Byline: Deirdre Mendoza

In many of Los Angeles’ historic communities, spaces once owned by mom-and-pop grocers are now the province of stylish retailers, while dive bars are reinvented as hidden hot spots for the city’s hipsters.
The latest nabe undergoing such a revival is the quaint Fairfax district, primed by a four-year, $310,000 facelift completed in 2001 and transformed to some degree by an influx of fashion and interior design shops. And nowhere is this more evident than Fairfax Avenue. Long a destination for a tasty knish, the stretch between Third Street and Melrose Avenue is affectionately known as the Bagel Belt and Kosher Canyon because of its concentration of yeshivas, temples and kosher butcher shops.
Yet, it’s also where many on-the-rise writers, directors, wardrobers, publicists and other slaves to the entertainment and publishing industries live and work, due to its proximity to CBS, Miramax and other studios, as well as nearby Magazine Mile on Wilshire Boulevard. On the fashion front, designer Henry Duarte oversees his highly skilled staff in a warehouse across the street from Canter’s Deli, where his intricately pieced denim couture is made. And the magazine stand around the corner, just off of Oakwood Avenue, stocks import fashion and photography publications.
During the week, edgy Angelenos flood into the neighborhood. They lunch at old standbys like Eat A Pita, frequent the new spice shop, All Spice, revisit celluloid classics at the Silent Movie Theatre — all while brushing up against the close-knit community of Jewish senior citizens who populate this historic district. The Fairfax High vintage swap meet on Saturdays is also a favorite among the treasure-hunting set.
Nightlife has always been a draw among locals and those hailing from neighborhoods as far east as Silver Lake and north into the Hollywood Hills. It’s worth the short drive to cafes and bars such as Cafe Largo, the darkly lit Max’s, the Kibitz Room (where many a rock star, including members of the Wallflowers, first jammed), and the alternative comedy venue and gallery, Bang.
Although there’s still a sense that this isn’t the West Side, it’s tough to find a rental apartment below $1,000 a month, in the once-affordable area south of Melrose. As for buying a home, the median price for a three-bedroom, single-family home is $469,000 and is increasing about 10 percent each year, according to Los Angeles firm DBL Realtors.
Expectations on this side of town are running high with the revamp of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Farmer’s Market expansion and the recent opening of The Grove retail and entertainment complex.
The Market’s expansion, led by owner-developer A.F. Gilmore, will put a cosmetic shine on the existing Farmer’s Market. Surrounding it is the monolithic The Grove, a 575,000-square-foot retail and entertainment village on 20 acres that opened this month and was conceived by owner-developer Caruso Affiliated Holdings for a price tag of $160 million. The open-air development — a project that rivals the Hollywood & Highland entertainment and shopping center, a mere 5 miles east — has a diverse roster led by F.A.O. Schwarz, Hawk Skate, NikeGoddess, Quiksilver Boardrider’s Club and Nordstrom. Whereas the Hollywood & Highland shopping complex is foremost a tourist destination, the Farmer’s Market hopes to pull most of its traffic from local consumers.
Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., is among those who believe The Grove is bound to have a long-term impact on retail in the area. “You’re likely to see this new project changing the center of gravity for West Side shoppers,” said Kyser, who noted that upscale residents of the Hancock Park and nearby Wilshire neighborhoods will no longer have to drive to Culver City, The Beverly Center or farther west to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica to find national brands.
Fairfax Avenue business owners said they welcome the change to the area. There are inevitably concerns about the increase in motorist traffic and the impact on side-street and boulevard parking. Yet the city is already implementing concessions including additional turn signals and the extension of a north-south access street in an effort to pre-empt widespread parking panic.
“Just like the blockbuster [art] shows at the [Los Angeles County] Museum that brought 20 percent more business to the area, the Farmer’s Market will probably help the whole neighborhood,” said Marc Canter, a manager at Canter’s, the family-run restaurant that has been an institution in Los Angeles since it moved onto Fairfax in 1948.
By day, Canter’s is the place for corned beef sandwiches and matzah ball soup. At night, the Kibitz Room, with its walls covered in snapshots of rock stars (many taken by Marc Canter), attracts a young crowd of musicians, artists and film industry types who come for cheap and potent cocktails and stay to jam with local musicians.
As president of the Fairfax Business Association, Marc’s sister Jacqueline Canter has led a beautification effort on Fairfax in collaboration with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative.
