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Down on Main Street

Photo by Kevin ScanlonDowntown Los Angeles has been calling my name for years. Shooting me up with lofty Architectural Digest interior imagery — from a dirty syringe. I dismissed her call and moved to the Westside, but when my landlord doubled the rent on my canyon cabin, the siren call of downtown was as piercing as Whitney Houston on a three-day crack run. When I tracked the voice to its sordid source, the stench of human suffering in the homeless zoo on San Julian Street between Sixth and Seventh, right around the corner from the loft I was considering, nearly made me turn back. Nearly, but not quite, and my new Skid Row digs are a score at a thousand bucks a month — a big open raw space on the sixth floor with a great view. The only problem, besides the sometimes-malodorous breeze coming in off San Julian Street, was the 30 days I had to kill before I could occupy my new arty loft in the Toy District. I needed to find a temporary squat to fill the void until the previous tenant vacated. I wanted to stay downtown and settle into the neighborhood, so I went online and checked out Hotels.com. They gave the Checkers Hilton on Grand a four-star rating, and both of the 907-square-foot penthouse suites have amenities like entertainment center with 27-inch remote-controlled flat-screen TV, VCR, surround-sound stereo with CD player, fireplace, separate bathtub, marble shower and a dramatic view of downtown. Perfect! But at $1,500 a night (depending on total hotel occupancy and availability), it was out of my reach. The New Otani Hotel on the corner of Los Angeles Street and Second got three and a half stars, and it was right near my new Skid Row–adjacent digs, but again, the 1,836-square-foot Royal Suite at $1,800 a night was just out of my range. A month in that little palace would set me back more than 50 grand (depending on total hotel occupancy and availability)!

To read Sam Slovick's User Guide to the New Urban Frontier, click here. I wasn’t finding the kind of thing I was looking for at Hotels.com or in the Zagat hotel guide (i.e., affordable), but I had a loose grip on the compact and ultradiverse downtown landscape, with its myriad housing options. Since I’d be out looking, I decided to put together a little guide of my own, starting out just a stone’s throw away from the Bonaventure Hotel on Figueroa, where the 720-square-foot Huntington Suite rents out for $2,189 a night. Jack Richards, the senior vice president of marketing at Hotels.com, told me a guide is only as good as its field research is current. So I went far and wide, investigating cost-effective living situations ranging from The Cecil Hotel on Main Street, an SRO (single-room-occupancy) hotel called The Simone and the flashy L.A. Mission on Fifth Street as well as the swanky Little Tokyo lofts on San Pedro Street, the historic Orpheum lofts on Broadway and the sophisticated San Fernando lofts on Fourth and Main. (See accompanying ratings guide for the lowdown and upswing on addresses in bold on page 56.) I wanted to get a feel for the area, so I took a stroll down the block to the Volunteers of America Drop-In Center between Sixth and Seventh. This is Skid Row ground zero, lots of squats here for the low-to-no-income crowd. Shopping carts pushed against the buildings border the sidewalk on either side of the block. Wheelchairs. Crutches. A discarded walker lies toppled in the gutter. A shirtless, skeletal 20-something man in filthy, low-hanging jeans is crawling on his hands and knees, taste-testing white specks from the street till he finds a keeper and scampers into a cardboard-box-and-blanket tent to smoke it up. Two older black men with blood clotting through last week’s gauzed abscessed wounds watch from the next box as they smoke crack from a glass stem. A disheveled and despondent 14-year-old Mexican boy with a harelip and a black crack-pipe smudge on his face leans against the cinderblock wall separating God and the Devil in front of the VoA. At the south end of the block on the corner of Seventh Street and San Julian, a fat black man in his 50s steps out of a portable toilet zipping up his pants. The door opens again, and a teenage girl hands a few bucks to a dealer waiting just outside to supply her between tricks. She cops and disappears back inside alone. I ask a nearly 7-foot-tall, rail-thin man with a misshapen nappy gray Afro in a wrinkled, bright-red ’70s pimp suit where the cops are. “Sometimes the cops come down here, but not on foot and definitely not alone,” he says, his face frozen in a permanent mask of surprise. “They don’t stop anybody from doing what they’re doing.” A shirtless woman in her 30s puts a Bic lighter to a 2-inch broken crack-pipe stem, but another woman snatches it from her fingers and dashes down the block before she can get a proper pull. “I kill you cunt!” she screams as she hobbles on shaky legs down the block after the thief. Her breasts sag in the way that makes me think she’s probably nursed two or three children. She sits down next to a man squatting on a piece of cardboard picking at an ulcerated wound