By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
If you’ve spent much time at all in downtown Los Angeles over the past couple of years, you‘ve probably run across William Nowell. Or at least, you probably caught a whiff of him.
Nowell passes his days crouched on the sidewalk on Broadway, midway between the Criminal Courts Building and the headquarters of the L.A. Times, surrounded by a pile of trash. His hair is matted, his feet are bare, and his stench, especially on warm days, hovers around him like a force field.
With his prominent perch and unmistakable presence, Nowell has become perhaps the most visible expression of the “homeless problem” that has become something of a Los Angeles hallmark. But while city leaders and bureaucrats have been content for at least a generation to allow the region’s human flotsam to congregate on Skid Row, just blocks from City Hall, a new coalition of entrepreneurs and politicians has determined to clean up the streets of downtown. Last spring, they decided to start with Nowell.
On June 3, Dena Sohn, a deputy city attorney recently named as the neighborhood prosecutor for the downtown area, indicted Nowell on 14 misdemeanor counts of trespassing, littering and defecating on state property. Three months later, after a weeklong jury trial, Nowell was acquitted on all counts.
Back at his Broadway digs, nestled in his heap of refuse and recyclables, Nowell scoffed at the efforts to move him off the street. “They called five cops to the stand, like I was John Gotti or something,” he said. But loitering is legal, and one person‘s trash is another’s treasure -- points of law that helped Nowell prevail.
Sohn made it clear that she will not be deterred by her frustrating first round in court. As part of her neighborhood-prosecutor duties, Sohn has attended scores of meetings with business and civic groups, and has worked with City Councilwoman Jan Perry to draft new ordinances to ban camping on sidewalks and public urination and defecation. “Los Angeles is really the only major city in the country that hasn‘t aggressively attacked the problems of blight in the inner city,” Sohn said. Now, with developers sinking investment capital into dilapidated buildings downtown and the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) embarking on a massive, 30-year renewal program, the question can no longer be ignored. “We’re at a turning point, and we need to make a decision,” Sohn said. “It‘s about getting people off the street and cleaning up the trash.”
Sohn emphasized that she considered the cleanup effort a humanitarian project. “They’re not choosing to live like that,” she said of the more than 3,000 people who camp every night on the sidewalks of Skid Row and across downtown. “They‘re so out-there on crack or whatever that they’re living in their own filth and feces and urine, and it‘s just not right.”
On that point, however, William Nowell would disagree. Looking up from his customary squat, peering out through a tangle of matted dreadlocks, Nowell is articulate, with piercing eyes and a keen understanding of the forces arrayed against him. “They say they’re doing it for the homeless, but that‘s all a crock of shit. They’re doing it to tidy up downtown. They want to scrub it and sanitize it so that people will come down and live in all these lofts they‘re spending millions of dollars on.”
As Nowell’s week in court made clear, the battle for downtown will have to be fought incrementally, and the outcome remains far from certain. For his own part, Nowell has no intention of cooperating. “I have to live somewhere,” he said. “I‘m not going to tuck myself away in some cubbyhole somewhere so I don’t piss somebody off.”
For a movement involving so many different interests, with such broad implications for the life of the city, the drive to clean up Skid Row can be attributed to a surprisingly finite source: developer Tom Gilmore and his audacious plans to revitalize L.A.‘s downtown core.
A native of New York, Gilmore took a look at the dilapidated and sometimes boarded-up buildings of L.A.’s central city and became convinced that he could breathe life into a district that had become an economic ghost town.
In that, Gilmore has largely succeeded. Where city officials issued just 400 permits for construction of new residential units in 1999, the year Gilmore started, this year that figure grew to more than 4,000. In the meantime, the downtown corridor has added Staples sports arena, a new cathedral, and a new concert hall is nearly finished. The value of commercial property is surging.
The early success has generated hunger for more. In May, the City Council approved plans to invest $2.4 billion into redevelopment projects across downtown. And last month, Staples Center executive Tim Leiweke, billionaire developer Eli Broad and Councilwoman Perry traveled to New York with Carol Schatz of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District to tout “an exciting story of growth and renewal” to potential East Coast investors.
From the outset, however, Gilmore saw that any downtown renaissance would require a new commitment by the city to rid the streets of the squatters, drug addicts and indigent mentally ill. “How can you be a businessman downtown and not recognize the 15,000 -- or whatever the hell it is -- this homeless population three blocks away from your business?” he said.