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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)

"They've been talking about downtown happening for 10 years. Now it has happened. There's no turning back. There's too much money to turn back now."

Whether downtown L.A. real estate weathers the slowdown, time will tell. But Buxbaum is correct about the money. On one end of downtown, by the Staples Center, there is the $2.5 billion L.A. Live entertainment and sports complex. On the other, by the Disney concert hall, there's the $2 billion Grand Avenue project of hotels, skyscrapers and condos. The original boom driven by conversions of old office buildings and warehouses is now driven by new construction of high-rises, with modern, meaningless names like Elleven, Luma and Evo, the latter boasting "couture living" and "impossibly modern architecture" straight from the pages of Dwell magazine.

Affordable housing is already an issue. A one-bedroom conversion in the old Pacific Electric building rents for $1,500 a month. Hidden behind a grungy storefront, a glass-walled 7,000-square-foot live-work space, complete with "makeup room" (used in video shoots by Diddy and Mary J. Blige) is selling for $2.3 million.

All this is remarkable because until recently, nobody lived downtown except on Skid Row, where about 13,000 drug-addicted, mentally ill or poor people crash in flophouses, homeless shelters and on the streets. Skid Row remains the supreme challenge for revitalization -- and the source of guilt and rancor as the two downtowns alternatively coexist or collide. The friction has increased as police have stepped up arrests for drug use and petty crime in an attempt to bring order to the wild open-air dope bazaars and homeless camps.

"People were absolutely shocked," Julie Swayze says, when she and her husband, Steve Bowie, opened Metropolis Books on Main Street this year. Swayze imitates their reaction: " 'It's a bookstore! On Main Street! On Skid Row!' And I said, yes, there is."

A friend who opened Old Bank DVD down the block inspired Swayze to take the chance. And business hasn't been bad, she says. "The neighborhood is very into nonfiction, very literary authors and classics. Every imaginable classic, I sell out of," Swayze says. "Also architecture and the history of L.A. is huge -- anything about revival, or ruins or specific architectural design, they buy."

Swayze welcomes the foot traffic that will come when an old theater next door is converted to a rock club and a corner lot is turned into a dinner cabaret, but she's a little worried about the upwardly mobile new downtowners, that the edge -- that feel -- will be lost as downtown becomes more affluent, safe and homogenized.

Says Carol Schatz, executive director of the Central City Association, quoting from the most recent demographic surveys: "The vast majority of residents moving downtown are between 25 and 35 years old, with sizable disposable incomes, making $100,000 or more a year. And they are moving here because they want a cool, hip, nontraditional living experience."

"Everything is catering to them," Swayze says of the middle-class newcomers. "Will downtown look like Rodeo Drive in 10 years? Or will it look like it did in the '50s and '60s, when it was mom-and-pop places and people came down here and enjoyed themselves? Nobody really knows where it's going," she says. "I think we want a little bit of both."

It is a fact that people who have lived downtown for just a couple of years are already talking with nostalgia about the old days. But it is also true that downtown L.A. has been so void of middle-class residents that the opening of a Ralphs supermarket in July (the first large grocery store here in 57 years) was hailed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who attended, as a "historical moment."

Pete White is founder of Los Angeles Community Action Network, which organizes tenants of residential hotels and defends the rights of Skid Row residents, some of whom live on the street below the soft lofts. He distinguishes between the "old downtowners" who started trickling into the neighborhood a decade ago and the more recent arrivals.

"The first wave of folks were, we felt, truly interested in figuring out how they could meld into the culture and character of the community," White says. Now, the mind-set is, "We've got the loot, we're here now, this is our community."

These transformations are not always pretty -- there are often winners and losers. And when it happens, says Zukin, the sociologist, it can happen fast. "This kind of development has a speed and a feeling of inevitability about it," she says. "Like you can't stop it." Which is both good and bad, depending on when you arrived. There is a life cycle to cool, a kind of evolution: From poor to edgy and arty, to funky to established. And in downtown L.A., it's moving from Skid Row to Banana Republic at warp speed.

Staff writer Sonya Geis contributed to this report.

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