Angelenos' New Refrain: 'I Love (Downtown) L.A.'

Angelenos gather at a light installation in downtown L.A., which has gone from empty after dark to hopping with hipsters and young families. (By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- It's nighttime in downtown Los Angeles and the sidewalks are packed with pretty people out for the monthly Art Walk. Dressed in their skinny jeans, they're trolling the edgy little galleries, clutching their plastic cups of wine, sidestepping the panhandler wearing a garbage bag. Suddenly, a stylish young couple appears -- pushing a stroller. Bert Green, a gallery owner, points at the nuclear unit. "That's what I'm talking about," Green says. " It's happening."

A family in downtown Los Angeles. After dark. This is news.

Because until recently, most of downtown L.A. at night looked like the set for a zombie movie. It was either empty or scary. There are lifelong Angelenos who have never been downtown after sunset. Aside from a Lakers game or a night at the opera, large stretches were no-go zones. Downtown L.A. was where you went on trial, not on a date.

But now? Downtown is one of the hottest residential real estate markets on the West Coast, with a first wave of pioneering artistic types being smothered by a second, larger wave of 20- and 30-something trendsetters. Many are from the creative industries and Hollywood, snapping up 1,100-square-foot "Zen retreats" and one-bedroom "soft lofts" with communal rooftop party pools for $529,000, parking for the Prius included.

What happened? After decades of dashed real estate schemes and city-planner dreams, downtown Los Angeles is suddenly cool.

Just a few years ago, you couldn't get a pizza delivered downtown after 8 p.m. "You could buy drugs. But you couldn't buy milk," recalls Carl Ramsey, a painter who lived downtown until upward-spiraling rents pushed him and his studio a few miles west into the Salvadoran barrio.

Now there are chic restaurants and underground dance clubs with dress codes and guests lists. Downtown is an official destination for scenesters -- and almost every newbie to DT (that's what some bloggers call it) blurbs the same thing. "I can't believe I didn't know about this," said Nili Martin, a Web designer, as she sat with friends at Warung Cafe in the Old Bank District (formerly a half-abandoned slum), listening to the Pan-Asia house music while grazing on ahi tapas and sipping soju. Martin has lived 12 miles away for the past seven years: "I've never been downtown, but this is so much fun. It's like New York . . . almost."

Why are they here? The newcomers are drawn by the insidery buzz of the next cool place, by a desire for authenticity and a specific vibe -- arty, multiculti, a bit scruffy but not hairy. They want to be around their own kind -- employed college graduates -- but they want to live in a neighborhood with an edge. They want to feel as if they are discovering something. That they are unique. When asked, that's what the new downtowners say: They like how it feels.

"This is the story of people looking for the hip, the cool, the genuine," says Sharon Zukin, sociology professor at City University of New York and author of "Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change." "This is the flip side of the suburbs," with their bigger homes and better schools. "Here people are looking for something in the air, and there's almost a universal language of cultural signs -- a certain kind of bookstore, boutique, art gallery, coffee, design. The first good bottle of wine in the corner store."

These cool-hunters are zeroing in on the sudden appearance of specific social clues -- American Spirit cigarette butts, or black kale on the menu, or art graffiti (as opposed to gang tags) -- that signal the presence of like-minded urbanites.

"You know it when you see it," Zukin says.

Every city now has (or wants) a loft district. Whether they actually have artists and old warehouses to turn into studio lofts is irrelevant. Soft lofts are newly constructed "loft-like" condominiums designed with open floor plans, high ceilings and purposely distressed concrete floors.

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