Within walking distance of downtown Santa Rosa, the rustic A Street neighborhood near Juilliard Park seems a prime spot for visitors.

Long a haven for artists, both at public galleries and in private studios, the area has been evolving for the past decade. Locals have organized themselves as South of A Street, or SOFA, and now host several public street events a year.

But since the opening of the Spinster Sisters restaurant last month at the corner of Sebastopol Avenue and A Street, there's a sense of new energy up and down the block.

"The neighborhood's really jumping," said Barbara Harris, who runs the Gallery of Sea and Heaven art gallery and artists' studio complex on A Street.

"We've crossed a threshold, and we're not going back," Harris said. "A quarter of the people who come to our events say, &‘I've never been here,' but once they're here, they love it."

Some neighborhoods seem to change almost overnight, but on A Street, the transformation has been gradually building for roughly a decade.

Nearly a century ago, the corner of Sebastopol Avenue and A Street, not far from downtown Santa Rosa, was a busy crossroads. Then the freeway arrived. By the latter decades of the 20th century, the A Street neighborhood, just behind Juilliard Park, had a reputation for drugs, transients and crime.

"It was sketchy down here 20 years ago, but now it's a vibrant, welcoming neighborhood," Harris said.

The district's greatest strength is its diversity and authenticity, because it has developed naturally, instead of being contrived to draw tourists, Harris explained.

Now, A Street and Sebastopol Avenue are home not only to a few dozen visual artists and several restaurants, but also the Atlas Coffee Company, a popular gathering place, as well as a live theater company, two bakeries, two photography-oriented businesses, three hair salons, a dog grooming business, a shoe repair shop and more.

Tree-shaded Juilliard Park, stretching between A Street and Santa Rosa Avenue, hosted a just-finished summer series of outdoor concerts and hosts frequent weekend events, including bocce ball tournaments. And the district boasts a thriving community garden.

Giovanni Cerrone, co-owner of the new Spinster Sisters restaurant with partners Eric Anderson and chef Liza Hinman, is excited about being part of the A Street community. He already has made friends with Harris and other leaders in the district, joining their monthly backyard potluck dinners to share news and ideas.

"Here we have a very interesting historical neighborhood. This was a thriving community of people who knew each other. That is what fosters community — that you are known, and there is trust," Cerrone said.

Cerrone lives near the restaurant and rides his bike to work.

"Part of the art of changing neighborhoods is you make them pedestrian-friendly and cyclist-friendly," Cerrone said.

Anderson, Cerrone's partner, splits his time between Santa Rosa and New York. He's one of the principals in Prune restaurant in Manhattan, but grew up in Santa Rosa. He remembers playing soccer at the Burbank Elementary School, not far from Spinster Sisters.

"Sebastopol Avenue used to be the main entrance into Santa Rosa from the west," Anderson said, until Highway 101 went through nearby and the business district around Sebastopol Avenue and A Street began to fade.

Sculptor, painter and arts activist Mario Uribe sees a bright future for the neighborhood. Uribe established studios for himself and 11 other artists seven years ago in a building that faces Sebastopol Avenue and also houses the Imaginists Theatre Collective.

"We all envisioned this as a real arts district," Uribe said, "and that is what it's becoming, slowly but surely."

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. Staff Writer Heather Irwin contributed to this story.