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The New Faces

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.

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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.”

She’s constantly delving into something new--dipping into glove design, dabbling in interior decorating and furniture design, fashion and photojournalism, and now branching into writing. Living in the Arts District has allowed her to collaborate with other downtown dwellers--textile and porcelain designers, photographers, graffiti artists. “My mind,” she says, “is a million miles a minute.”

Over time, the live/work loft she shares with her husband, Robert Heller, became a reflection of what was transpiring inside. Their space is a conflation of styles, moods, textures and eras--part Parisian bordello, part English Victorian sitting room, part turn-of-the-last-century Los Angeles. Bolts of colorful fabric bloom from pots, as if exotic flora; mannequins are draped in elegant works-in-progress; grainy black-and-white urban landscapes hang in clusters on the walls. While everything on display is the palette from which she works, the loft has also become a showroom/atelier where visitors can purchase what they see.

Kramer’s husband, a real estate broker, also took to the environment almost immediately. After a long career in the fashion industry, he too was slogging it out in real estate in the Valley, “doing average commercial work.” He needed “a new frontier.”

His trek led him downtown, which coincided with meeting Kramer. Taking it all in, the rising skeletons of new construction, the intricacies of restoration, Heller hit on a logical progression: “the creative office.” It’s a concept he’s targeting toward people who live in these spaces, particularly the crude industrial spaces. “People,” he explains, “who don’t want to work in a glass office building and get in an elevator with a hundred people and go up to the 13th floor. They want to experience the same aura at work as they do at home. So that’s where I’m headed. I’m creating workspace for that same crowd. . . . I’m chasing that mind-set.”

“The person who will think a loft is heaven is either an artist or a romantic,” says John Lindauer, who is, it quickly becomes clear, a fanciful mix of both. “I’m a city mouse, and I never felt at home in Los Angeles because of its sprawl. But I’d always kind of looked over here at the tall buildings and thought, ‘I wonder what that’s like?’ ”

He’s situated several floors above Main Street in a building that the folks in developer Tom Gilmore’s office refer to as “Blade Runner-ish,” with its glowering exterior, dim hallways and dark floors. On a recent smogless day, the point of view from Lindauer’s huge wraparound windows approaches that of a cockpit. It has augmented his perspective. It’s helped him appreciate the city more.

Lindauer, who studied animation and documentary filmmaking at Harvard and now directs television commercials and videos, is just finishing up at his computer, which sits at the center of an imposing hulk of a desk that’s long enough to be a formal dining room table. It’s a striking antique that recalls another moody film, “Citizen Kane.” The 2,200-square-foot space is accented with all manner of personal touches--an old dentist’s chair, Lindauer’s own blown-up, close-up pin-screen portrait of a crazed Karl Malden from the film “Baby Doll.”

“His expression changes when you pull out or push in the pins,” he says. “I like Karl Malden.”

At street level, Lindauer has a different sort of inspirational view: a neo-noir version of an evolving Main Street, where City Hall workers mix with mumbling street people and harried film crews. Some days, residents awaken to a sidewalk they barely recognize--one with a fake newsstand or new cafe on a spot that only last night was still for lease. There is something about the uncertainty of what is real and what is not, coupled with the street energy, that Lindauer likes.

After a bad stint in Westwood and a short stint in Venice, Lindauer found his way to the Arts District seven years ago, when a convergence of factors--mostly finances--had him seeking more moderately priced digs. “There was a very active art scene happening . . . some real artists making real art,” he recalls. “As a commercial director--in L.A.--that was something I didn’t really see often. Fine art is something you see at an opening, hanging on the wall to be sold or bought. You don’t see it being created all the time. It was super-inspirational to have people around who were making great, fun, amazing art.”

After sorting out his finances, Lindauer relocated to one of the high-rise buildings in the Old Bank District. “My old loft was more of a loft loft. It had 18-foot ceilings, and it was completely raw,” he says. “I think that if a loft is any more finished it becomes an apartment. You lose the ability to paint, you can’t sculpt or operate any machinery.” That’s one of his biggest concerns about the recent shifts in loft living: that the craze--and the high prices that have come with it--might completely douse the energy that ignited it all.

“It seems in some ways there’s a step missing now,” he says. “Essentially, the loft I was living in was an entry-level situation . . . a person who was entering the marketplace could live well, create art, have a space, have a community.

