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South Park for the dogs

(This article originally appeared HERE in San Diego Uptown News.)

SAN DIEGO -- If you hang around South Park at all, you have probably noticed that dogs are almost as welcome as humans in this happening little Uptown neighborhood, but the people that helped make that so will tell you it was not always the happy, dog-friendly place it is today.

It was 15-20 years ago when the area, then known as “greater Golden Hill,” was rather seedy and unappealing, said Donna Walker, longtime area resident and co-owner of South Bark Dog Wash on 30th Street. Walker said there was not a whole lot of community happening, or a lot of businesses in the area at that time.

“The whole neighborhood was like the old wild West. People got dogs for protection as well as companionship,” she said. “It was a very pretty, bad place.”

After all, it was the same neighborhood where in 1984 police officers Timothy Ruopp and Kimberly Tonahill were shot and killed at Grape Street Park – an area located west of Granada Avenue and just east of Balboa Park Golf Course – during what should have been a routine patrol stop. The after-effects of that night resonated for years throughout the region.

But thanks to some concerned residents who also happened to be mostly dog owners, a new vision began to take shape in the mid-1990s.

Walker said the group called itself “DOGS” (Dog Owners of Grape Street) and met regularly to discuss the future of the neighborhood and address the issues the City would require to designate Grape Street Park as a legal dog park.

The effort took lots of time and energy, as well as the help, personality and presence of Judy the Beauty of the Big Kitchen, but eventually the group succeeded. For almost 15 years, the park has been officially known as the Grape Street Dog Park, a large, city-sanctioned “off leash” dog run area. Change in the neighborhood began to chart its course around that same time.

“That [dog park] started the transformation. … People [who] began moving in with the dogs needed a place to socialize. People began to care; they had a way to get together,” Walker said.

South Bark Dog Wash, considered by many an “anchor” of the dog-friendly neighborhood, opened in October 2000, offering a self-service dog and cat wash, obedience training, animal psychics, nutrition and other services. Walker said that despite being only the third dog wash of its kind in the county, those early days were tough. Thanks to the tides of change and some forward thinking on their part, business is now booming for Walker and co-owner Lisa Vella.

“We had to grow the business and we noticed people would get their dogs really nice and bright and clean but they would not wash their dog’s faces,” Walker said.

Enter the wildly successful “blueberry facial.”

“We didn’t know it was so innovative but soon everyone wanted it,” Walker said. She and Vella have since opened a separate distribution center to handle demand of the popular dog facial, which now claims groomers in every state and nine countries as regular customers.

Today, most of South Park is dog friendly, with dozens of businesses in the general area open to customers lounging, eating or visiting with their dogs. Many of them even offer services, and new businesses seem to open with that idea in mind.

The large back patio of The Station, a beer and burger restaurant located in the center of the business district, is one of the busiest where canine companions are concerned.

“Being dog friendly at Station was an automatic,” said Sam Chammas, owner of The Station as well as the nearby Whistlestop pub. “It goes with the ‘something for everybody’ vibe of Station, which reflects the ‘come as you are’ vibe of South Park.

“[If ] you happen to get hungry while walking your dog, there’s a place for you. You don’t have to go home or tie your leash to a tree,” Chammas said. “Dogs are all part of the mix out here, but it’s not a free for all. We expect good behavior from owners and the same from their pets.”

The Whistlestop offers dogs a fresh water bowl outside and when it is not busy, even welcomes them inside for short periods.

Of course the Big Kitchen on Grape Street, Grant’s Marketplace on Beech Street, Café Madeline on 30th Street and Rebecca’s Coffeehouse on Juniper Street all offer outside patios where customers can nosh and lounge along with their dogs without worry.

“Rebecca Zearing [of Rebecca’s Coffee House] is very active in pet rescue. She has lots of fundraisers at her place and is herself a pet lover and a neighborhood pioneer,” said Marsha Smelkinson of the South Park Business Group.

Captain Kirk’s, a drive-thru coffee kiosk in front of Gala Foods, is a more recent addition to the area. The bustling business incorporated a beautification project on their stretch of Fern Street as part of their launch, which, along with benches and tables for customers, includes a dog walk area complete with a “dog waste station.”

Another dog park, although not officially sanctioned by the city, sprouted in recent years at the vacant southwest corner of Felton and Cedar streets, and is presumably cared for by residents.

“The subculture in this neighborhood has to do with dogs and cats, art and restaurants. There is a different very authentic innovative spirit that runs through this neighborhood,” Walker said.

“This is a neighborhood for people who love: … love houses, love architecture, love animals, love good food, love beer and wine, and now chocolate,” she said. “This is a passionate neighborhood for all those things. If people weren’t like that, it would have never grown as fast as it did.”

Morgan M. Hurley is Contributing Editor of SDGLN, Editor of San Diego Downtown News and Assistant Editor of Gay San Diego and San Diego Uptown News.