bringing to work with them?
We have to find out about these dogs. I'm worried. I'm a big dog person. I thought you were supposed to have a back yard if you had a dog. What kind of life is it for a dog to live in downtown Dallas? We're on the case.
I'm walking up Commerce Street from the Dallas Observer offices on a fine spring day with a notebook and digital recorder in hand, hunting for dog walkers. Aha! There's a cute one just ahead, a young woman with a jumpy little dark-haired, sharp-snouted something-or-other mix on a leash. She and the pooch are hustling along. All I have to do is close in on them and quickly explain that I'm a reporter doing a story about the lives of dogs downtown. I hope I can get her to believe me before she sprays me in the face with a painful gas. People think this is an easy job.
Her name is Kate Tetuan; her dog, Pete, 9 months old, pauses briefly to sniff my hand and pants cuff, and we're off to the races, walking pretty fast up Commerce Street. Pete is eager to get to the downtown dog park, which is called Bark Park Central. Who knew the city had a sense of humor?
"I take him out twice in the morning, between 6:15 and when I go to work," she tells me while we trot along. "Then in the afternoon when I get home I take him to the dog park. And I take him out again about 10 p.m."
I ask what she does when she leaves town.
"Well, I just took him to Portland with me. But my cousin lives in Arlington, so I can take him there."
"So your cousin is a dog person?"
"No, she doesn't really like dogs."
"I've only been away from him twice."
Tetuan lives in one of the older downtown apartment buildings. She's a social worker with a hospice agency.
"That's hard work, isn't it?"
She doesn't even have to answer. I see by the look on her face that it is very hard work. She unsnaps the leash from Pete, and he bolts off across the park to play with other dogs. Tetuan breaks into a huge grin. Pete is a lot of fun for her.
Bark Park Central takes a little getting used to. It's beneath the Central Expressway overpasses at the east end of downtown, at the southwest corner of Good-Latimer Expressway and Commerce Street, where Deep Ellum, downtown and Fair Park all meet. The intentions are good, and the park, which opened April 8 last year, can only get better as the grass grows in and the harsh urban edges soften.
There's a big city sign with all kinds of Draconian rules: "No food or treats (dog or human)...no dog without tags...$2,000 fine...dispose excreta."
Big dogs, little dogs, in-between dogs: They're all loping around with that idiot grin dogs get when they're happy, chasing each other, rolling in mud puddles, catching sponge balls, all of their brilliant tricks--nature's clowns, downtown.
Bark Park Central was the brainchild of a former neighbor and dog-walking acquaintance of mine in East Dallas, Barry Annino. Annino lived in an old house on my street, but he wised up. I remember the day we met walking our dogs, and he said, "Man, if it's not one thing, it's another with these old places. It never ends." He sold his house and moved to a townhome in State-Thomas.
Annino, a commercial real estate broker, serves on the board of the Deep Ellum Public Improvement District. "I saw that there was nowhere for the people living near downtown to take their dogs and let them stretch their legs," he told me the other day.
He and a few other people persuaded the state, which owns the land beneath the freeway, to allow the city of Dallas to install a dog park on it. Hence, Bark Park Central with the truck noise and the traffic. A whole lot better than nothing.
Here's a young couple standing over toward the back of Bark Park Central watching their two pets, a black Lab mix and a red miniature pinscher, play with each other--air-nipping, head-wagging, paw-batting, yipping at each other. Having a great time. The Lab is Bosco, and the pinscher is Hannah.
Clarissa Petty and Carl Nuckels live in a loft in the Adam Hats building at 2700 Canton St., near the Farmers Market. Adam Hats is an old red-brick commercial building, built in 1913 as a Ford assembly plant for Model T's. In 1959 it became a hat factory. Now, as loft apartments, it disgorges gangs of dog walkers every morning and evening as I am driving by on my way to and from work.
I ask Petty if she thinks these dogs might prefer to live in the suburbs. "I used to live in Fort Worth in a house," she says, "and I don't think there's any dog that's better treated than the ones in our building. We've got everything, from Chihuahuas all the way up to, gosh, St. Bernard and whatever.
"What's different here is that you have to walk them," she says. "In a house you can just let them out into the back yard. We don't have a back yard."
Then she tells me a story. She says the morning and evening times when people typically take their dogs out "for air" have become small social occasions. The dogs socialize with the dogs, and the people socialize with the people. One evening, a guy she has seen around the building a lot shows up with a big Doberman on a leash.
"I said, 'Oh, I haven't seen your dog out here before.' And he said, 'That's because I've trained him to go on a potty pad, so I don't have to take him out.'"
Petty admits it's not a lot of fun taking Bosco and Hannah out for late-night airings in the desolate emptiness of downtown by night.
"I'd rather open the back door," she says.
I ask if it's scary.
"Actually, I thought it would be when I first moved in," she says, "but it's not too bad." She says there are always homeless people grazing around, "but they don't bother you too much."
Nuckels says the homeless people always ask if the dogs bite, and the answer is always yes.
