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The New Urban Frontier: A User’s Guide

My rating scale for those out prospecting downtown digs is not unlike Hotel.com’s 5-star system, with some obvious differences. Since the levels of amenities, facilities and services that I’m rating don’t lend themselves to stars, per se, I will employ a 5-shopping-cart scale. The fewer carts, the more derelict is your potential rooming situation.

A 5-star (Deluxe) score from Hotel.com means hotel lobbies that are “sumptuous,” rooms with stylish furnishing and quality linens, amenities that often include VCRs, CD stereos, garden tubs or Jacuzzis, an in-room video library, heated pools, fitness clubs, and up to three restaurants, some with exquisite menus and 24-hour room service. Places that offer only the highest level of Skid Row accommodations get a 5-shopping-cart rating (Humble) from me. Most 5-cart accommodations are SROs (single-room-occupancy) hotels run by nonprofits that offer safe “communal intimacy” only a few feet away from the eye of a toxic hurricane. Amenities are usually limited to the bare essentials: a bed or cot, some threadbare sheets, sometimes a caseworker on site. Public access is often limited after certain hours.

My lowest rating, 1 cart (Subhuman), is reserved for street encampments. Furnishings are nonexistent; bathroom facilities are almost always rat-infested and may be overcome with the smell of feces and urine. Rooming situations typically consist of a tent, box or bare sidewalk. Sorry, no restaurant on site, but some are within walking distance. Public access, past certain hours, is not restricted. Crack, heroin and, more recently, crystal meth are available at reduced rates, 24 hours a day. Prostitution is also available at much-reduced rates — as low as $1 to $5 per trick, depending upon the availability of a Porto-Potty.

The rating scale is as follows: 5 Carts (Humble), 4 Carts (Modest), 3 Carts (Cesspool), 2 Carts (Shithole), 1 Cart (Subhuman).

E=Emergency housing, T=Temporary housing, P=Permanent housing, I=Income-adjusted rates, S=Shelter, N=Nonprofit, S&P=Feces and urine on site, SRO=Single-room-occupancy hotel, L=Loft.

Since there are so many possible living situations downtown, I’ve confined my guide to the area between Second and Ninth streets, and between Broadway and San Pedro Street.

The Volunteers of America Drop-in Center

628 San Julian St.

Modest (E, N, I)

Since it opened in April of 1999, the Drop-in Center serves about 800 people a day. The lobby features a large open patio where guests are allowed to curl up on smooth concrete floors when the beds are taken. Aluminum fixtures and cinder-block walls give VOA guests that modern/institutional comfort they’ve come to expect on the Row. The community room has polished concrete floors, African wall hangings, a mounted color-television set and orange plastic chairs. With 32 beds, the Drop-in Center isn’t a shelter proper, but you can take a nap, get a shower and wash your clothes. It’s a little heavy on the Pine-O-San cleaner smell in there, but I guess there’s no way around that. Walking distance to all Skid Row feeders.

Rooms: 10-by-15-foot cubicles (four beds separated by 4-foot-high cinder-block walls).

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Community shower, bed, blanket, laundry service. Phone calls, message board. TV in Community Room. Skid Row Street Theater (verbal altercations, psychiatric episodes including psychotic outbursts, violent assaults as well as junkie drama, occasional shootings and stabbings). Heroin, crack and hookers are available within spitting distance, as are case management, job development, housing, legal aid, personal mentors, social activities, self-help groups and literacy classes.

Restaurants: L.A. Mission, Fred Davis Mission, Union Mission, Weingart Center, Midnight Mission, Hippie Kitchen.

Food: Coffee 24/7.

Comments: “This wall separates God from the devil,” a man with cartoonishly large, swollen, bandaged feet tells me on my way out. He’s referring to the cinder-block wall that separates the VOA Drop-in Center from the street. I understand it to be a ringing endorsement.

The Simone

520 San Julian St. (Skid Row Housing Trust)

Modest (P, SRO, I, N)

This 123-unit facility is located directly across from San Julian Park on Fifth Street. Polished concrete floors and lots of open air give it a modern feel that is the SRO design signature of architect Jim Bonner. The Simone, completed in August 1992, was the first newly constructed SRO on Skid Row since the turn of the century, and it has become a symbol for all that followed. Income-adjusted rates make it a great choice for those on general relief or supplemental-security income transitioning off the Row.

