Columbus Avenue, like a chorus girl suddenly catapulted to leading lady, has found itself blinking in the limelight. Streaking down Manhattan's West Side, the avenue used to be a part of town that ''people looked down their noses at 10 years ago,'' says a resident. Dotted with dilapidated rooming houses, a center for drug traffic, it was considered an unpleasant place to walk at night.
The turnaround started in the early 1960s, when Lincoln Center was built at the foot of Columbus Avenue. Homesteaders fixed up the brownstones. As rents rose in other parts of the city, young singles were attracted by the still low West Side rents. A few courageous restaurants sprouted in the mid-'70s, and since then there's been a mad rush of development.
Today Columbus Avenue is a shopper's paradise. Small boutiques and specialty shops provide everything from leather aviator jackets for children to handknitted sweaters from Peru to heart-covered cotton sleepwear.
Restaurants serving Tex-Mex, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Cuban, and Italian-Argentine food all jostle for space. Many have outdoor cafes, where the many young and single residents of the area gather. There are more ice cream stores than you can shake a cone at.
A stroll down Columbus Avenue on a weekend evening is the admission to a show in itself. With everything from tap-dancers and a fire-eating musician to a string quartet from the nearby Juilliard School of Music, the street is hopping from dusk to the early hours.
''There's very little crime here, none at all,'' says officer John Getz of the New York Police Department. ''Mostly what we get is . . . noise, that sort of thing.''
For Columbus Avenue, getting discovered was a mixed blessing.
While rent stabilization keeps apartment costs from skyrocketing, increases of 2,000 percent in business rents have occurred in the last several years.
''I had a couple of friends who wanted to rent some storefronts in 1975, renting for $200 to $300 a month,'' says Mary Frances Shaughnessey, editor of ''Columbus Avenue Magazine.''
''They couldn't bring themselves to do it (because of the high price). Those same storefronts are now renting for $20,000 to $30,000 a month.''
Many of the low-volume services are gone. There is only one locksmith for blocks, few shoe repairs or hardware stores.
Frank Donofrio, owner of Frank's Hairstyling, one of the few barbershops left , has been in the area for 52 years. He's held on to his shop, he says, only because his landlord is ''one of the last human being landlords left.''
This has changed the social fabric of the neighborhood. Restaurateur Michael Weinstein says that ''when the rents get disproportionately high, it dampens the enthusiasm of the people who can make things happen. I couldn't do it (start a new restaurant) today - the rents are too frightening.''
Noise is another problem, says Ms. Shaughnessey. People living over the cafes have to listen to laughter and the tinkling of glass and china until 3 or 4 a.m.
Single-resident-occupancy dwellings (SROs) that had often been used to house transients and patients released from mental hospitals have been turned into luxury apartment buildings.
Lower-income residents have been displaced, and clashes occur between new and old tenants. One longtime resident says young people in her building, who are ''buying co-ops with Daddy's cash,'' are starting to demand such pricey services as a doorman.
Those who can afford it feel these are small prices to pay in return for a clean, safe neighborhood. Robert Quinlan, a real-estate developer who has renovated 11 buildings on or near Columbus Avenue, says that the displaced SRO residents have not been thrown on the street.
''Most of them have been moved to far better locations,'' he says.
And, he adds, the service-oriented businesses, such as laundries, forced out by the high rents haven't disappeared - they've just moved higher up Columbus or to a side street.
Some have relocated on Amsterdam Avenue, he says, which now is taking on the function that Columbus Avenue had in its early days as a service corridor for the wealthy families along Central Park West.
''People are not walking around with dirty clothes,'' contends Ms. Shaughnessey. ''I think they're spoiled sometimes. In rural areas you might have to drive quite a distance to get your clothes washed.''