L.A.'s Culture War Over the Last True Skid Row in America
ILLUSTRATION BY IVAN MINSLOFF
A black man in a filthy, yellow, collared shirt lies sprawled out in the middle of the Sixth Street sidewalk, out cold. No more than four inches from his face is a Business Improvement District officer, who shouts again: "Yo!"
"Is he breathing?" asks a woman passing by, worried.
"Yeah," the officer replies, putting on a pair of rubber gloves.
"Oh," the woman says, walking off. A white man in a suit looks up from his smartphone just in time to see the obstruction and skips over the prone man, barely breaking stride.
"Sir, I'm gonna need you to get up!" shouts the private security officer, clad in the trademark bicycle helmet and green shirt of the Historic Core Business Improvement District. Downtown is dotted with BIDs, each one in a distinct color — yellow shirts for the Fashion District, blue shirts for the Arts District, and so on. They're essentially security guards hired by businesses to patrol the streets; they wear shiny badges but have little power other than to tell certain undesirables to keep moving.
"Sir! Sir!" the BID officer shouts. The homeless man rolls onto his back. A fly lands on his lips. "Sir, let's go, you're in the way here."
A black man in a T-shirt comes by with a coconut popsicle and says, "Eat that ice cream. Gives you some energy." The BID officer unwraps it. The homeless man's eyes remain closed, but his hand moves, instinctively, toward the popsicle, and he takes a tiny, careful bite.
"This whole walkway has to be clear," says the BID officer, who's now been at this for more than 15 minutes in the hot, midday sun. The inert man's eyes finally open to gaze upon the white-colored popsicle in wonder, and he mumbles, "This is all right!"
"Albert!" shouts another black man in a vest and ski hat, marching up the block. "Get your ass up!" In an aside to the officer, he says, "This is my boy."
"This is all right," Albert repeats, the cobwebs finally starting to clear.
"Albert, let's roll. Let's go eat."
And with that, the two trudge eastward, into Skid Row, a name that appears on almost no maps of Los Angeles yet is known far and wide as the area given over to the city's most destitute.
As shocking as it is to look upon the rows and rows of makeshift encampments and thousands of roving, hopeless people, perhaps even more shocking is this: Los Angeles is the last major American city with a single district of anything approaching this magnitude of homelessness and extreme poverty.
The Tenderloin in San Francisco is tiny by comparison. Seattle's once-dreary Skid Row is dotted with art galleries and trendy coffee shops. And all you need to know about New York City's Bowery is that it now has a Whole Foods.
The last true Skid Row in America is right here in Los Angeles.
Its name has been wiped clean off of official maps and even fire engines, replaced by the antiseptic "Central City East." But the area still contains the highest concentration of homelessness in America. You have to go all the way up to the east end of Vancouver, British Columbia, to find anything close.
"Los Angeles is unique in having failed miserably in making any headway in the area of homelessness," says Gary Blasi, professor of law emeritus at UCLA and one of the region's foremost experts on homelessness. "It is really an unbelievable outlier."
Last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti, standing in Century City alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2016, similar to a campaign promise he made. Blasi wasn't exactly impressed, calling it "a publicity stunt that, to some degree, was disconnected from the realities on the streets. ... He and the First Lady seemed only to talk about hiring unemployed veterans. Unemployment is the least of their problems."
Between 6,000 and 8,000 veterans are chronically homeless in L.A. County, and as with all homelessness, the only solution that has succeeded in ending the cycle is an approach known as "permanent supportive housing." Garcetti's plan, however well-intentioned, doesn't appear to include it.
"This is a shell game," says attorney Carol Sobel, who has successfully sued Los Angeles — more than once — for violating the rights of homeless people. "What they've done is taken vets and moved them to the front of the line. What you need is a bigger pie. The city has never put it in additional money."
Skid Row isn't just a frame of mind; various laws and court rulings have actually set official, legal boundaries for it: Third Street to the north, Alameda Street to the east, Seventh Street to the south and Main Street to the west. But the tide of urban renewal is beginning to lap up upon its urine-soaked shores; the astonishing rise of a new, middle- and upper-middle-class downtown means that the poverty-stricken area is shrinking. It once was 50 square blocks; now it's closer to 40.