on his shin. The woman next to him shoots herself up with a fresh set of works from the needle exchange on Fifth Street. Old and ugly. Young and skinny. Dark and lovely. The VoA Drop-In Center is triage in browntown. Fully committed, I venture on through the twisted, tent-lined byways between Los Angeles and San Pedro streets, scrutinizing smelly shelters and drug-infested hotels, finally making my way to Pete’s Café in the historic San Fernando Building on Fourth and Main, where I am scheduled to meet superstar downtown developer Tom Gilmore. Researching an accommodations guide turns out to be a lot of work, and all the foot travel has me feeling like I need a shower before I meet Tom. I want to make a good impression. Who knows? Maybe he has an empty loft I could occupy for a month. I consider popping back into the VoA for a quick shower, but decide to check out the Klyt Bathhouse right around the corner from the where Tom’s new Live/Work lofts are located. The Klyt turns out to be a little too fungi-friendly for my taste, and even though all the naked guys with pierced nipples are friendly and really, really energetic, I decide to forgo the shower and do a quick splash in the bathroom sink at Pete’s Cafe. I look a little ”under cover” wearing a black cap pulled low and the T-shirt and jeans I slept in the night before, and the snooty bartender with a “faux hawk” hairdo at Pete’s doesn’t want to let me use the bathroom. I get a tiny dose of the kind of indignity that someone living on the street feels when he needs to take a piss or just throw a little water on his face. Until, that is, I tell barkeep I’m there to meet Tom. The place is empty except for Faux Hawk and me, so I sit at the bar, order a cappuccino and wait for Tom. Dabney Coleman strolls in just as my cell rings out a digital rendering of “Nessun Dorma” (the famous tenor aria from Puccini’s Turandot). Dabney rolls his eyes and shoots me an annoyed glance like people’s cell phones playing opera is just the thing that really pisses him off. Still, Dabney appears well, like he caught a solid eight hours on a king-size TempurPedic at the New Otani. However, the piss-bum with his face pressed against the window looks like he can’t remember what sleep is, and the security guard in the ersatz Interpol getup reminds him that he isn’t welcome to take a nap, a piss or anything else in Pete’s. He is welcome two doors down at Tony’s, a greasy spoon where I’ve heard you can trade three General Relief meal vouchers for a pastrami sandwich, fries and a large non-alcoholic drink. Pete’s is part of an emerging infrastructure Gilmore Associates is creating to attract downtown migrants to the area and hopefully into one of the 230 fancy live/work spaces — the prime of which clock 2,320 square feet — that make up his Old Bank District Lofts project. It wasn’t long ago that lots of people thought Gilmore was smoking some of the local crack, but with a countywide housing scarcity turning the Los Angeles ideal of a yard and an orange tree into a pipe dream and traffic-clogged commutes literally driving people mad, downtown is looking more and more like a sanctuary for young pros on the go. Like a lot of things downtown, Main Street development affects Skid Row housing and is part of a larger story that involves an endless procession of decidedly committed characters with multifaceted agendas. Around here, the housing issue is also about race, class, drug addiction, mental illness, veterans, women, children, business, Christianity, art, commerce . . . it’s endless. It often gets bound up with service providers and nonprofits like SRO Inc., Skid Row Housing Trust, various missions (like L.A. Mission, Union Rescue Mission, Midnight Mission), Lamp Community (nonprofit assisting the mentally ill homeless), the Weingart Center, not to mention Councilwoman Jan Perry (L.A. Homeless Services Authority), homeless-rights activist Alice Callahan (who runs Las Familias del Pueblo) . . . and on and on and on. Once you get sucked into the vortex, there’s no looking back. The San Fernando is a beautiful building, and Pete’s is a great place to eat and drink. The disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nothings” downtown is not expressed in the minute details. It’s tightly rendered in big, broad strokes, and though there’s nothing wrong with white people having lots and lots and lots of money, my mind can’t help wandering back to San Julian Street, where half-naked black and brown Americans are crawling on their hands and knees searching for tiny white specks. Tom’s late, so I order more coffee. Dabney has settled in with what appears to be an independent-film producer and director at the far end of the room. It looks like he’s starting with the crab dip and bagel chips ($9). Tom floats across Main Street and sweeps into Pete’s like a movie star accepting an award. He’s well over 6 feet tall and dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit; he shamelessly brandishes a politician’s smile and a good, firm handshake. He sees through my disguise and introduces himself before explaining to Dabney that he’s going to kick it with me for a