Social Climbing

“Is there ever going to be a sign up there?”

The man posing the question points to a thick, vaguely tortured metal coil above the door of Temple Place's latest nightspot, Limbo. It's hard to tell exactly why he's asking. Maybe he's just having trouble deciding whether it's a work in progress or a trendy contemporary design. Maybe he's curious about what kind of business is behind the sleek exterior. Maybe he's just being snide.

But more than likely, he's wondering, as many people are, about the Ladder District, Boston's newest old neighborhood: Can it really emerge from its gritty past?

Some heavy hitters are betting on it, and they've already moved into the blocks between Boston Common, Filene's, and Chinatown. Take, for example, Avery Street between Tremont and Washington. There, across the Common from the Arlington Street original stands the new Ritz-Carlton, as luxurious as its predecessor on the Public Garden, and a monument to high style and high prices. This one, though, has none of the Old world chintz and oak of the original. Instead, it's wired and modern, intended for a new generation of business travelers. Abutting the Ritz is the sparkling new Loews movie theater, arguably the slickest set of screens ever in New England. Behind that: Hollywood's high-powered fitness palace, Sports Club/LA, a 100,000-square-foot hive of private squash lessons, pool workouts, and full-body massages.

But big names and big bucks alone can't necessarily breathe life into a fading neighborhood. After all, without its rich history, quaint architecture, and colorful residents, the Back Bay would be little more than a shopping mall. So, without these top-dollar new arrivals of Millennium Place, is the Ladder District nothing more than a few nondescript blocks in the former Combat Zone?

Quite the opposite. The very confluence of high and low gives the area its current urgency, that still-youthful sense of self-definition that no longer exists in most of Boston's more mature neighborhoods. To stroll around this evolving quarter is to experience a flood of contrasting images and hangouts that testify to its complexity and vitality.

First things first: the name.

“Ladder District” dates back at least 75 years, although it was eventually usurped by the more generic “Downtown Crossing.” Resurrected by a group of publicists, including Limbo's Rosanne Pickard Mercer and Mantra's Chris Lyons, the label has caught on again, despite being widely derided as self-consciously trendy.

But why this name? Visitors speculate that it refers to the field of construction ladders in the fast-growing section. In fact, it was inspired from above. Viewed from overhead, parallel Washington and Tremont streets are connected by the crooked rungs of Avery Street, Temple Place, and Winter, West, and Bromfield streets.

Back at ground level, there are priceless juxtapositions. On Temple Place, Jaguars and Mercedes SUVs park next to beat-up 1983 Honda Civics and Chevy vans. Mink- and Hermès-clad women pass pierced, backpack-toting kids. Spare Change vendors chat with nuclear families at falafel counters. Then there's the sight that visitors to the Ritz don't see as they step from their Town Cars past the white-gloved doorman: Not 20 steps around the corner squats a dusty construction site, its broken bits of cement scattered out to the Avery Street curb.

Daytime sees more business than pleasure. Downtown Crossing's spectrum of professions and ethnicities spills out from the center of Washington Street, weaving its way to and from Tremont primarily via West and Winter. The foot traffic slows to a trickle after five, when pedestrians, lone cars, and taxis roll toward the post-dusk rewards of Temple Place.

By eight, a line has gathered outside Limbo. Techno music — later to be replaced by jazz — thumps through the multitiered venue, setting the scene for the rituals of the young and restless. The room is packed with bodies. A copper-haired man nursing a fuchsia-colored drink lounges on a leather seat. He orders a plate of the crab cakes in kaitafi crust with preserved lemons and cardamom. “This is my third order,” the man says loudly over the music. “I could keep eating all night.” Well, almost: The kitchen whips up snacks until one.

Mantra, the much-heralded multimillion-dollar restaurant-cum-theme park, is directly across the street. Much is being made of this restaurant's determination to redefine everything from what people smoke to how they visit the loo. And what's been said is true. The curtains are made of chain mail; the bar is filled with as many middle-aged CEOs as twenty-something clubbers; the men's room does boast an ice machine-style urinal while the ladies' room makes disconcerting use of one-way mirrors on the stall doors; and there really is a hookah den, where diners can sample apple- and strawberry-flavored tobaccos after their meals. And, yes, chef Thomas John's blend of French and Indian flavors — tuna tartare with salmon raita and sevruga caviar, for instance — is exceptional, as are the cufflinks on the clientele's Armani and Prada sleeves.

Not all of the area's culinary gems are neophytes with grand ambitions. The West Street Grille has thrived for 10 years on the street from which it takes its name, serving potent martinis and oversized Caesar salads to a loyal lunchtime and after-work crew. Silvertone, the effortlessly cool, subterranean den on Bromfield Street, serves as a second home for many Downtown Crossing working stiffs. They stop in regularly for the homey plates of macaroni, reasonably priced wines, and conversation with affable owner Josh Childs. Other restaurants are soon to follow — Rialto and Red Clay owners Jody Adams and Michela Larson have been busy preparing Blu at the Sports Club/LA, which will serve fitness fanatics and food aficionados alike in its glass-walled dining room high above Washington Street.