Ten years ago, Albert might have been allowed to sleep on Sixth Street. But the two blocks of Sixth Street that run between Spring and Main have been claimed by the recently christened Historic Core District, effectively annexed by the new downtown.
It's some fairly pricey property, drunks or not. Residential rentals average $1,400 a month in Skid Row, according to real estate site Trulia; that's about $300 more, on average, than you'll pay in tony Lincoln Park, Chicago, or sophisticated Queen Anne Hill, Seattle.
"You've funneled people to this area," says Eric Ares, an activist with the L.A. Community Action Network (or LA CAN), as he drives along Wall Street, the row's filthy epicenter. "And all of a sudden you're saying that they're not welcome."
Across the street from where Albert fell and was forced to move is Sustain Juicery, a tiny cubbyhole of a juice bar, which smells of wheatgrass and sells $9 smoothies. Kelly Hayden works the counter; she has lived in L.A. four years, moving from the small mountain suburb of Sierra Madre, east of Pasadena, about 20 miles from downtown.
Hayden is the prototypical new downtowner. She has never owned a car and has never lived west of the 110 freeway, which slices a north-south route through downtown, or, as the newcomers have dubbed it, DTLA.
"It feels like a small town to me," Hayden says. "You always see the same people around, and you really don't ever have to leave."
For a while, Hayden lived at the Hayward Manor Apartments at Sixth and Spring, in an area once seen as a sort of buffer zone between Skid Row and the rest of downtown. Nowadays, various signs refer to the buffer zone as either "Gallery Row" or "The Old Bank District."
Her rent kept going up, and after she lived in other loft spaces for short periods, Hayden recently settled into a warehouse space on Eighth Street and Towne Avenue. It's a barren, unnamed area four blocks east of the Flower District and just a block south of Skid Row.
"You get used to it," she says. "You see people talking to themselves, or people pooping right on the street. I saw someone smoking crack this morning at, like, 7:15."
She loves the grittiness, the heady brew of drug addicts, lunatics, artists, successful businessmen and 20-somethings like her eking out a living. For many, this is what a city should be.
Hayden used to go to the King Eddy, an old salon where famously alcoholic writers such as John Fante and Charles Bukowski once congregated. She would sit at the bar and drink with homeless people. But the King Eddy recently was sold to the team who own the far classier Library Bar and Spring Street Bar.
The King Eddy no longer opens at 6 a.m. Drink prices have gone up by a few bucks. And the homeless are no longer welcome.
That might be a sign of things to come — the King Eddy is on Los Angeles Street, one block east of Main. If this trend continues, the new downtowners will truly be on Skid Row's doorstep, the veritable barbarians — or middle class — at the gate.
That would be just fine with new downtowners who, like Hayden, enjoy the stark diversity that exists all along the fringes of Skid Row. Others aren't so sure the two groups can coexist for long.
"You don't mix the population of the Row and think it'll work," says Rev. Alice Callaghan, a former Catholic nun turned Episcopalian minister, who has given more than 30 years of her life to Skid Row, running a child care center, language classes, immigrant outreach help, homeless-rights advocacy and, most recently, a successful charter school.
She has a name for the new arrivals: "the uptowners." Callaghan says, "The uptowners are not comfortable living next to a schizophrenic, or a transvestite, paranoid, homeless person. These are not people who live comfortably side by side."
You'll find Exhibit A for Callaghan's argument over at Little Tokyo Lofts, at San Pedro and Fourth streets. The six-story, white-and-green building sits at the northern end of Skid Row, a few blocks south of the traditional border of Little Tokyo — yet another up-and-coming neighborhood. Just across the narrow alley to the south is the Downtown Women's Center, which provides supportive housing for homeless women. It opened in 2010. [Editor's note: This paragraph was changed after publication. See note at story's end.]
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"When [the shelter] moved in, it killed this building," a real estate agent says of Little Tokyo Lofts. He declines to give his name. "It really scares people — nobody wants a homeless shelter or city services next door."
But with the economy improving and downtown burgeoning, not even the Women's Center, a gorgeous, 1927 Gothic Revival–style building, could keep prices down forever at the Little Tokyo Lofts. After cratering in value to the mid-$100,000s in 2009, when the housing bubble burst and pulled thousands of Angelenos into foreclosure, the lofts now are more costly than ever, approaching $500,000 apiece.