minute. “The Grove?” Tom asks as he sidles up to the bar for our face-to-face. “What’s the challenge of that? You build a nice little shopping center for a bunch of rich folks. Who gives a crap? At the end of the day, do something that has some meaning. I’m not into Disneyland. I’m not into the Grove. I’m not into artificial environment. Cities are, by their very nature, the place where everything comes together, where it all meets and clashes and mixes.” Tom’s obviously willing to let ’em hang, so I cut right to the chase. “Did downtown happen?” I ask. He answers in a sort of epic CEO-speak narrative that makes me think I’m experiencing some kind of audio hallucination. Here’s a condensed version. “All the pieces are in place that it happened,” he says. “I’m not sure that it’s visible to the rest of the world yet, but in terms of the broad investment . . . yeah. Back when it was just me and we were like . . .” (Tom does Valley Girl) “. . . La la la, it’s going to be great, you couldn’t get a bank to say yes. We went to almost 40 banks, and we were turned down by every single one and ended up going to the federal government. This is a HUD deal. This isn’t a private-money deal. Now if you want Morgan Stanley to be your partner, Morgan Stanley will be you partner. If you want Shearson Lehman, they’ll be your partner. If you want major institutions — Bank of America, Wells Fargo, now they’re all willing to invest. They’re not big risk-takers.” Tom really wants me to understand, so he breaks off a little housing history lesson for me. “We’re in the midst of a change that’s happening nationwide on some level. Cities in 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 were essential commercial manufacturing centers, industrial bases, and people lived near them but not on top of them, because it wasn’t appropriate to a large extent,” he says. “Cities throughout the United States, as the automobile took over, really began to exaggerate that trend – where cities were no longer the homes for human beings, but were the homes for businesses only, and that began a long process of deterioration for those cities.” Whoa! Tom’s blowing my mind with all this Discovery Channel stuff. But he’s not done yet. “Cities are changing from commercial manufacturing and office centers to residential centers, because density is becoming a really important component to mass transportation. Things that I never realized were actually of ecological necessity. Such as if you weren’t going to create single-family housing in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains and scarify the entire Central Valley and destroy all of Orange County with single-family homes, then you were gonna have to find ways to make cities more attractive to live in and ultimately to densify cities in their very core — connect them to each other with mass-transportation systems and really start to make it so that not every human being had to own an automobile and live in a single-family house in the foothills of the mountains.” Wow, that was the longest I’d ever heard someone talk without taking a breath, but he has a good point, and I still want to check out his lofts. But what about the people who are trying to build more SRO hotels for those folks crawling around on San Julian Street? Is Tom’s development cock-blocking nonprofit service providers from buying and redeveloping on Main Street by driving the property values so high that they are out of their reach? That, anyway, is what homeless advocate Alice Callahan asserts. “No, it’s not valid for a number of reasons,” Tom says. “These were empty buildings. That’s hugely faulty logic. That’s like me saying I can’t buy this building because there’s a homeless population nearby, therefore I would never be able to transform this neighborhood for middle-class people. “Skid Row in its present form is a function of the worst policy. Every homeless advocate agrees with that. It’s not housing and affordability that creates homelessness,” he continues. “Right now, downtown gets 140 new residents every day that are released from the Twin Towers [County Jail]. The Row is internally damaging. The Row renews itself in the worst possible way every day.” Wow, 140 new criminals every day! Add that to the number of parolees in the Weingart Center on Sixth and San Pedro, plus the disproportionally large number of registered sex offenders (and other criminals) already living in the 90013 ZIP code, and that’s a lot of bad actors. Mix that up with the other new residents downtown, the ones who, according to the Downtown News, have an average median income of $90,000 per year (43 percent earn more than $100,000), half of whom are between 23 and 34, 57 percent of whom are Caucasian, and 56.8 percent of whom are single, and 53.1 percent of whom live alone. Now, that’s diversity! Or perhaps something a little more sinister. Dabney has moved on to his entrée and shoots me the occasional dirty look, and I still need to find temporary housing, but Tom’s absolutely on fire about this homeless thing. “We’ve created a zoo. We have a homeless zoo,” he says. “Some people are perfectly happy to maintain the homeless