By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
The first BID was formed in Toronto in 1965. There are now well over 1,000 nationwide. They began sprouting up all over New York City in the 1980s and ’90s, their progress barely hindered by the 1995 revelation that a midtown BID had been directing its security guards to brutalize any homeless people found within district boundaries. With 29 BIDs formed in the last five years, nearly two dozen more in the works, and a civil rights lawsuit of its own, Los Angeles is quickly catching up.
Though they get rave reviews in the business pages, BIDs are not always popular, even among business owners. L.A.‘s first BID, the so-called “Miracle on Broadway,” was quickly overturned by merchants who resented what they felt was just another tax. Shop owners in Los Feliz recently staged a tax revolt, refusing to pay their BID assessments, which range up to several thousand dollars a year. The problem, says Robert Solomon of Yale Law School, who sued a New York BID in 1995, is that “they’re inherently undemocratic.” The majority of property owners don‘t have to consent for a BID to be formed, just the owners holding the majority of the property.
City officials have nonetheless been more than happy to encourage their growth. The City Clerk’s Office bends over backward to help property owners and merchants set up BIDs, even providing them with start-up funds. Mayor Riordan has gone to the trouble of personally telephoning recalcitrant property owners to convince them of the benefits of voting to form a BID. And why shouldn‘t he? Every task business owners pick up lightens the city’s load of civic obligation.
Even the BIDs‘ most active supporters feel some ambivalence about their work. Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of the Central City East Association, admits, “In all honesty, we shouldn’t even be here. The city should be doing this, but the reality is they are not, so if you want it done you‘re going to have to pay for it yourself.”
Lovejoy has long been bemoaning the city’s neglect of the less glitzy parts of downtown. “The homeless problem and everything associated with it -- the crime, the drugs -- makes it nearly impossible to do business,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “You can‘t really bring clients into the neighborhood. You have to pay your employees hazard pay . . . We believe the city’s homeless problem has been dumped on [Skid Row] by the bigger businesses in the western part of downtown.” Business owners in the surrounding area -- which includes the wholesale fish warehouses and factories on the Row itself, the toy district, the flower markets, the garment district and Broadway‘s commercial strip -- felt the same way. As the city’s largess poured into Bunker Hill in the 1980s, small-business owners received none of the perks that the corporate giants towering above them enjoyed.
With a lawsuit on her hands, Lovejoy downplays the role of “the homeless problem” in the decision to form a BID. Cleaning the area, she says, “was really the main thing -- the graffiti removal, the pickup of trash, removal of weeds,” insisting that the lion‘s share of the BIDs’ budget is spent on maintenance. In fact, the Downtown Industrial District BID spent more than three times as much on its security patrols in 1999 -- 50 percent of its total budget -- as it spent on maintenance. It had originally proposed to spend 75 percent of its budget on combating such vagaries as “disruptive street elements.”
Those elements include the approximately 11,000 people who live on Skid Row, about 3,000 on the streets or in shelters, the rest in hotels. They, far more than area businesses, bore the brunt of the government cutbacks that began in the Reagan years. “This is the tail end of the whole system,” says Jeff Dietrich. Those who fall through the gaping holes in what was once comfortingly called the “social safety net” have to land somewhere. In L.A., wherever they land, they often end up downtown and on Skid Row, which has become, by more or less conscious policy, the city‘s dumping ground for problems it would rather keep out of sight. Virtually all of Los Angeles’ social-service providers that offer help to the homeless are within a few blocks of each other on the Row. But what‘s been created, according to Alice Callaghan, is more than the chaos of cardboard shanties visitors view from behind locked car doors. It’s a community, albeit one with more than its share of problems. “People know each other. People have been here a long time,” Callaghan says. And because people have nowhere else to go, “More than any other place in L.A., public space is important here.”
The eastern half of downtown Los Angeles provides perhaps the starkest example of both the problems that provoked property owners into forming business-improvement districts and the more worrisome problems those districts create. The ACLU‘s lawsuit alleges that the outcome is a private police force that deals with the poorest of the poor in what amounts to “a crude campaign of intimidation on the streets of Los Angeles,” with the intention of “trying to run the [homeless] out of certain sections of the city forever.”