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SCARY NEIGHBORHOOD NOW HIP PLACE TO LIVE

Photographer Michael Roberts had heard about the car theft problems in the parking area in front of his Artspace home.

So, when he heard a racket outside late one night, he marched out the door with an angry stream of words forming in his mouth. When the noise-making stranger noticed Roberts, he held up a small piece of gadgetry, smiled brightly and said, "Hey, man, wanna buy a stereo equalizer?"Roberts was so taken aback that he didn't ask where the likely stolen equalizer had come from or what the stranger was doing. Instead, he laughed at the irony of the situation, shook his head no and went back inside to try to get some sleep.

Roberts is no stranger to such incidents: He lives smack dab in the middle of a small area in downtown Salt Lake City known as the Rio Grande neighborhood, famous for its high concentration of drug traffic and crime.

Even though the neighborhood is still scary at night - just about everyone who lives there has a lot of stories to tell - it is quickly becoming a hip, even trendy, place to live.

Apartment complexes are sprouting like weeds in the west fringes of the downtown business district, and more and more people are taking on the excitement and challenges of city living.

Take the Artspace buildings, for example. Just south of Pioneer Park at 353 W. 200 South, the new Artspace Rubber Co. isn't exactly in a prime location. Police cars patrol the crime-riddled area almost constantly.

Nevertheless, the new building is filled to capacity and residents of the new arts community say they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

"It's like a little renaissance in Salt Lake," said artist Shawn McReynolds.

"I love it," adds Michael Moonbird, an artist and teacher. "I feel cosmopolitan now. I've lived in Murray and some other cities, and you don't feel connected there. Here, I feel connected."

Today, the beginnings of a SoHo-like hustle and bustle is slowly replacing the drug dealers in the Rio Grande neighborhood. Brightly colored walls and murals hide the graf-fi-ti, and restaurants and offices are attracting the kind of people who once avoided the area.

The desolate streets of the past now hold a smattering of students, artists and executives. An occasional bicycle whizzes by Pioneer Park, and sometimes - under the protection of noon-day sun - brave souls venture to the park for a picnic.

Aiisa Gulko has lived across the corner from Pioneer Park for 18 months now. Though her building, La France, has been run down over the years, she hears rumors of planned renovations to keep up with the trendy new apartments across the street.

"I've noticed a change over at Artspace," she said. "More things are happening over there right now. But I think there'll be a change here when the new apartments across the street are done."

Apartments under construction at 300 West and 300 South will bring more people into Gulko's neighborhood. A renovated Twirl Town Toys building at 327 W. 200 South will feature a restaurant and upscale luxury apartments.

But for now, Gulko remains wary when she goes outside. "The drug dealers seem more visible these days," she said.

Photographer Dennis Mecham has lived in the original Artspace for 21/2 years, and though he has been offered a vast array of drugs from equally diverse street crawlers, he still loves his downtown home.

"I like the energy of downtown," he says with a smile. "Everything is happening here - it's a good environment to work in."

As the sun dips behind the Westgate Office Center on the corner of 200 South and 300 West, a scattering of locals head out on nightly jogs or evening strolls. And though their calm and comfortable faces hide any hint of fear, their hands often curl around a small canister of pepper mace.

City planners hope the new buildings and development downtown will remove the need for such protective measures.

"We want it to be a funky area," said Salt Lake Councilman Tom Godfrey. In efforts to increase area foot traffic, the City Council has approved zoning changes to require new apartment buildings in the area to provide main-floor retail space.

"We want to get more people out on the streets," he added. "We've always kind of envisioned this area as part of the arts center area."

Downtown residents couldn't be happier with the growth. Mecham thinks the new businesses and tenants have improved the area's atmosphere.

"With the new (Artspace Rubber Co.) building opening and new places like Fuggles (restaurant), there's a more positive energy here," he said.

And though his building has locks and alarms to keep the big city out, Moonbird said he wouldn't let a fear of crime drive him out of his new home.

"I'm not that terrified. I'm just careful."