“When you make an ‘artist’s loft’ you hope to attract artists, and artists, you know, aren’t known for making a lot of money. That’s why they’re known as starving artists. And when the price shoots up, the only people who can move in are lawyers, doctors and investment bankers--and I don’t know many investment bankers who want to live in a raw space and paint for a weekend.

“Maybe some do. God bless ‘em.”

You’d think he’s a visiting dignitary, for all the commotion his mere presence is kicking up. In a way he is. Robert Sweedler, bearded, his longish dark hair threaded in silver, looks every bit the philosophical survivor. He chats it up with a few old buddies--men attired in grubby T-shirts, stretched-out sweaters--ranged around the long bar that runs through the narrow space at 410 Boyd. That’s both the cafe’s name and its address, on the edge of the Arts District.

For 26 years Sweedler ran the neighborhood’s only architecture and art supply store, Roark, just a couple of doors down. That is, until last December, when he finally decamped and set up shop closer to USC. “I think in life it’s good to examine everything,” he says.

When he takes a seat in one of the booths to settle in for a chat, a succession of old friends and store regulars drift by.

“I wondered where you’ve been.”

“I thought you were just closed for the holidays. So what gives?”

Sweedler fills each of them in on the quick details of the move. Each time, he fishes out a business card, strikes through the Boyd Street address in black ink and carefully writes in the new one.

Like Lindauer, Sweedler knows the import of having a point of entry, or better, a launching pad. He is concerned about how few are left.

He had gravitated here in the early days, the late ‘70s, when artists were staking claim to the district and burrowing into long-abandoned warehouses on streets that could feel both desolate and desperate. The risk was worth it: It gave them room to create not just art but a community.

His shop was in tune with the neighborhood. “It was,” Sweedler says in a voice sanded smooth of sentimentality, “very rustic and rusty.” There were storefronts across the street occupied by painters and sculptors. Around the corner, muralists and ironworkers. “That original group, they were tough guys. Afraid of nothing. It was really dynamic.”

Back then, this cafe went by another name--Cocola--and the bar was often packed end-to-end for openings, parties and face-offs. “It was like a speak-easy. The third place,” the place between home and work. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see, say, a sculptor wander in, still in bathrobe and slippers, to order a Scotch and grab lunch. Someone covered in paint or plaster might drop by his shop looking for a brush, a T-square, an extension cord.

“Back then, nobody was marketing it. There were no advertisements. It wasn’t about being hip,” he says. “Now it’s a lifestyle. The lofts are ‘cool,’ ‘creative.’ It’s a little bit like what you drive.”

This is not just an L.A. phenomenon, Sweedler concedes. “It’s comparable to what’s going on in other cities. It’s just that what we had was such a neat experience--and that’s now over. The larger phenomenon, all this ‘excitement,’ essentially made my community go away.”

In a different life not so long ago, Roy Montibon and his fiancee, Julie Tumblety, lived in a high-rise condo on the Westside, many floors above Veteran Avenue. They felt as if they were living in a bubble. “No one spoke to anyone. No one even seemed to come out of their places--ever. It might have been pretty outside, but it was not friendly inside,” says Montibon.

“One morning my fiancee woke up and said, ‘I had this dream that I wanted to tell you about. . . .’ In her dream, she saw herself sitting by a window, reading a book in a friend’s loft. There were these beautiful buildings outside and we were high off the ground. And, she said, ‘I felt really at home.’ ”

That afternoon they headed downtown and drove around. Within four hours they found a space in the San Fernando Building. Met with the leasing agent. Signed the papers. By the end of the day, “Everything was done.”

They were home.

Their building, in the Old Bank District, is buzzing with painters and designers and other creative folk like Montibon, who heads his own design business, Montibon Co. There are also politicians, audio engineers, comedy writers, composers, jewelry makers. “Just because this is the business core doesn’t mean that everybody is a businessman,” says Montibon, “just like everyone in the Arts District isn’t an artist. I don’t want to deny anyone’s creativity--because someone has made a career choice doesn’t mean that they don’t have a second life, that doing art or writing poetry doesn’t come out of their hearts on the side.”

