Sass in the City

The cheeky charm of Palm Springs’ Uptown Design District lures entrepreneurs — and patrons of the distinctive

Photos By Elena Ray

Imagination and innovation live uptown. It’s where the past and future meet in an explosion of bright color and chrome, where comfort food and Cadillacs coexist and black-ice martinis and Mapplethorpe make room for Eames and Elrod. In uptown, antique is something you do, Shag is something you buy, retro is somewhere you go, and Read is someone you meet. It’s retail down the rabbit hole, except Elvis trumps the Mad Hatter at every turn. It’s Barbie on steroids, an acrylic wonderland, and the crush of orange all rolled into a single experience. It’s where you’ll bow to a Turk and love every second of the submission.

Fashionably funky, peppered with the flavor of modernism, and featuring some of the city’s best restaurants, the Uptown Design District in Palm Springs attracts adventurous shoppers and seduces savvy concierges.

“It defines Palm Springs Modern,” says Tammy Perezchica, a longtime Palm Springs resident and downtown administrator, who suggests exploring the stretch of Palm Canyon Drive from Alejo Road north to Tachevah Drive by foot. “Begin on either side of Palm Canyon, but plan to loop back and catch it all. Duck into every doorway. You will find that a 15-foot storefront takes you through corridors, hidden rooms, and pathways of authentic merchandise. Stop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After more meandering and shopping, stop for dessert, tea, or coffee at one of several cafés sprinkled throughout.”

The expansion of eateries over the last few years contributes greatly to uptown’s reputation as a shopping destination, Perezchica says. Joining relative long-timers Thai Smile, Koffi, Café Chocolat, and Copley’s on Palm Canyon are Jake’s, Cheeky’s, and Trio’s, which co-owner Tony Marchese says serves between 1,400 and 2,000 people weekly. This month, Cheeky’s owner Tara Lazar expects to open Birba, a wood-fired pizza restaurant with full bar, next to her successful lunch spot.

“These dining gems contribute directly to the increased traffic and enjoyment of the area,” Perezchica notes, adding that recent retail additions in home décor and design, such as Boulevard and Insolito Home, further the “Palm Springs Modern” brand. “With each expansion, relocation, or new addition, uptown merchants create distinctive options for the shopper.”

“It’s a vibrant place to be,” agrees Larry Abel, owner of custom home decor outlet ASI: Art • Style • Innovation. Abel and his partner, Raymond McCallister, vacationed in the desert for years before launching their uptown store. “We loved shopping here for the unique assortment of shops, galleries, and restaurants,” Abel recalls. “When it came to opening our own store, we knew we needed to be in this area.” Abel, whose work takes him around the world, says he finds the same shops and the same products wherever he goes — except in uptown Palm Springs. “Here it’s all different,” he says. “Every store has its own distinct personality.”

Internationally known designer Trina Turk’s boutique features bold lines and untamed fabrics that echo the Palm Springs Modern vibe. At Asylum, modernism marries Hollywood glam with singular success. Dwight Polen Fine Chinese Antiques embraces the universality of Chinese imports in home design, and Insolito Home promises a “home as unique as you.” Michael H. Lord Gallery (inhabiting the architecturally significant former El Mirador garage) expertly parks an impressive collection of contemporary art, including Frank Stella, Joan Miró, and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Even when the economy darkened the boulevard with empty storefronts and sidewalks, uptown forerunners such as Turk and David Allen of Tchotchkes believed.

“We were in no man’s land when we first opened [in 2002], but I loved the Albert Frey building, so we opened there anyhow,” Turk says. “Today there’s more foot traffic and activity due to the mixture of new and vintage merchandise, adding to the character of the street.”

For Allen, uptown’s reputation as a draw for high-end stores over T-shirt shops kept alive his faith — a faith that has been repaid tenfold with a high occupancy rate of like-minded neighbors. “The only vacant spot at the moment is where Angelview (thrift store) used to be, which means we must be doing something right,” he says.

This collective “we” fuels uptown’s vibrant charm and evident success, say many area business owners. Trio’s Marchese describes the energy as “cohesive.” Everyone plays well together. Examples of uncommon synergy among would-be competitors include My Little Flower Shop’s daily flower delivery to brighten ASI’s outside vases and Dwight Polen’s generous placement of product to help furnish Read Brown’s Hair Salon after a fire in 2008 destroyed her business. When it came time to rebuild, Brown never considered relocating anywhere but the Uptown Design District.

“I know magic when I see it,” she says, “and uptown is magic!”

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