OUR FAMOUSLY SEGREGATED CITY IS NOWHERE more Balkanized than at its downtown core, although here the boundaries are less a matter of race and class than of commerce, the place where the Fashion District eyeballs the Produce District, which borders the Flower District, which butts up against the Toy District, and so on. As Christmas approaches, Nativity crèches fill many store windows along Los Angeles Street with scenes of the holy family gathered on a dirt floor, while a few blocks away men and women struggle to find their own shelter on Skid Row -- a place that might be called the Homeless District. Last week a coalition of law-enforcement agencies swept through a wide area bounded roughly by Second and Seventh streets, and Los Angeles Street and the L.A. River, arresting alleged parole and probation violators in what the agencies dubbed Operation Enough.
By the end of Wednesday's sweep, 108 arrests had been made, including 57 for parole violations, while 100 traffic citations were handed out. After a second foray on Thursday, an additional 84 people had been cuffed and booked, including 44 parole violators. "I was just getting out my box when they lined up some guys against the wall across the street," a man with a cane told me Friday. He was sitting on a Fourth Street sidewalk next to a neatly folded pile of cardboard and listening to Larry Elder on headphones. ("I don't like him, but I listen anyway.") The man didn't want to be quoted by name -- "Just put me down as 'handicapped homeless guy.'"
This man, who has been living on L.A.'s streets for 10 years after a back injury disabled him, said he was talking to some friends when the police arrived Wednesday evening. "It was the Parole Patrol," he said. "The cop who talked to me was real nice. 'Do you have I.D. and any warrants?' he asked. When I showed him my I.D., he said I could go -- 'You look like you're telling the truth.'"
Although the LAPD was joined by members of the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Corrections, the U.S. Marshal's Office and the FBI, the sweeps bore the unmistakable signature of the city's jaunty new police chief, William Bratton, who has a reputation for tackling "quality of life" crimes in very public ways. "It was the chief's and James Hahn's idea," an LAPD spokeswoman told me. "It wasn't in response to more complaints about the homeless."
Although the spokeswoman claimed that the operation had been restricted to outdoors, James Bonar, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, said that on Thursday cops had entered the Simone Hotel on San Julian Street, one of his organization's buildings, and arrested two people with loud fanfare. "I'm absolutely in favor of more police but not this kind of paramilitary display," he said. "It wasn't just us -- they also went into the Frontier Hotel, and entered properties on Wall Street belonging to SRO Inc. When I called the LAPD the next day, they told me they were real egalitarian about it."
ANYONE FEELING SORRY FOR HIMself should spend an afternoon or two on Skid Row. Along streets like San Pedro, Crocker and San Julian, second-hand tents provide a thin sheath of privacy for only a lucky few of the estimated 5,000 homeless who cannot or will not enter shelters or single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs). This is a different kind of ground zero, a place where walls are stained with shit from where people crapped standing up -- and where the results have been covered over with kitty-litter sand. This is an America that limps to a mission breakfast at 6 in the morning and spends the rest of the day gathering cardboard, reading or getting high.
Not everyone stranded here got downsized from Lockheed or lost their SRO room when it was razed for a parking lot. Many are part of the country's great mental-health diaspora, some are the kind of drug and alcohol casualties that traditionally populate Skid Rows, and still others are criminals attracted to the area either by its business opportunities or as a place to hide from the law -- the LAPD estimates that more than 2,000 of Skid Row's residents are parolees.
Although the disabled man on Fourth Street felt his neighborhood "looked like a police state" last week, overall he thought the sweeps were a good thing. "There are a lot of good people here, but a lot of bad, too -- and too much crack cocaine. I got hit on the head twice with a pipe by some guy who pulled up in a car, just 'cause I was sitting on the sidewalk."
"This'll be a good thing, if they're going after the criminal aspect," agreed Maury Rams, who's been manager of the Dish Factory on Los Angeles Street for 16 years. "It's gotten to the point where we had to hire a full-time security guard because of shoppers having their cars broken into. But a lot of people have no place to go, and some of them work in this neighborhood unloading containers."
Near the corner of San Pedro and Fifth, another homeless man, Philip, was listening to talk radio on his headphones while he picked at a small tub of macaroni salad. Philip, whose favorite talk-show jock was Rush Limbaugh, was a little better off than the man on Fourth Street, since he had a bed waiting for him at the Union Mission -- cardboard was not his currency.
"I'm for it," he said of the sweep, as a dwarf with bushy hair standing straight up jumped up and down, waving at traffic. "It makes you feel safer. Every time I walk by a group of guys, they call out, 'Weed! Weed! Weed!'"
After the second raid, I asked LAPD spokesman Lieutenant Horace Frank if there were plans for more sweeps. "Not to my knowledge, although that can always change," he answered.
"There are better ways to arrest people," James Bonar believes. "But I guess this looks better for them to say, 'We arrested over a hundred people.' It's making a statement."