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New leash on life

Seeking signs that a once blighted neighborhood is on the upswing? Count the number of dogs being walked.

Lisa Lee (center) and Scott Nealy pet their dog Basil as their friend Marie Barnes watches at Orianna Hill Park in Northern Liberties. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Lisa Lee (center) and Scott Nealy pet their dog Basil as their friend Marie Barnes watches at Orianna Hill Park in Northern Liberties. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)Read moreRON TARVER/ STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Dogs may not have caused Northern Liberties to change from blighted to trendy, but they sure were a sign that change was coming.

Twenty years ago, when Frances Robb first moved to the neighborhood north of Old City, dogs were about as rare as a parked BMW. But as Northern Liberties went from edgy to trendy, the canine pack grew.

"The change has been going from no dogs, to several on each block, to the gazillion we have today," Robb said.

Most everyone knows artists and young people to be the urban pioneers of modern-day cities, seeking cheap real estate in neighborhoods suffering postindustrial decay. But dogs?

With couples putting off child-rearing while they establish their careers, "pets, especially dogs, can serve that companion role," said David Elesh, an urban sociology professor at Temple University.

That means trendsetting young people more often have beagles in tow than babies, so the increase in canines can signify a burgeoning neighborhood. This is where the youth, investment, and energy reside, those mutts seem to say. And retailers looking to cash in need only look for the leashes.

"As a developer, you'd be a fool not to recognize what dogs can mean," said Charles Abdo, who has developed properties in Philadelphia since 1975 and is currently with Globe Development, based in Frankford. "That's where the money is."

The Fairmount Pet Shoppe has established a steady clientele in a once staunchly working-class community, as have groomers in Fishtown, pockets of Kensington, and in Passyunk.

One of the first stores on Liberties Walk, now the heart of Northern Liberties' shopping scene, was a pet shop - Chic Petique. There was Doggie World DayCare at Third and Poplar Streets, and then places such as BoneJour and Chez Bow Wow.

Robb preceded them all. In 1996, she and her partner, Suzanne Manolidis, opened Canine Couture, a high-end dog-clothing wholesaler. But for much of its existence - in pre-hip Northern Liberties - the only Philadelphia business they could muster was around Rittenhouse Square, where pampered pooches roamed.

"You'd only ever see dogs like that in the very heart of Center City," Robb said.

Robin Broughton-Smith is willing to bet on the trend, too.

She and her husband left Old City last summer to buy their first home in East Falls, a longtime working-class bedroom community bubbling with possibilities. It seems to be following the Northern Liberties trend: great postindustrial decline, now primed for a flip and full of new, fresh-faced dog owners, she said.

So on May 30, Broughton-Smith and her husband will stage the grand opening of Wag N Style, a high-end pet shop on Midvale Avenue. Already there's a small restaurant scene developing around that central area of East Falls, including Johnny Manana's and Franco's Trattoria. But the shopping experience that fueled Northern Liberties' precipitous rise hasn't come yet.

"Our shop has inexpensive items, but it is definitely a high-end, boutique-like shop," Broughton-Smith said.

She's on maternity leave caring for her 3-month-old son, but her first baby was the Habanese named Roxy that she got for Christmas five years ago. "My dog is like my child, and I know there are now more and more people who want to be able to treat their dog that well," she said.

"When you see a lot of dogs, you can guess who is living there," said Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and author of The Modern Dog. "Retailers know it and always go to where their demographics are."

For neighborhoods that already have seen their stock rise to chic, look for the telltale pet boutiques. Old City, Main Street in Manayunk, and, of course, Rittenhouse.

Doggie Style, a small, regional chain, has two high-profile Center City locations, one at 16th and Spruce Streets and the other on Market Street in Old City. But because those locations tend to draw more of a tourist crowd than local clientele, Doggie Style has gone to the neighborhoods, district manager Kristoffer Reiter said.

There's one in Passyunk, a growing South Philadelphia neighborhood. And on Saturday, a grand opening is scheduled for a new location in Manayunk.

Doggie Style is bidding on real estate in another neighborhood on the rise, but Reiter wouldn't disclose where. His only clue: Dogs live there.

"I can say that dog owners know what's next, and they're in that neighborhood already," he said.

In some communities, an influx of dogs isn't always welcome. In Fishtown, a river-ward neighborhood in great flux, one controversy centers around dog droppings, specifically those left on Hetzell's Field, a playground at Thompson and Columbia Streets regularly used by neighborhood children. Some people are accusing others of not picking up after their pups. And although a handful of residents cleaned the playground and obtained signs from the city's Department of Recreation warning people to pick up after their dogs, the issue remains sensitive, said Maryanne Milligan, editor of the Fishtown Spirit, a community newspaper that has covered the dispute.

"It's inevitable that just about everywhere has these problems," said Elesh, who studies community trends in and around Philadelphia. Neighborhoods are changing in cities across the country, he said, and dogs are increasingly part of that shift. Such communities, like any other evolving neighborhood, need to incorporate the needs of all members.

"A demand is being created, and that demand is from people who are moving into these changing neighborhoods," Broughton-Smith said. "We just need to change with them."