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Pretty Woman Moves In, Making Some Natives Restless

Julia Roberts joins other celebrities in Venice, where some fear the city will be changing

September 24, 2002|GINA PICCALO and LOUISE ROUG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Stone have favorite shops in Venice. Robert Downey Jr. regularly eats his lunch at the Hydrant cafe on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the area's artsy thoroughfare. Suzanne Somers and Kevin Bacon have been spotted, strolling city streets. Jared Leto prefers to bike, and Julie Christie swings by to get her tresses trimmed at the local Slave Salon.

"So what?" residents say.

"Nicolas Cage just bought a house down the street from me," hairstylist Hilda Moyers said. "It doesn't matter."

But if Venetians have cultivated a cool facade when it comes to celebrities, the latest arrival has cracked it.

Since getting their first glimpses of new neighbor Julia Roberts a couple of weeks ago, locals have been swapping sightings like so many out-of-towners. She's been spotted walking her new black Labrador puppy, chatting it up at a neighborhood party, strolling Abbot Kinney. Even taking out the trash.

One shop girl got a call from a friend at the Hydrant cafe. "She said, 'If you want to see a celebrity, c'mon over,' " Ali Hotmer, 21, said. Recently arrived from Westchester, Pa., she had not managed the pose of celebrity indifference, and ran down the street to watch Roberts have lunch. "I'm still in awe of celebrities," Hotmer said. In this case, just like the natives.

Residents say that a month ago, the $20-million-per-picture star and her husband, Danny Moder, bought a two-story, $1.3-million home and a lot next door (for a pool and cabana) on a quiet stretch of tidy Craftsman-style bungalows just off the commercial corridor of Lincoln Boulevard. (As of this week, there has been no sale recorded in Los Angeles County under Roberts' or Moder's name in Venice.)

The street, one of Venice's coveted walk streets, is lush with bougainvillea and spiraling morning glories, and divided by a narrow sidewalk. It's an area inhabited by producers, dot com-ers, teachers and artists. Many houses hide behind tall fences and hedges. Some yards are littered with toys, while others are meticulously landscaped. A few homes sit vacant.

Roberts' move into the midst of all this has some locals scratching their heads. Venice isn't the first place that comes to mind as home to America's sweetheart. "Why not get a beachfront property?" asked Recyclepedia bookstore clerk Paola Lopez, 30. "You'd think she could afford it." (Roberts' spokeswoman Marcy Engelman was unavailable for comment.)

Stranger still, say some, is Roberts' interest in an area still battling significant drug and gang crime. Six months ago, police named the nearby Oakwood section of Venice as a hub in a national cocaine trafficking ring run by area gangs.

"For them to move into an area where people are still selling crack ... it tells us our neighborhood is getting better," said hairstylist Ruby De La Casas, a longtime Venice resident.

Then again, Venice's gritty side has long had star appeal. Years ago, Yoko Ono and John Lennon were known to host primal scream therapy sessions in the neighborhood. Dennis Hopper moved into a Frank Gehry-designed house here in the early 1980s, a time when most of his famous friends opted for Beverly Hills. Anjelica Huston and husband Robert Graham bought a beachfront home and have since become known as finicky neighbors. (Some residents say the couple's complaints forced the closure of a next-door nightclub.)

During the last few years, Venice has drawn the young and wealthy, forcing out working-class and low-income families. Typically, newcomers buy the neighborhood's modest turn-of-the century bungalows for $500,000 or less, tear them down and build million-dollar homes on the lots.

"It's changing the sensibility in a lot of strong ways," said Janie Hewson, a Venice resident for 15 years. "People who move into Venice [now] have to make a lot of money.... They have to make Santa Monica kind of money."

And gentrification--with Roberts in its celebrity vanguard--doesn't sit well with everyone.

"I don't know how happy the old-time Venetians are," said 26-year-old Jake Campbell, manager of Scanty, an upscale clothing store on Abbot Kinney. "Half the neighborhood is into the thought that Venice would be the contemporary L.A. hot spot. The other half, the landed Venice people who came to get away from celebrities, are not so happy.... People think it will drive the starving artists, the bohemian types, out. That Venice will become another place that used to be cool."

Venice and its inhabitants are unique to L.A., he said.

"Nobody goes to the Beverly Center and thinks, 'God, this reminds me of Soho,' " Campbell said. "What I love about this street is that there are two designer stores, a family-owned barbecue place and a barber shop. It's not a Supercuts with a Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street."

He'd like to see it protected from too much buzz, but he understands that his store, like Roberts, is a symbol of the changing neighborhood.

"If I'm successful," he said, "I've destroyed the soul of the neighborhood."

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