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Artists' District Poised for Lofty Rebound

Neighborhoods: Attracted by the energy of 2,500 loft dwellers, businesses begin to move into the once-fading area east of downtown. Art shows attract large turnouts.

February 23, 1998|VANESSA HUA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The peddler selling fringed shirts didn't have a chance.

"No, no, no. We don't want any," insisted the lithe woman clad in black, at the same time shooing him away. The man slowly retreated from the crowd gathered in front of the general store. Conversation turned back to a gallery show opening around the corner.

Victoria Mihatovic knows the drill. Like many residents in the artists loft district east of downtown, she is used to taking a stand. For years, these determined loft dwellers have worked to re-create a vibrant, arts-oriented community that last saw good times more than a decade ago and has since been struggling. Now, some residents and observers say, they're on the verge of succeeding.

"They've gone through the doldrums, but now it's coming on," said Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the city Cultural Affairs Department, whose mission is to foster art and culture in the city. "There's a great opportunity for that part of downtown to reemerge quickly and go way beyond what it was originally."

The cozy enclave, set against a gleaming backdrop of downtown's skyscrapers, is more than an emerging art center. About 2,500 people now call the district home, according to the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.

"It's Mayberry. We tend to know everyone," said Mihatovic, referring to the folksy small town in "The Andy Griffith Show." Instead of clapboard houses with white picket fences and a garage, residents live in light-flooded lofts converted from turn-of-the-century brick buildings and old factories.

Art Share, a 30,000-square-foot converted rag factory that houses a gallery, art classes and a theater stage, exemplifies the district's new activity. Opened in November, it recently held an art show that drew more than 500 visitors over three days, director Chip Hunter said.

Functioning as a sort of town hall, the nonprofit corporation, which operates through grants and donations, is seen by community members as an incubator for artistic expression.

Drawn by the area's energy, businesses have started moving in.

A gym and a gallery, which both opened in December, join a mix of mainstays and other recent businesses on Traction Avenue and Hewitt Street to form the commercial hub of the district. Among the businesses: a general store, a bar, two restaurants, a discount electronics store and a combined gallery and production studio.

The district's renaissance is fueled by the residents who live in the high-ceilinged lofts. Rents run from $1,000 to $1,600 a month for a space inside buildings where a red "A"--for artisan--alerts firefighters that the dwelling is occupied, and where artists claim they can "get messy"--drop paint or clay or saw wood on the industrial floors.

The demand for housing has jumped in the past few years, up from virtually nothing a decade ago. Lofts have waiting lists for occupancy, property managers said. Although several developers said they were exploring possible loft projects, none are being planned for the near future.

Converting industrial buildings into loft space is an expensive, permit-clogged process, said Marlene Vidal, property manager for Zimmerman Development Inc., which has renovated five loft properties in the area.

"You need to make a lot of improvements--adding bathrooms and making lofts earthquake safe," she said. "It costs millions."

Only 10 years ago, the area bounded by 1st, 6th and Alameda streets and the Los Angeles River was in steep decline. Residents who had been drawn to a thriving, early-'80s underground arts scene found themselves plagued by increasing car break-ins, drug deals, prostitution and encampments of the homeless.

The homeless came seeking surroundings safer than nearby skid row, said LAPD Sgt. Valerie Cardot, who used to oversee police patrolling the area.

Building owners constructed chain-link fences topped with razor wire, but even such security measures could not stop the flight of galleries, theaters and other businesses, longtime residents said.

The early '90s recession, coupled with lingering worries about safety after the 1992 riots, caused other residents to move out.

"After the riots, people feared being downtown," said sculptor Anthony Goddard, 45, who has lived in a loft on Factory Place since 1984. "People were afraid of the criminal element mixed in with the homeless."

Fed up with the crime, remaining residents started looking for solutions. Enlisting assistance from the police, they began trying to take back their turf.

Weekly foot patrols, made up of residents and police officers, began in 1993. The patrols gave participants a chance to socialize, exchange information and keep an eye on criminal activity.

"Police stopped and talked to us; they were user-friendly," said Joel Bloom, 49, proprietor of Bloom's General Store and the person whom residents consider the de facto mayor of the district.

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