Largely because of her team’s grassroots efforts, trees are trimmed, alleys are safer, the homeless have moved on and the merchant’s walls stay graffiti free. A few independent landlords have overhauled old building facades and attracted a better tenant population.
Warehouse spaces that average between $1 and $1.50 per square foot — a dollar less than in parts of Hollywood — have lured several hip new businesses to the block. Michelle Webb and Renee Johnston, partners in the vintage clothing store Catwalk, were among the first of the new wave. In December 2001, the pair moved into a leased 2,500-square-foot space and have since filled it with 20,000-plus clothing and accessories items. Star pieces include a full-length Ossie Clark snakeskin coat, Missoni knits, Hattie Carnegie suits and original Vivienne Westwood Sex Pistols T-shirts. Retail prices start at under $100 for Gucci wristbands to a $20,000 Louis Vuitton trunk.
In New York, where the duo participate in vintage trade shows, design houses such as Donna Karan, Jill Stuart, Costume National and Ralph Lauren tap the collection for inspiration.
In fact, they considered opening in New York first, where Webb maintains an apartment, but settled on Fairfax after being seduced by its urban feel.
“We consider ourselves on the forefront, and we wanted to get it while the getting was good,” said Johnston, a veteran costumer and fashion consultant who is probably best known for her designs for the cult rock film parody “This Is Spinal Tap.” Webb is a former video commissioner for Atlantic Records.
Webb predicts that studio services, such as wardrobing for the upcoming season of “Sex and the City,” will account for 20 to 30 percent of Catwalk’s annual revenues. The partners are projecting $500,000 in retail sales by 2004.
A few doors down, Los Angeles-based designer Adriana Caras shares an atelier space she calls 451 with interior designer Marjorie Skouras, owner of Marjorie Skouras Designs. Skouras’ partner is her sister, Alison Blumenfeld.
The 2,500-square-foot loft, which previously housed a vintage furniture store, was gutted and remodeled in October 2001 as an open floor plan, which houses both businesses, a retail space, a conference room, a kitchen and an upstairs press office for Caras. It opened officially in February of 2002.
Skouras, a former independent film distributor, said that when looking for office space, she bypassed Robertson Boulevard and other more conventional retail districts because of the relaxed atmosphere on Fairfax.
“Being here in an affordable space allows us to entertain our multiple design ambitions,” she said. “None of us were really looking for foot traffic, and we wanted a place that had an ease that you won’t find on the more established streets.”
The trio plan to hold monthly by-invitation tea parties derived from their combined mailing lists, as well as fashion shows and design-related events, to draw new and regular clientele into the space.
Further north is Inside Space. Since opening in September 2001, it has become a popular source for an affordable mix of vintage furnishings and home accessories. Along with handpicked mid-century modern pieces and furniture reproductions, owner Scotti Sitz stocks locally produced loungewear (Bed Head, Elizabeth Todd Designs), bath products (Bathology) and jewelry (Liza Shtromberg and Melissa Joy Manning).
Sitz, whose background in retail development and marketing includes stints at Calvin Klein, Coach and Armani Collezioni, estimated $100,000 in annual sales for the store. Receptions for emerging artists and designers are key to her plan to build a sense of community along Fairfax. “You miss the one-off boutiques in New York, but L.A. has really become more innovative, and this is definitely the next neighborhood to watch,” she said.
Hairstylist Molly Scargall was a pioneer on the block with her hair salon Goo back in September 1999. Her sales have quadrupled since then, and the shop now caters to bands such as Stun (the Strokes of Los Angeles), as well as celebs such as Julie Newmar — who is also Scargall’s landlord.
Newmar, a Los Angeles native, is probably best known to boomer generation viewers for her role as Catwoman on the “Batman” television series of the Sixties. She owns four Fairfax properties, inherited in 1981 from her father.
Over the years, Newmar has seen fruit stands and Kosher bakeries replaced by spice, tea and candle stores on Fairfax, and a Whole Foods supermarket land in the mall north of Melrose. She’s also watched rents rise from 10 cents a square foot in the late Eighties to more than a $1 dollar this year.
Newmar said she is hopeful about the new Fairfax tenants and agreed that the well-traveled streets and eclectic mix of businesses are reminiscent of New York.
“The whole thing here is electrifying and available to your pocketbook,” she observed. “You see life going on all around you in this rich environment — and there’s plenty of parking.”