Like so many downtown lofts, Little Tokyo Lofts has a ground floor that's zoned for commercial. City planners love these mixed-use buildings — in theory, the businesses along the sidewalks draw street traffic, making the neighborhood more walkable and more vibrant.
But the ground floor of Little Tokyo Lofts is nearly vacant, with the exception of the unit on its southwest corner: a Los Angeles County mental health center. Recently, the clinic made plans to expand into the entire ground floor, giving the area's substantial population of mentally ill a consolidated government mental health facility.
When residents learned of this, they were aghast. This isn't what downtown developers promised when they touted "mixed-use."
Dan Curnow, a resident in the building who helped lead a petition drive to stop the mental health center's expansion, says the real issue was that the plans called for providing patients emergency-exit access to an "unsecured hallway" inside the Little Tokyo Lofts building.
In other words, strangers seeking help potentially could gain access to the entire building — access for which the residents themselves require a security key card.
"We know where we live," Curnow explains. "We need treatment in the area. But there's a safe way of doing it. And there's plenty of space in the area. There's no reason why it had to be in a residential building."
He adds: "We have children, we have elderly residents. That was not what we considered a safe environment."
In the end, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors bowed to the loft residents' pressure, even going so far as to order the conversion of the clinic into an administrative office that will no longer service patients.
Yolanda Vera, aide to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents Skid Row — but, importantly, does not represent the gentrifying areas such as Little Tokyo — thought the dispute was unfortunate and the loft residents' concerns somewhat overblown.
"What played out at the Little Tokyo Lofts is a microcosm of what's been playing out in every major urban city" undergoing gentrification, says Vera, who is Ridley-Thomas' senior deputy for health care. "The area is on the cusp of being more walkable and more attractive to young professionals and young families. But it's in a location that historically has been a site of many low-income individuals. So it's a tension. It's not an impossible tension."
L.A.'s Skid Row, at least in the form it is today, is a man-made thing. It is what it is because the city fathers and big-name experts in urban renewal decided it should be that way. For nearly a century, starting in the 1880s, the district was filled with cheap hotels, saloons and old white drunks, many of them wearing coats and ties, footnotes to a bygone era.
In the 1970s, Los Angeles politicians and urban planners developed what is now commonly referred to as the "containment strategy" for the homeless. Downtown was emptying out: Businesses were moving west, away from Main Street and closer to Bunker Hill, while residents were fleeing to the suburbs (as in all American cities).
A deal was struck between the city's business establishment, then–Mayor Tom Bradley, the Community Redevelopment Agency and advocacy groups such as the Los Angeles Catholic Worker and the Legal Aid Foundation: The area bounded by Main, Third, Seventh and Alameda streets would be turned into a central location for facilities serving the homeless and impoverished. Soup kitchens, shelters and mental health centers all moved in — as many as 70 nonprofits invested in Skid Row, all in the space of about 50 square blocks. Nonprofits and government-run organizations poured in millions of dollars, creating a dense infrastructure for serving the poor.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," UCLA's Blasi says. "The liberal story was that it would be a one-stop shop where you could get help. The other story was, 'It won't be near us.' "
But starting in the 1980s, Skid Row began to change, as younger, black men poured onto the streets, a spillover effect from the poverty engulfing South Los Angeles. South L.A. was thrown into turmoil by three converging forces: job losses created in part by the decline of the aerospace and tire industries; a PCP and crack epidemic unlike anything L.A. had ever seen; and the violent grip of the Bloods and Crips gangs on daily life.
"The thing about Skid Row, it's [being] created in the other concentrations of poverty in Los Angeles," Blasi says. "There are extremely poor people in South L.A. and some pockets of the Valley. Those people, when they run out of any other way to survive, they go to Skid Row, where you're guaranteed a meal and shelter. None of that exists in South L.A."
It was then that tents and makeshift encampments — previously an unfamiliar sight — became a visual fixture on Skid Row, and the previous generation of homeless, the white drunks wearing ties, all but vanished.
