Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times (m8iv3tpd20120809220342/600 )
A party atmosphere prevailed Thursday night at downtown Los Angeles' Art Walk, a month after violence erupted at the popular event.
Art Walk, which began as a local art crawl in 2004, has evolved into a showcase for a revitalized downtown, attracting thousands of people who crowd sidewalks, visit clubs, eat at restaurants and food trucks, and turn the historic core into a colorful festival on the second Thursday of each month.
But at the July event, Occupy L.A. activists armed with chalk scrawled political slogans and drawings on the sidewalks to protest downtown gentrification, which has pushed out some of the area's poorer residents. Hundreds of Los Angeles Police Department officers clashed with the protesters and fired less-than-lethal projectiles into the crowds. Four officers were hurt, and 15 people were arrested.
PHOTOS: Chalk protest at Pershing Square
Early Thursday evening, police began taking up positions along Spring and Main streets as merchants watched warily and wondered whether violence would again mar the event.
Rachel Elisheva, who manages Archa clothing store on 5th Street, said the increased police presence was an unfortunate necessity.
"Protesters don't bother us, but when they start throwing bottles and stealing shirts because they think everything is free, that's different," Elisheva said as two LAPD officers on horseback rode by. "It's a shame to have so much police here, but what can you do?"
Art Walk patrons seemed undeterred, some pushing their children in strollers and others leading dogs on leashes. Store owners and Occupy members alike blared music as a party atmosphere settled over the area.
"It's going to be on tonight! It's going to be all good," said Laronda Hartfield, who was selling clothing on 5th Street.
At 5th and Spring streets, several men and women waved signs offering free hugs, which were declined by one LAPD officer.
"I would if I were off duty," the officer said.
Inside nearby Coba Gallery, as a handful of patrons roamed the space, manager Jacky Herrera complained that all the police had sucked the energy from the typically jovial event. She said fewer people were at the gallery than during previous Art Walks.
"I think it hinders a lot of folks from coming out," she said of the police presence. "It definitely slows the traffic down."
A chartered bus filled with Occupy activists from Oakland had arrived a day before Art Walk, causing authorities and city officials to wonder whether the visitors would incite trouble. But activists and others had visited galleries and stores in the area to improve communication and stress the need for a peaceful night.
At Pershing Square, Occupy Los Angeles protesters got a visit Thursday night from a top city official.
Andrea Alarcon, who heads the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, which issues permits for Art Walk and other special events, spent a few minutes mingling with protesters.
As a group of demonstrators strummed guitars nearby, Alarcon and the protesters discussed alternative protest spaces for Occupy, including the feasibility of allowing the group to stage demonstrations at Art Walk itself, inside gallery spaces. Alarcon said that was a possibility, although property owners would have to agree to it.
They also talked about what, exactly, the Occupy protest was all about.
Ryan Rice, 27, mentioned one gripe: the high cost of education and sky-high student loans.
Alarcon nodded, saying that she was still saddled with college loans. "I always tell people I've got a mortgage in my head," she said, adding that it would be a long time until her loans are paid off.
She walked around for a few minutes, apologized for not having business cards to hand out, then headed back to Art Walk.
About 150 people gathered in Pershing Square. Chalk drawings and slogans were all over the place — on the sidewalk, on walls, on the park's large spherical sculpture.
Protesters were keeping a wary eye on the movements of police, texting each other about where they saw officers gathering. Others employed smartphones and video cameras.
Police, who earlier in the day had arrested two people at the park, said they had decided to allow a certain amount of chalking.
Will Rogers, a member of Occupy Los Angeles, said confrontation was not the purpose of the protesters.
"We're here to raise awareness of free speech, reject police brutality, participate in community involvement," he said.
Times staff writers Angel Jennings and Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.