On the entertainment and culture fronts, the Ladder District already has a history of breaking through. The Orpheum, tucked into Hamilton Place off Tremont Street, has presented well-known acts since its opening in 1852. Back then, of course, it booked the likes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tchaikovsky, whose first piano concerto was played here. These days, the hall's fading grandeur is the backdrop for such performers as Janeane Garofalo, PJ Harvey, and the Black Crowes.

A straight walk down Tremont finds the aforementioned Loews, a retro Hollywood shrine complete with filtered air, neon lighting, 19 state-of-the-art movie theaters, hologram projections, and 10-foot popcorn boxes. Around the corner, the Ritz's street-level lounge makes a great pit stop for before or after the show. A flat-screen TV flashes light across the dark bar, which is outfitted in black and glowing ivory marble. Cocktails such as jasmine juleps are accompanied by a mini-buffet of wasabi chickpeas and mixed nuts; weary businessfolk kick back in the cushy armchairs and view the street life through the barroom's sweeping windows.

Emily's, the comfortably appointed dance club on Winter Street, has maintained a devoted yuppie following since opening eight years ago. Crowds have only gotten heavier since its summer renovation, which included a facelift and added a members-only dance floor called SW1. In the same building, the Tremont Tearoom, open since 1936, serves up tea and psychic readings.

Then there's the landmark Brattle Book Shop. Opened in 1825 on Boston's Brattle Street, it moved to West Street in 1969. On sunny lunch hours, suits, tourists, and Emerson students stand elbow to elbow, leafing through the outdoor shelves that line the lot next door. The longest continually operating bookstore in America, the Brattle has a collection of more than 250,000 titles, from ancient manuscripts to the first issues of Life magazine.

The health of any commercial neighborhood is, of course, inextricably linked to the economy. And whether or not the Ladder District will blossom as its backers hope largely depends on whether the real estate market stays strong. The plans for many of the Ladder District's powerhouse additions — the Ritz-Carlton and its 500 suites and residences, Loews, Sports Club/LA, and Mantra — all went on the drawing board as early as 1999, when purse strings were considerably looser and optimism was greater. The question now is whether people are still willing to spend the kind of capital needed to buy, redecorate, and open shops and homes here.

“There's no surefire recipe for a successful neighborhood,” says Carmen V. Capone, who is a real estate appraiser for Avenue Appraisal. “But the Ladder District does have many of the ingredients required for a vital area: businesses, desirable restaurants and shops, entertainment, and cultural centers. If the city government maintains its commitment to further revival, and if investors and committed business tenants remain in place, then the area should continue to prosper.”

What's more, even if rebuilding a neighborhood is inherently a gamble, one thing is certain: Never bet against the Ritz. At least that's what nearby businesses are happily discovering.

“To see the rate at which the neighborhood has changed since we moved in last spring has been amazing,” says Alex Szidon, who together with his mother, Natalia, and wife, Debra, operates a small home-accessories boutique called Cocoon. “Having the Ritz and Loews opening right next door has, from a retail perspective, been a fantasy come true.”

Cocoon is one of the area's token unique, high-end shops. A forest of curly bamboo greets visitors as they enter, and there are exotic, one-of-a-kind home accents at every turn: hand-carved tables from Thailand, unusual lamps, and wine racks that Natalia Szidon buys in Brazil. Based on the store's first six months of operation, the business forecast is nothing but hopeful. “With the Ritz-Carlton's influence, there's pressure on both sides of the ladder to continue improving,” Alex says.

But “improving” is a relative term. A few cases in point: Millennium Partners, the developer of the Ritz, has donated nearly $1 million to St. Francis House, a nearby homeless shelter and rehabilitation center, to build a waiting room where homeless clients could wait for meals out of sight of the sidewalk, among other projects. Word, too, is that the Ritz is in the process of recruiting national, upscale retailers to move into spaces across from its new building.

What are the ultimate effects of such aggressive gentrification? Is it a revitalization or the effective leveling of a neighborhood's character?

Mantra's publicist Lyons argues for the former. “Even 18 months ago, you couldn't walk safely around the area,” she says. “Now you can. I'm expecting that the rest of the rungs will start filling up with more and more retail stores, nighttime hangouts that will be open later than those in Downtown Crossing, and restaurants. All of which are going to lean toward the anchor of the neighborhood — the Ritz.”

Maybe the Ladder District will eventually be gentrified, but real charm cannot be bought or built. It comes with time. It's earned in pockets of Old World personality, such as at Santacross Distinctive Shoe Service, on Tremont, where customers' shoes are repaired by hand. So even though Limbo manager Jean-Claude Jasa asserts that by the time you read this he will have installed a sign above the door, let's hope the Ladder District never cleans itself up completely. After all, there's something compelling about rough-edged elegance, particularly in a neighborhood where beauty lies in the contrasts.