zoo instead of dealing with the issues of . . . what do you do when an individual has a substance-abuse problem, and mental-illness problems? A family problem? A housing problem? You make ’em go in a pen? And then you figure it out? I don’t think so. I don’t think so. We’re not gonna change Skid Row. The plan to end homelessness is a figment of a lot of people’s imagination. It’s not real.” I’d have thought Tom’s favorite downtown hotel would be the New Otani with the day spa or the Downtown Standard with its vacuous young Hollywood social scene, but he says it’s the Cecil, a drug-infested, bare-bones hotel with a newly redecorated lobby that includes a security-guard station. “I like the Cecil. It’s got soul. The owners care. And they’re always working on it. Putting up new stuff.” Tom’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. A large percentage of employees at Gilmore and Associates are placed by the Chrysalis Foundation, a homeless-employment agency just down the street from the San Fernando. Tom has a long-standing relationship with Chrysalis and the Midnight Mission dating back to the six years he sat on the board of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Like the Cecil, the Frontier Hotel and the Roslyn Hotel on Fifth and Main are not run by nonprofits. They don’t have the best reputations. They are huge, decaying hotels owned by a guy called Rob Frontier. I tried to get into both buildings, but it was harder than getting into the roof party at the Downtown Standard on a Friday night, and Frontier simply refused to return my calls. I heard the top five floors were chicken-wired off. Brings to mind all sorts of Escape From New York, Snake Plissken imagery. I know Alice Callahan and Skid Row Housing Trust would bribe a saint or two to get her hands on either one of those properties. “Rob Frontier . . .” Tom has the lowdown, and I can tell he’s in the mood to spill it. “I tried to buy it from him years ago,” he says. “Everybody tried. It was a really, really, really nasty place. The city has done a reasonably good job of trying to say, ‘This can’t be like this anymore,’ and there’s been a major financial penalty. I also got the sense in my last conversation with the guy that maybe he’s starting to think that, you know what . . . maybe this isn’t a good way to make money. It’s like . . . no kidding!” Tom excuses himself to join Dabney and company. I get a cappuccino to go, and Faux Hawk outdoes himself with the aloof-waiter thing. It’s getting late, but I have more accommodations to check out, and I want to stop by Alice Callahan’s at Las Familias del Pueblo. Just a few blocks away, a tiny Latina girl in a sparkly pink T-shirt smiles at me through the big glass window in a storefront on Seventh Street near Maple as I step over a human body lying in a heap under several green, urine-drenched blankets. Two groups of 5-year-olds struggle to sit still and listen as their teacher reads from a storybook inside the colorfully painted storefront/office. Kindergarten is in session at Las Familias del Pueblo, a nonprofit that provides services for garment workers and their families. This is Alice’s wonderland. A sort of self-styled rebel-activist, ex-nun, Episcopal priest, Alice Callahan has mutated into her current punk rock manifestation honestly. “We just deal with whatever comes through the door,” she says. Alice has sat on the board of Skid Row Housing Trust from Jump Street and has a reputation as a force to be reckoned with. She is a tenacious, pug-nosed little Canuck disguised as a candy striper in a clean-pressed blue-and-white-striped blouse and navy skirt. “More than one-third of all the housing on Skid Row is on Main Street,” she informs me, “which is why the development that’s happening on Main Street is so problematic. We have been unable to buy any building on Main Street since [Tom Gilmore] started doing what he did.” Alice takes a moment to talk to the little girl in the pink shirt about a problem in the kindergarten. Apparently someone has been tearing up homework, so wily Alice has planted a camera in a teabag box to catch the culprit. Alice smiles sweetly at the child, but her face hardens as she sets her steely gaze back on me. “Why would anyone want to live on Main Street?” she asks, and though I know I wouldn’t mind a nice little crib on Main Street, I keep quiet as a church mouse so she won’t slap me on the knuckles with a ruler. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not an area that’s gonna change anytime soon. If enough [other development] happens, it would seem to me that the people living at Fourth and Main are gonna say, ‘So let’s see . . . I want my Disneyland, Manhattan experience, but why do it at Fourth and Main, when I could go a few blocks away and be able to go in and out of my house, have friends visit me?’” Alice has a point, but c’mon, what’s wrong with a little Manhattan Disneyland? I see the level of suffering going on down here, but depriving myself of a lifestyle I earn doesn’t seem a logical solution to problems ranging from disenfranchised Agent Orange vets (who are not going to recover) to dual-diagnosis drug addicts sleeping in the street. “I’m happy that all these lofts are coming online,” she says. “If it will empty [Gilmore’s] pockets and he’ll go under, then we can reclaim those buildings for the poor. If we could get one building. If we could just get the Roslyn . . . who then wants to own the Frontier? Who then wants to own the Cecil? All I’m trying to do is get the Roslyn, but it’s hard to do when Gilmore’s there.” Alice doesn’t seem to like Tom Gilmore at all, and the way she says “the poor” is making me wonder if this Canadian Mother Teresa isn’t stuck in a Great Depression time warp. I mean, there’s nothing worse than a playa-hater saint with a boner for lepers, right? It’s a glaringly self-righteous symbiosis with these religious caregivers and the homeless down here. But maybe I just wanna be down with Tom and Dabney cuz they got all the ciznash. Maybe my vision is clouded because I just want some juice so I can kick it with the party people at Pete’s Café on Fourth and Main. Maybe it’s no coincidence that I ended up at Alice’s, as I have obviously now emerged as a self-involved, superficial consumer ready to sell my soul for a sweet Skid Row rental property and as such require a religious-conversion experience. “Everybody is throwing money at Fourth and Main,” Alice rails on. “The very people who want us to believe that they support housing — how they care about what’s happening on the Row — they are throwing money at [Gilmore] as fast as they can throw money, though in doing that they’re risking unhousing all those thousands of people [in SROs]. On Main Street alone there are probably 3,000 people just between Fourth and Seventh in close to 10 hotels. You cannot unhouse that many people on Skid Row and then tell me you care deeply about the homeless problem and that you’re working hard to solve it, because you aren’t.” Maybe she’s right. But Tom seemed so cool. And he’s a Kennedy Democrat and all. “Think about the taxpayers,” Alice schools me. “Giving money to Tom Gilmore to succeed and make a huge profit at Fourth and Main is causing thousands of people to be homeless. Now the city has to build a massive and costly shelter system and every year fund the ongoing operational budget, and who pays for it but the taxpayers? So Tom Gilmore makes a killing, and the taxpayers will be paying to house those people into perpetuity. I want [Councilmember] Jan Perry to explain that.” She drops her chin and gives me a Hannibal Lecter smile. “She’s not very smart,” she says. Alice retracts her talons . . . takes a moment . . . smiles at the kids. This time she doesn’t look at me at all. Just stares straight ahead as she talks. “My belief is that Gilmore will sink. Downtown will happen and that’s fine, but Gilmore will lose. When all these thousands of lofts come back around, we’ll get the San Fernando building in the end, and we’ll revert it back to SROs. All good battles are about real estate, right?” Well, I’m not sure I’m on board with all of this real estate revenge-fantasy stuff, but I have to admit I respect her hands-on, standup advocacy for the widows, orphans and strangers in the land. “I think it’s terrible for people to be on the sidewalk, and I would do anything at all to end people living on the sidewalk. It’s not good for people living on the sidewalk first and foremost, and secondly it’s not good for anybody else who can hardly get by.” I leave Las Familias del Pueblo and pour myself back into streets that look more like Calcutta than Los Angeles as the night falls. Time is running out for me in my search for temporary housing. I’m starting to sweat. Now, I really do need a shower . . . but where? I call my friend who lives in Whitley Heights. She says I can stay there for the month until I move into my new place. She says the couch in her living room smells a little like cat piss, but that doesn’t seem like such a big deal after all the stuff I’ve smelled while researching my downtown living guide. I finally moved into my new place on Skid Row on a Friday after sleeping on the cat-piss-smelling couch at my friend’s house in the Hollywood Hills for a month. In the end, I couldn’t even smell it anymore. On Saturday, I ran into my old friend Johnny, who’s been living on the Row for the last 10 years. He took me to the graduation ceremony at the L.A. Mission on Fifth Street that night. The ceremony was on the stage in a big chapel. Everybody was dressed up in church clothes. I got to see people who were living on the street who had finished the program at the mission reconnect with their families. Some of them had gotten their high school equivalency diplomas at Belmont Community Adult School as part of the program. One guy’s mother stood up, and he thanked her for never turning her back on him. Then his wife stood up with their three kids — two little boys, one on each side, and a little girl in her arms. Everybody clapped and cried and thanked God out loud. Everybody. Johnny told me if I ever ended up on the street that Alice Callahan would be my new best friend. And that if I wrote anything bad about her I’d burn in hell.

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