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From Dust To Dust: The Arts District Dog Park

Calum Hayes |
February 20, 2014 | 12:24 p.m. PST


The sign that rests above the steel bars that guard the Arts District Dog Park. (Photo/Calum Hayes)
The sign that rests above the steel bars that guard the Arts District Dog Park. (Photo/Calum Hayes)
On the corner of Fourth and Molino streets rests a dusty 30-by-20-yard plot of land in the heart of the Arts District that would be otherwise indistinguishable - if it were not for the craftmanship behind the signage that adorns its steel perimeter. 

Los Angeles is one of those big cities where the descriptors come easy. Beaches, Beamers and Botox spring to mind unbidden. It is a city of cars and clothes, a city filled with nearly half a million people commuting to their job every day. It is a city built on concrete and steel.

Which makes the Los Angeles Downtown Arts District Dog Park all the more surprising. And there’s an unmistakable air of something missing from the curious-looking dog park: grass.

There is no grass anywhere.

Long before Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency, district residents made a decision that grass was not sustainable in the park. Between having to put in irrigation and maintaining the turf, the community decided it just wasn’t worth it.

So there it is, a dog park in all its surprisingly dusty glory. 

As the Arts District has grown, the people who live here have begun to sound like any group of people who discovered something first. There is a constant feeling of, “You’re taking your pictures in our space,” and an unspoken unease with other people using the front of someone’s home for the backdrop to their profile photo.

Perhaps there should be a sign on the fence next to the “small and timid dogs only” placard mandating people’s gripes stay out on the street.

Doug Yager (Gaston), Bebe Jay (Shadow) and Robert Rhody (Daisy). (Calum Hayes/Neon Tommy)
Doug Yager (Gaston), Bebe Jay (Shadow) and Robert Rhody (Daisy). (Calum Hayes/Neon Tommy)
“It’s a community here,” says Robert Rhody, owner of an increasingly lethargic bulldog named Daisy. It is a community that started thanks in part to the Honda Family of Honda Plaza and the Los Angeles River Artists and Business Association.

The Honda family owned the land, but as the Arts District started to become more and more pedestrian friendly, they decided to “let the community do what they thought was best with the property,” says Doug Yager. Yager's pup, Gaston, is still just nine months old and is doing everything he can to make sure we don’t forget it. 

Yager moved into the area about a year ago, after the park was already around. One of his favorite things about living in the district is being able to walk to the park from his house, just over one mile away.

Once the Honda’s opened the space to the community, the Los Angeles River Artists and Business Association stepped in with their plan for the dog park. Drawing on community feedback for what citizens wanted out of the park, the origanization has built the community space into what it is now.

While it may not look like a lot from outside the fence, it does still bear a certain semblance to the empty dirt lot it used to be. The park continues to grow partially from word of mouth and because the association has not walked away from the project after constructing some fences and planting a couple of trees.

When it started to pop up online that there was no water at the park, the association came back in and installed a pump where owners could fill their bowls. As the number of people bringing dogs to the park continues to grow so do the connections developing between both dogs and owners. Rhody says the park is usually occupied by “12 to 15” dogs after people get off work.

“They look like twins, don’t they?” says Bebe Jay of her dog Shadow and Yager's dog, Gaston. Nearly equal in size and age, the pair has grown up together at the dog park. While Shadow and Gaston show no signs of standing still long enough to accurately answer the question, the message is the same. There is a bond forming on the corner of Fourth and Molino almost by accident.

This wall has become a way to bring the community together. (Photo/Calum Hayes)
This wall has become a way to bring the community together. (Photo/Calum Hayes)
Every year, at the start of spring, the people who call the Arts District dog park home come together. Bringing sidewalk chalk of all colors, residents write their dog’s name on the wall. “It’s an awesome thing to bring us together,” says Yager. None of the three know exactly when the tradition started, but it is one of their favorite things about the park. It gives a sense of ownership in a district that feels more and more like common space. 

There are more names on the wall this year than years before, but still plenty of space. Many of the people who come to the dog park work from home. While Jay heads off to her 8 to 5 every day, Rhody and Yager manage to conduct business from their living rooms.

Everyday, when those half a million commuters are getting ready to make the interminable drive back to where their own dogs await them, the two men step out the door and wander through the district to their dusty oasis. 

It’s the fresh air for Rhody, but just getting out and moving for Yager - who is also an avid road biker. Even with his love of biking, Yager is at ease sitting on the bench against the wall of the park, leaning against the stylized name someone drew on the wall for his or her pet. 

The dog park is far from perfect. But as Daisy watches Gaston and Shadow wrestle, drool falling from her right cheek, there is an overwhelming feeling growing here. One that says it doesn’t matter whether the space looks a lot like it used to before they decided to say it’s a dog park. It is a feeling that this park is a Los Angeles sanctuary belonging to more than just the animals. 

Check out more Arts District stories here.

This story is part of a Neon Tommy special on the revitalization of downtown Los Angeles. Click #reviveDTLA for more.

Reach contributor Calum Hayes here. Follow him on Twitter here.



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