While Skid Row continued to draw the jobless, drug addicts, immigrants and the mentally ill, downtown L.A. began its improbable comeback in the late 1990s. Developers, most notably a 6-foot-3 New Yorker named Tom Gilmore, bought up old buildings — many of them cheap, SRO hotels (in which groups of single rooms shared a bathroom) — and turned them into "artist lofts," offering one-room apartments with lots of open space.
In 1999, the L.A. City Council fueled the movement by approving the "adaptive reuse ordinance," which streamlined the process for developers to rehabilitate old buildings. It also waived requirements to build parking, which often made apartment buildings far more expensive.
Throw in the light rail and subways then just starting to open, and all of a sudden it was possible to have an actual urban living experience in famously sprawling L.A.
Once a veritable ghost town at night after office workers went home, DTLA now has a residential population of 52,000 (including 7,326 in Skid Row), far more residents than trendy Los Feliz. Two especially fast-growing areas are the Historic Core along Spring and Main streets and the Arts District east of Alameda.
In the middle of it all sits Skid Row, very much the hole in downtown's redevelopment donut.
Monica May and Kristen Trattner opened the Nickel Diner about six years ago, when Main Street was tattered and, at night, strangely deserted. Today, the street is dotted with pricey restaurants such as Bäco Mercat, Artisan House and the self-described "understated chic" Blossom Restaurant.
The Nickel Diner is one of the few places in the area that still serves nearly everyone — cops, drug dealers, career types, the working poor.
"Do we want everything to get better? Yeah," May says. "But there are these people that have decided it should all be Disneyland or Times Square."
In 2011, L.A. City Councilman José Huizar instantly became a player in the future of downtown when a controversial gerrymandering by the City Council, a process known as "redistricting," handed him important new territory to represent — a huge hunk of downtown.
Huizar has pushed to revitalize Broadway, the grimy but bustling street that for years has been filled with cheap-goods storefronts and a daily crush of Latino immigrant shoppers. Now, "parklets," bike lanes, trees and widened, brown-pebble sidewalks for café tables and benches are very much on the agenda. The discount stores are closing, and fashionable high-end global chain stores such as Acne, Tanner Goods and A.P.C. are moving in.
Some longtime DTLA activists are incensed that Huizar and Garcetti have made it such a high priority to improve Broadway's quality of life along the historic strip of movie palaces paralleling Main Street, while giving little more than a pittance to Skid Row, where such basic trappings as trash cans are hard to come by.
"There's this dirty divide," says Becky Dennison, a co-director at advocacy group LA CAN. "City resources mostly go to improving higher-income communities, the more powerful communities. So Skid Row continues to see massive disinvestment. It's a big deal if they can get street cleaning."
The L.A. City Council recently approved $3.7 million to provide more access to bathrooms, showers and lockers for the 1,000 to 3,000 people on the streets.
The plan was seen by some as a sick joke compared with the $41 billion (including $8.2 billion of city money) pledged by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade.
"Look at what the mayor of New York is trying to do," Alice Callaghan says. "Our mayor doesn't even talk about poor people. He talks about middle-class people and jobs. He's gonna do nothing for poor people."
"Only in cities where the chief executive has made solving the problem of chronic homelessness a priority has it gone anywhere," UCLA's Blasi says.
Garcetti's predecessor as mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, also was widely criticized for his lack of interest in the homeless problem. By contrast, San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom helped reunite 8,000 homeless people with their families, and got another 11,000 into "permanent supportive housing" — government-subsidized buildings where mental health and social workers are on call 24 hours a day.
"The only way to abolish homelessness, the central antidote is, of course, a place to live," says Philip Mangano, who served as President George W. Bush's homelessness czar for seven years.
Philadelphia, Denver, St. Louis and Boston have made major headway in combating chronic homelessness — by building supportive housing.
Of course, this costs money, but in the long run, according to many studies, it can actually save millions of dollars. Without supportive housing and routine medical care, many homeless people repeatedly end up in jails and emergency rooms.
A single homeless person, chronically absorbed, processed and cared for by the law enforcement system or medical system, can run up a government bill of shocking proportions.
So nonprofits such as the Skid Row Housing Trust and SRO Housing Corporation have built permanent supportive housing over the last decade, much of it on the fringes of Skid Row.
