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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)

It all began in New York, of course: Greenwich Village begat SoHo begat the Lower East Side, etc. But the cool neighborhood gold rush is now a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon: Wicker Park in Chicago, Pearl District in Portland, Fishtown in Philadelphia. Even the unlikeliest cities are getting in on the urban living trend, like Old Town in (seriously) Wichita and the East Village of . . . Des Moines. In Washington, transformations are underway (or complete) in Logan Circle, Penn Quarter and Mass Ave. The trend is global: Kreuzberg in Berlin and Fitzroy in Melbourne and Xujia Hui in Shanghai.

A giveaway: Watch for rebranding. You don't live south of Market Street in San Francisco; you live in Soma. Or LoDo in Denver. Or SoBe in Miami.

While downtown was relatively inexpensive a few years ago -- artists and galleries are drawn by cheap square footage -- it is now almost as pricey as any other well-established middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles.

The downtown here harbors at least 16 micro-neighborhoods boxed by the freeways. There's a Little Tokyo, a Chinatown, the original Mexican pueblo. There are vibrant wholesale districts selling flowers, toys, produce, apparel, jewelry, fish. There are glass towers for office workers and the City Hall, the courts and the Staples Center ($400 million), the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels ($190 million) and Walt Disney Concert Hall ($274 million). During the day, downtown can be the busiest place in Los Angeles. About 400,000 workers punch the clock here from 9 to 5. Then -- poof -- they drive home. Or they used to.

Since 1999, when the city passed laws to encourage loft conversions from abandoned offices and warehouses, more than 9,300 residential units have been created in downtown, most of them in the past few years. In addition, 8,000 condos and apartments are under construction, and 8,500 more are on the drawing boards.

"You see change week to week, it's that fast. A new restaurant, new scaffolding round a building; it's just remarkable how fluid the streetscape," says Eric Richardson, a computer mapmaker who moved to downtown L.A. three years ago and founded BlogDowntown.com.

For years, these buildings and streets have served as backdrops for cop shows and car ads supposedly set in an ersatz New York. The historic core (the forgotten Wall Street of the West) harbors one of the largest collections of turn-of-the-century office buildings in the country. There are blocks and blocks of Beaux-Arts buildings that have spent the past 30 or 40 years empty above the ground floors.

"Wow, what's this?" says Josh Buxbaum, a former child actor ("Alf") and now a real estate broker specializing in downtown lofts, as he steers his Mercedes sedan on a quick tour of new properties. Buxbaum is pointing at a building called 655 Hope. "It's my job to know every conversion project, and this? This one is new to me. When did this start? Yesterday?"

"Comfortable, elegant, secluded, secure, yet just steps away from everything about the city that you expect, demand and delight in," reads 655's Web site. "The heart of downtown, L.A.'s most rapidly expanding real estate market, is pulsing with the excitement of a new city lifestyle."

Buxbaum is living that new city lifestyle. His live-work space is a converted warehouse down by the railroad tracks that allows him to drive the Benz into his loft -- like some kind of Batman, if Batman lived in an AIR building -- which stands for Artist in Residence, (versus Realtor in Residence).

Buxbaum's recent clients? A record label owner, a denim designer, a photographer.

"We love the grittiness," he says.


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