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Sunrise on Sunset?

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Times Staff Writer

FOR years, you could drive along the nondescript and slightly seedy stretch of West Sunset Boulevard between Fairfax and La Brea, taking in the familiar sight of hookers and conveniently low-priced motels and never be surprised by much. The long stretch between the sultry curves of the Strip and the remade heart of Old Hollywood was never going to be the kind of neighborhood that would be convulsed by the massive commercial projects screaming the future’s arrival in other parts of the city: No Hollywood & Highland here. No Playa Vista. No Grove.

Lately, though, along certain parts of this street, little bursts of growth have added up to a kind of mini urban revival. There’s a new public library, named for Will and Ariel Durant. An Econo Lodge motel is giving itself a face-lift. The charming bungalows north and south of Sunset are thriving under historic preservation status. But one block in particular -- the north side of Sunset between Sierra Bonita Avenue and Gardner Street -- is really jumping. Awash in new retail outlets and restaurants, what used to be a ragtag collection of storefronts has blossomed, a microcosm of how the city slowly evolves.

“This area has a kind of old Venice Beach feel to it. It’s still edgy, it hasn’t been gentrified, it brings a different vibe,” said florist Nelson Hiltner, who moved his business, Floral Rush, to this block from Melrose Avenue about eight months ago.

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A couple months after Floral Rush opened, Sam Milgrom also migrated north from Melrose, opening Mr. Musichead Rock Art Gallery next door. And because every neighborhood needs a name, Milgrom dubbed the block Rockin’ Row, a nod to the Guitar Center and its vaunted Rock Walk, holy grail of aspiring Eric Claptons the world over, a few blocks to the east. This block, said Milgrom, is being colonized by retailers who are consciously rejecting other more established parts of town.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “on Beverly and Melrose, rents have gotten so high people on the cutting edge are being pushed out. This place is a breath of fresh air.” (One of the block’s landlords said he charges about $3 per square foot. By contrast, rents on Melrose range from about $4 to $6 per square foot for street-level retail space.)

The opening party Milgrom threw on Nov. 11 for the work of rock photographer Neil Zlozower drew a crowd of hundreds -- including members of the bands Poison, Cinderella and the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- and spilled onto the sidewalk, eventually drawing the attention of a fire marshal, the ultimate sign of the successful urban bash.

“I’ve heard people call it a ‘mini-Melrose,’ ” said Mark Fuqua, who became the proprietor of Motor Avenue Guitars on the corner of Sunset and Gardner last July. “It’s kind of the oldest little section I’ve found in Hollywood where you get a sense of city. Being from San Francisco, I really crave that, and there isn’t that much in Los Angeles. But this little tiny block here, with these brick buildings, gives you that feeling.”

At one time, this was more than just an area with some nice brick buildings. It was neighborhood tinged with the glamour of showbiz, with a Red Car stop called Gardner Junction, grocery stores, a bakery, bank, hardware store and movie stars walking around. Parisian Florist, on the southeast corner of Sunset and Sierra Bonita, catered to that generation of stars -- Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Rock Hudson, Robert Mitchum, Jackie Gleason and Natalie Wood all were customers.

“An era has passed,” said 78-year-old Louis Alhanati without a tinge of regret as he sat on a stool in the back room of Parisian Florist the other day. Alhanati bought the business in 1960 when it was already almost four decades old, and his children, Bob Alhanati and Susan Hail, run it now. They can look across the street at all the new businesses -- Cheebo and Mr. Musichead and Sugar Baby -- and see the ghosts of more than one Sunset past. Bob recalls seeing Ozzie and Harriet and other stars on the street. Louis recalls the terrible traffic during the 1960s, when people from all over came to Sunset to see the hippies.

At least they’ll always have Marilyn Monroe. Parisian Florist created the spray for the star’s coffin. And while a lot of people know that Joe DiMaggio used to have fresh roses delivered to Monroe’s gravesite in Westwood three times a week, few realize that the buds came from Parisian Florist, for 20 years. “We’re the dinosaurs now,” said Louis Alhanati with a shrug.

The transformation of the block across the street seemed to start with the arrival about four years ago of the glowing orange Cheebo, a Mediterranean restaurant specializing in “slabs” of pizza and making the perfectly reasonable promise that “everything is organic when possible.” One of the original rock ‘n’ roll-themed Thai food outposts, Toi on Sunset, has been on the block since 1986.

Then Sugar Baby, a baby boutique with the irresistible slogan “For rocker moms, not soccer moms” opened its doors for people whose tots need a Che Guevara onesie or a cashmere patchwork cape. The boutique’s owner, Christina Sitkevich, said she checked out Montana Avenue in Santa Monica but found it “saturated.” “We took a leap of faith to come here,” she said.

Two years ago, husband-and-wife retailing team Ricky and Maki Takizawa decided to open Pop Killer, a vintage clothing and rocker T-shirt store. They noticed the storefront for lease one evening after they’d dined at Cheebo.

“It’s still underground,” said Maki Takizawa. “It’s not really a shopping place.” And yet a year later, after Pop Killer arrived, the discount clothing store DNA, known for its trendy but affordable designs, set up shop. The store is the second location for DNA, which has been on Rose Avenue in Venice for 18 years.

Two doors down, Marie-Christine Belkadi, a Frenchwoman whose store is so new it doesn’t even have a sign in front, is offering clothes calculated to appeal to those with more style than cash. She also has a shelf of belly dance DVDs, a nod to her other career as a costumer for Miles Copeland’s Bellydance Superstars, a traveling troupe that celebrates the ancient form of dance.

No one can say exactly when the tipping point came for this block. But in recent months, drivers whizzing by started noticing that there was something to slow down for.

“We were the first on the block of the new businesses,” said Cheebo’s owner, Sandro Reinhardt, who opened the place as a strictly takeout/delivery venue four years ago and soon transformed it into a comfortable neighborhood eatery. “Right in front of us and across the street was pretty rife with prostitutes,” he said. “We worked with the police to push them off, and that was a big turning point. But also, Sunset is very monotonous in this area, and Cheebo really livens it up. And just having a restaurant here brings others in.”

As Tom LaBonge, the neighborhood’s L.A. city councilman, puts it, “Healthy people attract other healthy people.”

Maybe that explains the clumps of extremely attractive (and healthy) young men and women who stood on the sidewalk on Gardner the other day.

They were students at the Actor’s Playpen, a school and performance space that Hratch Titizian opened about a year and a half ago around the corner on Gardner. Just about every weekend someone is putting on a production in his 50-seat theater.

The block is home to at least two other theaters, including one that houses a new sketch comedy group called the Strait Jacket Society. Derek Mehn, Strait Jacket’s 27-year-old artistic director, who works as a substitute special education teacher by day, said the troupe arrived in September. The neighborhood is just right for them, he said, “a nice little postmodern bohemia.”

The Actor’s Playpen students sometimes stand on the sidewalk or sit on one of the old stoops, holding scripts, looking perfect even in the hard glare of day. “Should I be flirty?” an aspiring starlet asked her handsome partner the other day. “Or edgy?”


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