Rooms: 10-by-10-foot singles.

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Single bed, nightstand, desk, small chair and small refrigerator. Community TV in each of two lobbies. Karaoke at the Church of the Nazarene at Sixth and San Pedro. Skid Row Street Theater (verbal altercations, psychiatric episodes including psychotic outbursts, violent assaults as well as junkie drama, occasional shootings and stabbings). Heroin, crack and hookers are available within spitting distance.

Food: Public kitchen, vending machines.

Restaurants: L.A. Mission, Union Mission, Weingart Center, Midnight Mission, Hippie Kitchen, Fred Jordan Mission.

Policies: No drugs. Additional guests pay a $5 money order to stay after 5 p.m. No cooking in room.

Comments: Clyde, a meticulously groomed 40-year-old black man with shoulder-length, chemically straightened hair, in crisply pressed white linen slacks and faux-snakeskin shoes, is a former homeless parolee who’s been at the Simone for a couple of years. “Wonderful, clean, upgrade hotel,” he beams. “The manager is wonderful. She’ll go there with you, but she has boundaries. I give it three stars.”

The L.A. Mission

303 E. Fifth St.

Modest (E, T, I, N)

Originally founded in 1936, this spiritually funded 156,000-square-foot, superdeluxe mission facility opened on January 21, 1992. The huge lobby employs metal benches and TV monitors mounted on high ceilings to create an upscale bus-depot ambiance that will help the “Greyhound therapy” population feel at ease. A small stage features guest preachers to assist the recently saved as they transition into the program. With a total of 338 beds (116 reserved as emergency overnight shelter), this is a huge operation.

Rooms: Dormitory.

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Full-size basketball court, game room with pool table, pingpong, video games (all donated by U2!), futuristic Starship Enterprise computer lab, wraparound balcony deck, big state-of-the-art chapel. Sunbathing in San Julian Park. Skid Row Street Theater (verbal altercations, psychiatric episodes including psychotic outbursts, violent assaults as well as junkie drama, occasional shootings and stabbings). Heroin, crack and hookers are all available within spitting distance.

Restaurants: L.A. Mission cafeteria seats 230. A spotless, stainless-steel kitchen serves 1,200 meals per day featuring food-service supervisor/chef Chris Cormier’s “best on the Row recipes” and a salad bar.

Restrictions: Accepting Jesus is mandatory.

Comments: A young black guy with a shaved head and dressed in Sean John looks over his shoulder as he says, “I love this place. Isn’t easy . . . but I love it.”

*Note: The L.A. Mission is one of several missions in the area that offer programs where you kinda gotta get with the Jesus thing. The Midnight Mission (where Dick Van Dyke hands out Snickers on Christmas) is a little different. It doesn’t require any mandatory participation in religion but sort of freestyles it with the 12-step recovery thing. Its current 172-bed-capacity facility on Los Angeles Street at Fourth is a little dank, but this month its new 90,000-square-foot, 250-to-300-bed superstructure at San Pedro and Fifth will be complete. I’m predicting a solid 4½ carts for the new Midnight Mission.

The Cecil Hotel

640 S. Main St.

Modest (SRO, T)

This down-and-dirty, toxic but sexy, druggie squat for lowlife lovers has a newly renovated Mediterranean bilevel lobby that features authentic Greek-restaurant-style murals and statues, plastic palm trees, and a security-guard station that you cannot pass without presenting photo ID. All 635 rooms start at 41 bucks a night; it’s a bargain you may or may not survive depending on your mug-ability factor.

Rooms: 6-by-10-foot singles.

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Color TV, high-speed Internet access, meeting rooms, city tours, safe-deposit boxes, private or European-style shared bathrooms. Skid Row Street Theater (verbal altercations, psychiatric episodes including psychotic outbursts, violent assaults as well as junkie drama, occasional shootings and stabbings). Heroin, crack and hookers are available within spitting distance.

Restaurants: King Burger (supergreasy burger stand), Margarita’s Place (Mexican restaurant), walking distance to all missions and feeders.