One of the things that had attracted Montibon to loft living was the idea of a porous lifestyle. He quickly found it. Not only is there a synergy among the creative types he runs into in the hallways or at the sidewalk cafes, but there is also a collective open-mindedness and proactive engagement that he found missing from other communities he’d lived in. “I think that people here are very open, and it has created some cross-pollination. There are a lot of creative, professional opportunities that a neighborhood like this presents.”

Not long after he arrived downtown, a next-door neighbor invited him to a meeting, and before long he was involved in community improvement projects and organizing events such as the first Bank District Art Walk in 2002. He’s been running it ever since. “In the beginning there was a tremendous bit of scoffing,” Montibon says with a laugh, “that people who lived in the Old Bank District, in these old office buildings, weren’t artists. The first year there was scoffing, but not now.”

He’s seen a new generation of multidisciplinary artists--audio engineers who are also composers, painters who are also commercial designers--begin to collaborate on independent projects as well as professional endeavors: Flash website developers and audio engineers producing art videos; commercial artists and fine art photographers designing commercial websites. “In my building, this little zone down here, that’s really common.”

Their open loft has even expanded the way that he and Tumblety--whose day job is at UCLA Extension, but who moonlights as a photographer and art director--work at home. “I would say doing this live/work thing, using it as a flexible studio, you tend to have your projects out . . . so we’ve ended up producing things together, music and art events.”

Part of loft living is about stretching. “For me, it’s been a good place to find out what kind of person I am,” says Montibon. “I have much more of a community activist soul than I thought. And a lot of that has to do with the dynamic interchanges that are going on down here.”

While it’s long been said that people come to Los Angeles to reinvent themselves, downtown is offering another template for living. “It’s not like a community you put on like a coat and wrap yourself in its attributes, like certain other ZIP Codes,” Montibon says.

It’s just the opposite. In reinventing themselves, people are reinventing downtown.

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Resource Guide

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For more information on downtown Los Angeles, go to Los Angeles Conservancy, www.laconservancy.org/tours; Downtown Center Business Improvement District, www.downtownla.com/index.asp; and the Central City Assn., www.ccala.org/new/cca_home.asp. The Downtown Center Business Improvement District is sponsoring a Downtown Living Tour, March 25-26, (213) 624-2146.

Downtown L.A. loft projects include: Old Bank District Lofts, on 4th between Spring and Main streets, www.laloft.com; Higgins Building, 108 W. 2nd St., www.andrewerie.com/sites/higgins/higgins.html; Little Tokyo Lofts, 420 S. San Pedro St., www.littletokyolofts.com; Pegasus, 612 S. Flower St., www.pegasusapartments.com; Toy Factory Lofts, 1855 Industrial St., www.toyfactorylofts.com; Flower Street Lofts, 1140 S. Flower St., www.cimgroup.com/cities/losangeles/bronson.asp; Bartlett Building Lofts, 215 W. 7th St., www.bartlettlofts.com; Historic Gas Company Lofts, 810 S. Flower St., www.gascompanylofts.com; Orpheum Lofts, 846 S. Broadway, www.laorpheumlofts.com; Pacific Electric Lofts, 610 S. Main St., www.pelofts.com; Spring Tower Lofts, 639 S. Spring St., www.loftsonline.us/la/springtower/springtower.htm; Santee Court, 716 S. Los Angeles St., www.santeecourt.com; Eastern Columbia Lofts, 849 S. Broadway, www.easterncolumbialofts.com; Molino Street Lofts, 500 Molino St., www.molinostreetlofts.com; Factory Place Lofts, 1308 Factory Place, www.factoryplacelofts.com.

For more information on lofts, consult the following books: “Loft Living,” by Peggy Vance, Sterling Publishing; “Lofts DesignSource,” by Ana G. Canizares, HarperCollins; “Lofts: A Way of Living, A Way of Working,” by Franciso Asensio, Watson-Guptill Publications; “The Smart Loft,” by James Grayson Trulove, HarperCollins.

Pages 16-24: Steven Ehrlich Architects, Culver City, (310) 838-9700; Kelly Reemtsen, www.girlpainter.com; Bill Brantley, Art, Architecture, Thought Studio, Marina del Rey, (310) 578-8222; Velvet Hammerschmidt Design, Santa Monica, (310) 401-6117.


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