PASADENA — Tamara Porter, the owner of a chic clothing store in Old Pasadena, used to look out her window at a scene of such decay and filth that it often brought tears to her eyes.
Just three years ago, nearly every building on both sides of Colorado Boulevard between Fair Oaks Avenue and DeLacey Street was either boarded up or gutted, the streets were filthy and the only lights on at night were her own and those of the restaurant next door.
She was trying to sell $50 hand-decorated sweat shirts and $100 dresses, and the only thing that even faintly resembled a customer was the occasional transient who would walk by.
"We used to have these little religious rituals out in front of abandoned buildings," Porter said with a smile. "I'd get out there and chant for development."
Someone must have been listening.
In the past six months, there has been a dramatic upturn in business in Old Pasadena, transforming what was once the city's Skid Row into a booming nightspot that some say is quickly becoming Greenwich Village West or Westwood East.
Business people from one end of Colorado Boulevard to the other say the catalyst for this boom was the December opening of the six-screen United Artists Theater, which finally brought the nighttime crowds that shop owners have dreamed of for years.
"My business went up the day it opened," Porter said. "I get goose bumps thinking about it."
Business people add that Old Pasadena had been steadily rebuilding itself since 1980 and that at least 99 new retail businesses have opened during that time. The completion of the theater and other projects such as the Rose City Diner have given it a final push.
"There's been a breakthrough here," said January Winchester, manager of the Z Gallery. "Everything has gone boom."
Night Lights Up
From teen-agers gulping milkshakes at the Pasadena Creamery to businessmen in three-piece suits sipping white wine at the Ritz Grill's outdoor patio, Old Pasadena has become one of the hottest spots in the western San Gabriel Valley.
Drifting out of the area's 37 restaurants, the aroma of barbecued ribs and Peking duck mingles with the smell of sizzling burgers and fries.
Neon lights advertising boutiques and ice cream shops light up the night and bathe Old Pasadena's turn-of-the-century brick buildings in shades of electric blue and red.
The sound of rock 'n' roll and disco tunes filters out into the street from bars such as the Loch Ness Monster and the Romeo Restaurant and Nightclub.
"I'm glad to see people finally walking around here," said 73-year-old Doris Rex recently as she strolled down Colorado one night with her husband for the first time in years. "We're delighted it's happening."
Located in 12 square blocks surrounding Colorado between Pasadena Avenue and Arroyo Parkway, Old Pasadena has developed into a quirky melting pot of more than 140 old and new businesses, including 30 that have opened in the last year.
The area is still in a period of transition from Skid Row to upscale and is experiencing the growing pains of redevelopment, which has destroyed some low-income housing, forced out several longtime businesses and displaced the colony of artists that once lived in Old Pasadena's second-story lofts.
But for most people who lived through the lean years of decay and neglect, the rejuvenation arrived just in the nick of time.
"There was a time when on the entire block, the only light on was mine," said Sammy Zaribaf, the owner of Rosicler's restaurant, 24 W. Colorado Blvd. "I don't think anybody would want it to stay the way it was."
The signs of change are everywhere, with the hulks of boarded- up buildings standing in contrast to the refurbished Victorian, Mediterranean and Art Deco storefronts that now fill the area.
Since February, the 1950s-style Rose City Diner, at the southern fringe of the area, has been serving up meat loaf and egg creams to the tunes of Elvis Presley blaring from the jukebox.
The neon-lit diner replaced a mattress factory and has become a gleaming beacon, attracting teen-agers, old-timers and yuppies out for a quick bite to eat, said owner Sal Casola.
"There's been a great mix of people down here," he said. "That's the whole fun of it."
The diner has joined dozens of other restaurants that run the gamut from fast food at Gil's Grill on Colorado to the chic Ritz Grill two blocks to the west.
For the well-heeled crowd, restaurants such as Rosicler's, Cafe Jacoulet or the Italian Fisherman have brought an array of dishes: frog legs Provencal, zuppa di pesce or breast of charbroiled duck with raspberry sauce.
On East Union Street, toward the eastern fringe of Old Pasadena, Clothes Heav'n, The Ritz and Silent Partners have formed a small colony of used-clothing stores where new and used outfits by Anne Klein, Chloe or Valentino hang next to T-shirts.