Comments: Martin X, a black man in his 50s with matted gray hair and a coat stuffed with a month’s worth of the Sunday L.A. Times, is a longtime Cecil resident. “Cecil’s a stronghold. They dug in,” he says. “Got surveillance in every room, every floor . . . watchin’. It’s in the ceiling. People who work here all in on it. They all white. Not a nigger on the payroll.”

The Klyt Bathhouse

132 Fourth St.

Cesspool (T, E)

This former hotel is steeped in classic Tijuana “baños publicos” ambiance. At $12 for eight hours, these toxic vapors are a favorite of undocumented day workers and Latinophilic, bottom-feeding fags. The narrow rustic halls filled with half-naked men posturing just inside the battered green and orange wood doors of semiprivate cubicles are, to say the least, intimate. The sign behind the front desk speaks the loudest: “Los Angeles County Department of Health Services AIDS prevention notice: Los Angeles County Department of Health Services has determined that high-risk sexual activity can lead to AIDS. High-risk sexual activity means the placing of the penis of another male into the anus or mouth of another male whether or not a condom is used. Or the placing of the mouth of one male on the anus of another male. Anyone found participating in high-risk sexual activity will be immediately expelled from the premises.”

Rooms: 6-by-8-foot cubicles with 2-by-5-foot pad.

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Community shower, steam room, community bathroom and community TV room. Threadbare sheet and towel provided.

Food: Vending machines.

Restaurants: Walking distance to Pete’s Café.

Restrictions: No in and out.

Comments: “Fuck you, puta,” says a disheveled Hispanic man, in a stonewashed Levi’s jacket with no shirt, waiting for a towel as I approach the front desk. I understand his comment to mean that he has been here before and, as such, his very presence is an endorsement of this establishment.

The San Fernando Building

400 S. Main St. (Gilmore Associates)

(L, P)

The historic San Fernando Building is an eight-story, 1906 edifice with 70 units, including penthouse. Originally built as a commercial venture by Colonel James B. Lankershim, it has been restored with particular care to retain the integrity of the initial Renaissance Revival influence. The lobby is stunning, with 22-foot ceilings, lots of glass, and the original marble and tile. Now available for occupancy.

Rooms: Lofts starting at 585 square feet for $950 per month. A 1,420-square-foot space is $2,000 per month, and the penthouse is a 1,200-square-foot interior connected to a massive terrace by warehouse roll doors that expose the entire front to create an impressive spread with an exquisite view of downtown for just $3,000 per month. (All require a one-year lease.)

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Internet access, high ceilings, Direct TV, concrete floors, individual thermostat, heating and air conditioning, gas stove and range, honed-granite kitchen counters, porcelain bathtub with slate-tile enclosure, garbage disposal, dishwasher, refrigerator, window blinds. Dogs and cats welcome at no additional charge. Walking distance to the Klyt Bathhouse, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Civic Center, Union Station, Convention Center, Museum of Contemporary Art, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Score (Hispanic gay bar), Little Pedro’s Blue Bongo, Japanese American National Museum. General store directly across the street. Here, you have to walk for heroin, crack and hookers.

Restaurants: Pete’s Café adjacent to lobby, newly opened Warung (Indonesian) Café at 118 W. Fourth St. Walking distance to Midnight Mission.

The Little Tokyo Lofts

420 S. San Pedro St. (Peterson & Tansey Mgt., LLC).

(L, P)

The Little Tokyo Lofts are located in the Westinghouse Building in the toy district. Built in 1922, this concrete Deco jewel was recently used for leather-goods manufacturing and storage, and has been up and running in its current incarnation since August 2003.

Developers Jon Peterson and Michael Tansey really hit the mark with this tastefully understated renovation that retains the original character of the building. It’s located across the street from the urine-drenched sidewalks that are home to some of Skid Row’s most homeless faces, so you can “keep the dirt under your nails” without contracting a staph infection.

Rooms: 161 units of live/work space. The units vary in size from 625 square feet to 1,750 square feet, and prices range from $1,295 to $3,000 a month.

