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It's easy to fall in love with Notting Hill
Stylish London neighborhood is a blend of cultures

LONDON -- Hugh Grant strolls down Portobello Road, past stalls brimming with antique bric-a-brac, carts heaped high with glistening vegetables, and the gaily hued storefronts that line Notting Hill's most famous street.

Yes, the new movie "Notting Hill" may focus on the romance between the characters played by Grant, a stammering, witty bookstore owner, and Julia Roberts, a superstar actress.But, at its heart, it also is a valentine to one of London's trendiest, most colorful neighborhoods, an alternatively stylish and rundown area chockablock with hip restaurants and funky shops, secret gardens and seriously grand homes.

Not to mention Trustafarians, the handy word coined to describe the aggressively style-conscious trust-fund youths who are steadily transforming the west London neighborbood from its Rastafarian roots.

Notting Hill is a hybrid that is home to such varied celebrities as actor Alan Rickman, Beatle daughter and designer Stella McCartney, Blur frontman Damon Alborn and media executive Elizabeth Murdoch (daughter of Rupert), while still maintaining a sizable minority population.

Not insignificantly, it also claims "Notting Hill" screenwriter Richard Curtis among its residents.

"Notting Hill is an extraordinary mixture of cultures," says Curtis, whose own blue front door stands in for the entrance to the house where Grant's character lives. "It is rich and poor and Portugese and Jamaican and English, and it seemed like a proper place where two people from different worlds could actually meet and co-exist."

All true, even though few nonwhite faces can be spied in the movie, even as a backdrop.

Notting Dale, as the neighborhood initially was called, was born in the late 19th century, when high-society architects were commissioned to build neoclassical mansions on the fringes of an industrial area best-known for its brickfields.

In the years after World War II, many of those spacious houses were divided up into rental units for poor tenants, including large numbers of recent immigrants from the West Indies.

And thus, a multicultural neighborhood was created, mixed with the seeds sown by the original Irish and Jewish transplants.

Nowhere are the neighborhood's Afro-Caribbean underpinnings better on display than each August during the Notting Hill Carnival.

But perhaps the best-known of all of Notting Hill's attractions is the Portobello Market, which each Saturday draws thousands of tourists who brave the crowds to paw through table after table of antique -- and not-so-antique -- offerings.

On various days, the market showcases organic fruits and vegetables, flowers, second-hand clothes and CDs, and other treasures.

In fact, the Portobello Market could be considered much like Notting Hill itself, which offers something for almost everyone.

The neighborhood is close to the vast green expanses of Holland Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, where tourists still trek to Princess Diana's former residence.

It contains a host of relatively cheap ethnic restaurants, mixed with upscale establishments such as Leith's, established by British food pioneer Prue Leith, and Kensington Place, the showplace of star chef Rowley Leigh.

Beyond Portobello Road's antiques, Notting Hill is an ideal place to find unique presents -- for someone else, or just for yourself.

One of its main thoroughfares -- Westbourne Grove, or Westbourne Groove, as it is appropriately nicknamed -- offers a variety of quirky shops, ranging from Dinny Hall's designer jewelry, to the cool housewares and toiletries at Space, to the secondhand splendors at Vent, to the edible pleasures at Planet Organic.

Not too far away are the trio of speciality bookshops on Blenheim Crescent -- Books for Cooks (with its delightful, tiny restaurant tucked in the back), Garden Books and the Travel Bookshop, the latter the inspiration for the store owned by Grant's character in "Notting Hill."

But the seemingly relentless gentrification process taking place in the neighborhood is forcing out many small shopowners -- not to mention hordes of nonwealthy and nonwhite residents.

Carolyn Holder, who works in charming, independent Elgin Books, has watched the steady changes over the 23 years she has lived in Notting Hill, which was a down-at-the-heels area when she arrived.

What's she seen has made her sad -- and not just a little bit angry.

"I feel positively hostile to the fact that all the small businesses are being squeezed out," Holder says, lamenting that Elgin Books soon will be forced to close after 18 years because it no longer can afford the rent.

Residential prices are having the same effect: Three-bedroom houses now start at about $1 million, which is probably what the house Grant's "Notting Hill" character owns would cost. And just renting a one-bedroom apartment will set you back about $1,600 a month.

"When I first moved here, it was affordable," Holder says. "You could have young people coming in. Now, no one could afford the current prices. So the mix to the area -- that goes. It's all wealthy people."

How does she feel about the cinematic version of Notting Hill, which is likely to step up even further both the neighborhood's trendiness and tourist quotients?

"I could curse Richard Curtis," she says.