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The New Faces

Suburban malaise, curiosity, a desire to mingle brought them to loft living. Or maybe they were just closet artists all along.

March 12, 2006|Lynell George | Lynell George is a senior writer for West. Her work has appeared in Ms., Essence, Vibe and other magazines, as well as in the essay collection "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology."

Not so long ago, when people would ask Qathryn Brehm where she lived, she would answer, without excuse or elaboration, "I live downtown." Invariably the question would be followed by another: "You live where?" And that would be the end of it.

In the last year or so, she's noticed a shift. "Now they say, 'Oh, you live in a loft?' Then all of a sudden people want to talk about it."

Brehm's neighborhood, the Arts District, is hot. So, too, are the surrounding neighborhoods of South Park and the Old Bank District. "There's just been this whole influx of folks," says Brehm.

Lofts are filling up, though not necessarily with the sort who first settled them.

Back in the late '70s, when Brehm, a painter, moved to a building at 8th and Spring streets with a bathroom down the hall, the loft was the province of fine artists who needed the psychic and physical space--sun-flooded windows, high ceilings, work-worn floors--to be able to create. Many of the units were raw. "You'd have to put in your own walls and your own plumbing," Brehm recalls. Artists living in quarters zoned only for working would hide their bed linens and hot plates, fearing unannounced fire marshal inspections.

These days, "not everyone is a painter or a sculptor," says Brehm, who moved to a converted warehouse on Traction Avenue in the mid-'80s. But they are creative nonetheless. "The new direction seems to be people who work in the fabric industry or work in the digital world, people who work in music--not so much musicians, but they're sitting at keyboards mixing music."

You'd think there would be some resentment among the old guard, a sense of squatters' rights entitlement. And there is, especially when art-for-art's-sake types are priced out of the neighborhood. But Brehm's take is devoid of bitterness.

"I'm kind of enjoying this new wave, seeing people find it, because you see it through their eyes," she says. "All of this has given the neighborhood a cachet. . . . It's nice to get respect."

The space between art and "artsy" is fraught.

Nowadays, a loft isn't simply a brick-and-mortar dwelling; it's a different kind of construction, a new marketing niche. There are "Trendy Lofts," "Designer Lofts" and "Creative Living Spaces." There are evocative billboards near stacked-up freeway entrances, enticing soft-focus magazine ads: a beaming couple arranged on a love seat surrounded by their upscale, up-to-the-moment trappings--CDs, DVDs, a plasma TV and a city view spilling out like jewels on velvet.

Even squeezed within the brevity of classified blurbs or agent listings, the message is clear: Lofts are "edgy," "New York-style," "light and airy" and most of all "hip"--with exclamation points!--and priced at sums that very few would-be Ruschas can afford. No wonder so many of these places are being snapped up by thirtysomething investment bankers and trust-fund kids. For them, an "artist's loft" may very well be the latest fashionable accessory, like "an iPod or a BMW or a Chinese baby," as one exasperated real estate agent puts it. For others, loft spaces have become a solution to being shut out of a brutal housing market. "Landing a loft" sounds a lot hipper than "settling for a condo."

But for some downtown denizens, the open floor plan tugs at buried yearnings, life paths not taken. A loft can telegraph: "I'm an urban professional, but that's not all I am." Whether fashion designers, chefs, actors or webmasters, these are people tapping the creative spirit within. And they're often doing it with a twist--exploring the long inviolable space between art and commerce.

Elizabeth Kramer wanted to do a teardown. Rebuild her life from the bottom up. She was miserable working as a real estate appraiser and living with a group of people in a house in the San Fernando Valley--until the owner sold the house out from under them.

There had always been something about a loft, downtown in particular, that interested her. "Instead of being in suburbia, where it's kind of lawyer, doctor, Indian chief, you come downtown and it's photography, graphic design, just all the arts rolled into this great little neighborhood."

Eight years ago, she found an unfinished space in an industrial building in the heart of the hardscrabble Arts District and began to play around with things: buying castoffs, experimenting with what went where, because there was no dedicated floor plan. "I liked the fact that there were no walls," she says. "That everything was open. Open and up for grabs. You could do whatever you wanted. You could live the way you wanted and not be confined by any drywall."

The move unlocked many ideas and emotions. "My family is basically full of closeted artists. They all wound up doing jobs that did not facilitate their creative talents. . . . I think part of winding up down here is an affirmation that you are really trying to pursue that part of your life . . . that you are following your passion."

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