Oh, now here's some luck. We're going to get deep into this thing now. I meet a guy at Bark Park Central who is a shrink. A psychiatrist. He even looks the part, late 50s, crinkle-eyed and slightly stooped from too much deskwork, professorial. He has a gray-faced Lab whom he keeps referring to as "the big guy," even though the dog's not that big. He says I have to agree to use the dog's name but not his. I ask why, and he begins to tell me something about patients and the need to keep one's personal life very private and so on.
"What's your dog's name?"
I tell the psychiatrist that I am trying to discover what's different, if anything, in the lives of dogs that live downtown as opposed to dogs that live in the suburbs with back yards.
"We had a house in a residential area," he says, choosing his words judiciously, "and we had a doggie door. He used to go in and out to the back yard. I didn't realize before I moved downtown what a blessing that was. Because now we wake up and go to sleep by his standards. And it's not easy."
Obviously Big Guy can't go to the door, undo the deadbolt, turn the knob and quietly let himself out of the psychiatrist's fashionable townhome across Canton Street from the Camden apartments at Farmers Market. The psychiatrist who shall remain nameless must get up out of his bed and put on some clothes and take the big guy out to the patch of green in front.
"When I come home now, the first thing I've got to do, I can't crash, I have to take him out. During the day we have a dog walker. Fortunately, when my wife and I work later, the dog walker can stay and walk him at 5 o'clock. Otherwise I'd have to interrupt what I'm doing and be back."
The dog walker gets $15 to $25 per walk. Charges more for staying late to do the 5 p.m. Hmmm. Adds up, eh? So what's the bottom line? What about a dog's life downtown?
"I think that dogs here in downtown run our lives," he says.
Is he complaining? Does he hope Big Guy will run away with a big homeless person?
"I've had a dog since I was a kid," he says. He pauses and looks away, searching for words. "Well, we love this dog. I think for a couple that has an empty nest or probably someone who lives alone, it's an enhancement. You know, we're very attached."
In other words, the dog's worth it. And that's a lot to put up with, for the dog still to be worth it. I have one last question.
"Why did you name him Big Guy?"
"We figured we'd name him what we were going to call him anyhow."
Um, gotta go.
The thing about the money is interesting. If you paid a dog walker $15 per walk to walk your dog twice a day while you were at work, for five work days, that's $600 a month. That's devotion.
Weeks pass. I continue to accost people with dogs. Nobody has Maced me yet. In my business, that's the same thing as being extremely popular. One afternoon I'm driving home on Canton at Exposition a mile and a half from downtown, and I see this young guy bounding through traffic with two enormous dogs on leashes. I know we're not in the 75201 ZIP code, but if this guy lives anywhere near here, he has the same basic lifestyle as the loft dwellers inside the downtown loop.
His name is Phil Bailis, and he sells commercial ovens. He travels all the time. Four months ago he moved into a 1,300-square-foot loft in the Murray Building, also known as the Dallas Tent and Awning Building, at 3401 Commerce St., south of Baylor University Medical Center, where Second Avenue splits off from Commerce to go to Fair Park.
The dogs are huge. One is a Great Dane. The other one...I really don't know. It looks like a bear.
"What's your dog's name?" I ask.
The Dane's name, he tells me, is Frazer, "like Frazer, Pennsylvania."
Bailis and his dogs have lived in apartments all over the country. They moved to this area from Philadelphia not long ago.
"I actually first lived in Colleyville," Bailis says, "but I recently got separated. I got the dogs, and my wife got the cats."
Bear, a golden retriever and collie mix, has been with Bailis since college and has lived in 11 different homes with him. "We lived in several different houses in Arizona, where I went to college, a small apartment in upstate New York, an apartment in Atlanta, Georgia. And then I lived with him in Philadelphia in two different apartments."
Bailis spends 20 bucks for a dog walker to take his dogs out on a 20-minute jaunt when he can't do it. When he's out of town, he spends $65 a night for someone from the dog-walking service to stay at his house overnight, taking the dogs out in the evening and morning and giving them a walk during the day. He calculates that he's spending something in the neighborhood of $1,000 a month on dog care.
There are people downtown who manage to care for their pets without having to spend a huge amount of money. Abel Sanchez is a commercial photographer who lives over his studio in the old Dallas Ballet building at Jackson and Pearl. His dog is LuLu, a 6 1/2-year-old Australian cattle-dog mix who gives first-time visitors a pretty vigorous nose-over. Sanchez, who lives with his wife and two young children, says he seldom has to pay anyone to take care of his dog.
"We've managed to have a circle of four people who like our dog so much that their doors are open to her."
I ask him about my theory that you can tell what kind of parents people will be by how they take care of their dogs. He's not really buying it.
"I can't stand people who call their dogs their children," he says. "Children are children. Dogs are animals. You can love your dog to the end of the world and love it and love it and love it, but it's still a dog.
"People who say their dogs are children are high."
Well, that could be. And the point?