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Heated pool, Jacuzzi, barbecue, Direct TV, broadband Internet satellite dish, washer/dryer in each unit, central air, attached parking garage, 24-hour guard. Roarks art-supply store, Japanese American National Museum. Skid Row Street Theater (verbal altercations, psychiatric episodes including psychotic outbursts, violent assaults as well as junkie drama, occasional shootings and stabbings). Heroin, crack and hookers are available within spitting distance.

Restaurants: Boyd Street Café, Little Tokyo restaurants, Karina’s Hot Lunch mobile restaurant. Café Roma coffee shop located near the main entrance. Walking distance to all missions and feeders.

Comments: Painter Tobias Keane and producer Robbie Chong migrated to the LTLs two years ago. Chong, a longtime volunteer for the Chrysalis Foundation, first saw the building on the homeless employment agency’s foot tour of the Row. “My husband’s a painter, and you aren’t gonna find space like this at this price except downtown,” Chong says. “I’m not afraid of Skid Row. I love it down here.”

“I treat it like an island,” Keane admits. “I don’t travel much except for Little Tokyo and Chinatown. I love the air conditioning. Great light. Big windows. I don’t need anything else. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s a place to paint. Did I mention I really like the air conditioning?”

The Orpheum Lofts

846 Broadway (Anjac)

(L, P)

The recently renovated Orpheum Lofts were the first developed in the historic Broadway Theater District and are located above the 2,000-seat Orpheum Theater, built in 1926 and run by the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit. With construction on the new giant Ralphs supermarket at Ninth and Flower well under way, three Rite Aids within walking distance, not to mention Connie’s Cut-n-Style salon right around the corner, this comes closest to achieving a real residential infrastructure in the middle of desirable historic architecture.

Like Orpheus, you can descend to the underworld, conveniently located directly across the street in the form of the Broadway Trade Center — a super–ghetto swap meet, where homeless night dwellers cuddle up on the steps of the biggest lower merchandising extravaganza this side of Hacienda Heights. During business hours you can get a sink-shower for 25 cents in the public bathroom (toilet paper available upon request from attendant). However, if you’re feeling a little dope-sick, you’ll have to walk the three blocks down Broadway to Fifth Street.

Rooms: The 37 1,260- to 1,820-square-foot units go for between $1,000 and $2,650. Six are two stories with an interior stairway.

Amenities, entertainment & area attractions: Finished kitchens with refrigerator, microwave, range and dishwasher, central air conditioning and heating, Direct TV–ready, up to four phone lines with provisions for DSL, common laundry facility with TV, subterranean parking with 24/7 attendant. Grand Avenue Night Club (Olympic), Golden Gopher Bar at Eighth and Olive. Broadway Bar (in construction) next door. Heroin, crack and prostitutes are available within jogging distance.

Comments: Building manager Mike Ramos is a handsome, 20-year-old Lynwood native and the first person to inhabit the now almost-full Orpheum Lofts. “Down here at Broadway, we allow tenants to have pets, so they go out and walk at night, and so far we never had a complaint. It’s more dangerous in Lynwood.” When friends from back home come to visit, Mike likes the IHOP at Flower and Eighth streets. “It’s good food and it’s close,” he says.

Cardboard Box

Winston Street

Subhuman (E, I, S&P)

This box is approximately 2-by-3-by-6 feet. Made in China, this monochromatic, minimal corrugated enclosure has been covered in plastic wrap to keep the rain out and discourage rats. Located on the sidewalk, butted against a brick building on Winston Street between Wall and Los Angeles streets, there is no charge for use of this temporary, single-resident cardboard shelter. This box is not currently available for occupancy and must be vacated daily when business on the street opens at 9 a.m.

Amenities, entertainment, area attractions, hotels and restaurants: Exquisite view of downtown, portable toilets in immediate area, red fuzzy blanket with rendering of Virgin Mary over several layers of newspaper to insulate flesh from concrete. Heroin, crack and hookers are available on premises. Front-row season tickets to Skid Row Street Theater (verbal altercations, psychiatric episodes including psychotic outbursts, violent assaults as well as junkie drama, occasional shootings and stabbings). Box is within walking distance to . . . everything downtown has to offer.

Comments: A 23-year-old Honduran man/box resident fashions a pillow of sneakers rolled up in a jacket, stammers in frustrated, broken English: “This is where I live. This is my house. I don’t like you to look at me too much.”


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