But L.A. still needs thousands of additional units to make a real dent in the problem.
In March, a plan to turn Main Street's long-derelict Hotel Cecil (onetime home of the Night Stalker serial killer Richard Ramirez) into an enormous, 384-unit supportive-housing complex gained steam with a powerful coalition behind it. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors, United Way and Chamber of Commerce were all on board. So was the building's owner.
Yet overnight, the proposal was killed off.
Prominent downtown developer Tom Gilmore and Carol Schatz, CEO of the Central City Association, the influential lobbying arm of the downtown business establishment, put intense pressure on the county supes, who then dropped the plan.
Schatz declined to speak to L.A. Weekly; Gilmore didn't return phone calls.
"There's actually quite a bit of affordable housing in Skid Row," insists Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Core Business Improvement District. She asks, "Where is the rest of the city and the county?" when it comes to providing places for homeless services. "No one is trying to push people out. What we're saying is, it's time for other communities to shoulder the burden."
Much growth in the new downtown has come at the expense of low-income housing in and around Skid Row, where you could once get a room for $10 a night. In the 1960s, as many as 15,000 units offered cheap rent. About half were deemed not up to earthquake codes and torn down. By the '70s, there were fewer than 7,000. Then thousands of affordable units were converted into middle-class apartments (marketed as "lofts") in the early 2000s.
Today there are just about 3,400 units (including residential hotels and supportive housing) in and around Skid Row, according to Callaghan and the Historic Core Business Improvement District.
Housing advocates such as Callaghan successfully fought for laws to prevent developers from tearing down low-income housing without rebuilding them, a no-net-loss policy. But that only means the city is treading water.
In the late '90s, Callaghan saw the writing on the wall. So her organization, Las Familias del Pueblo, bought two of the smaller SRO hotels near Fifth and Main streets, the Genesis and the Pershing, in order to preserve some of the affordable housing. She later arranged for the buildings to be turned over to the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust.
She now regrets handing the buildings over to the nonprofit. "I never in a million years thought the Trust would become an agent for gentrification," she says.
Skid Row Housing Trust tore down the Genesis and in its place built the New Genesis, a modern-looking, security camera–laden, six-story complex with low-income units and permanent supportive housing, complete with mental health and drug and alcohol dependency services on site.
Controversially, however, the first floor of New Genesis is commercially zoned — the "mixed use" embraced by the L.A. Planning Department, City Council and Garcetti — and is now occupied by a comically hip ice cream shop, Peddler's Creamery.
"Bicycle-churned organic ice cream," its sign proclaims. Soon the ice cream store will be joined by a brick-and-mortar version of a popular food truck known as Great Balls on Tires, which serves gourmet meatballs, two for $6.
Recently, the Central Area Planning Commission, political appointees of the mayor, approved Great Balls on Tires' application to sell beer and wine — a dicey proposal, considering many residents upstairs in the New Genesis are in recovery.
Of course, there are plenty of other bars and liquor stores (and drug dealers) in the area. The real bone of contention is: Why is the nonprofit Housing Trust, ostensibly set up to house the poor, renting out space for gourmet treats?
Surely Genesis residents living on $221 monthly general relief checks from L.A. County won't be springing for bicycle-churned ice cream and trendy meatballs.
"Residents that get $221 in general relief — can they benefit from some of the same amenities as those living in the lofts? No," SRO Housing CEO Anita Nelson admits. "But they're able to live in that area and have [the loft dwellers] as neighbors."
That's a key piece of the new vision for combating homelessness: Mix in the former homeless alongside the working poor, working class and middle class. SRO Housing recently announced plans to convert the stately Rosslyn Hotel on Main Street into a larger version of the Genesis: 93 units for the homeless, 75 for homeless veterans, 100 or so for low-income residents, with businesses on the ground.
Of course, the newer supportive housing won't necessarily go to the homeless people living on the streets near these construction sites.
"They're just pushing the community out," Callaghan says. "And the community can't go anywhere. They can't just stand up and move to Pasadena. They end up on the sidewalk."
Correction: A previous version of this story wrongly described the Downtown Women's Shelter. The organization was founded in 1978, and its San Pedro Street facility, which contains supportive housing for homeless women, opened in 2010. We regret the error.