There must be more than 222 dogs downtown. I think part of the answer is commuter dogs--dogs that people bring to work with them.
Contego Solutions is a small high-tech start-up occupying the old Keeney Office Supply Building at 2211 Commerce at Central, originally Munger Cadillac, the city's first Cadillac dealership. Joel Mills, 28, one of the founders of Contego, brings Gus, his 5-year-old wire fox terrier, to work with him almost every day from their home in Lake Highlands. In good weather Mills rides his Triumph motorcycle and carries Gus with him in a backpack. Gus has his own eye protection for the motorcycle.
"Dog goggles!" I say.
"They're actually called doggles," Mills corrects me. "There's a Web site for them--doggles.com."
Contego Solutions monitors Web sites for companies and sends warnings if the Web sites stop functioning properly. The Contego offices are in a loft space furnished in a look I would have to call nerd cool--sophisticated modern furniture, a foosball table, a beer keg and a Nerf basketball goal. If you asked 200 MIT upperclassmen to describe heaven, it would look a lot like the offices of Contego Solutions.
Gus the dog is polite but cool with a visitor, barely giving the cuff of the pant a sniff, then retiring to his own space with a bit of a yawn. He is one of several dogs that visit the Contego offices during a typical day.
"My wife and I do a lot of rock climbing," Mills tells me, "and he likes to go along."
He climbs rocks?
"Uh, no," Mills says. "One of the groups of rock climbers we go with has a lot of people in it who have dogs. We go to places where there's good camping and some of the shorter rocks. The dogs like to swim and play around at the bottom. It's more of a family outing."
A few blocks away, Janet Healey and her husband, Joe Grisham, operate a commercial photography studio in a renovated low-rise building. The second floor has been opened up into a long, broad brick-walled studio space in which a small crew of people are scurrying around, helping arrange purses, jewelry and other products in front of large-format cameras for advertising and catalog photographs. Healey and Grisham are early middle-aged and have been in business 10 years. They moved to this building from a location in the design district because they wanted a space with more light.
From far shadows three terrier snouts come snaking slowly through the hurried tangle of legs and feet. They present three wet snouts to sniff the new person and see if he needs to be barked at. When the sniffing is over, they move off and exhale small sighs of approval.
"BiBi is a Jack Russell rescue dog," Healey tells me. "We're very much into rescue. Duncan is some kind of terrier mix. He's a rescue dog, too. They both came to us through Jack Russell Rescue, which we're very involved in. And then Bela is also a rescue. She came to us, I think, through the Richardson Humane Society."
All three dogs come to work at the studio almost every day. It's their job.
"Occasionally, if we've got a client in the studio or something big is going on where we don't want the dogs all over, we'll leave them at home, but then we'll pick them up in the middle of the day and bring them down here."
I asked about professionalism issues--dogs howling in the background when you're trying to talk on the phone and so on. She conceded it can be a problem.
"Occasionally I am on the phone, and the doorbell will ring or something will happen, and the dogs will go nuts. And I know that's very unprofessional. Someone will pick up the dogs and drag them down the stairs."
But in a work environment that calls for a lot of perfectionism, where there can be pressure and tension, she thinks the value of having the dogs around far outweighs the disadvantages.
"The way I feel about it is that for the most part it really helps soften the atmosphere and set a tone. The dogs create a friendlier, warmer bond between the people."
I think I'm beginning to get it. I like the idea of dogs as social glue. Downtown Dallas needs some glue. There's so much going on now that's cool--people living and working in these great renovated spaces. But it's all kind of tentative and spaced out, a patchwork, the very beginnings of community, the way it must have been on the frontier when a homestead popped up here and there and then over there in the forest primeval. Former Governor Ann Richards has a story she tells about the West Texas pioneer lady who couldn't kill her chickens because she needed them for company. I think these downtown dogs are like those chickens.
One evening as I'm about to leave the Observer,I see a smartly dressed young woman hurrying down the sidewalk across the street with a little Lhasa Apso on a leash. I don't know. I feel as if I haven't quite done my job until I get somebody to gas me. So I go over there and give this bizarro line about being a reporter for the Observer and working on a story about people who have dogs downtown.
She's thrilled that someone wants to talk about Buddy. The dog. "I walk him three times a day. I take him on one big walk to the dog park and then shorter walks in the morning and evening."
She explains that Buddy, 13 years old and failing of eyesight, is a stepdog. "My husband had him since college."
She and her husband have renovated a small building that is now their home. He works elsewhere. She runs her own business on the telephone from an office in the building.
I see her all the time now. She really gets around with that dog. And I do get it. The spaces between people and buildings get long and dark toward the end of the day. It's fine to say downtown is almost there as a community, but it's also not there yet. In the evening when the cars have all escaped, the silence between the buildings is the sound those pioneer wives heard on the high plains.
Buddy is Laura Zane's buddy. That's what dogs are for, no more, no less. Downtown needs its dogs. Downtown dogs have it made. We should all have their lives.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.