Try riding your bike east on Seventh Street through the heart of downtown. If you follow the nicely marked bike lane, you'll notice something as you cross Main Street: The lane suddenly disappears. You'll also notice the pristine cafes and restaurants disappear, too, with rows of tents soon taking their place. The “dirty divide,” as some call the boundary of Skid Row, marks the beginning of what’s considered the homeless capital of the country — and it sharply contradicts the description of downtown, offered by members of the Downtown LA Neighborhood Council, as a place of “neighborhood unity.”
The area is far from unified.
Skid Row suffers from a host of issues. It's also home to many talented residents who work, pay rent and use bikes as their main source of transportation. So why doesn't the area have bike lanes like the rest of downtown?
“They jumped over us with bike lanes, just like they jump over us with everything else,” says General Dogon, a longtime member of the Los Angeles Community Action Network who on Saturday led a group of roughly 50 bike riders from Skid Row to the heart of downtown in the inaugural Skid Row Bike Ride. “We're trying to make it safe for our community, and that's what this bike ride is all about.”
The ride started at L.A. CAN headquarters in Skid Row, with community members gathering to admire one another’s custom bikes and chug water in anticipation of a scorching July afternoon. Pete White, executive director of L.A. CAN, showed up with extra bikes for those who needed them. Orange bandannas were given to every rider, matching the signature orange shirts worn by many L.A. CAN members. As everyone mounted their bikes and switched on their boom boxes, Dogon blew his whistle and led the procession of cheering riders through downtown.
When the cyclists arrived at City Hall, L.A. CAN member Ariana Alcaraz addressed them and called for City Councilmember José Huizar to take more action for his Skid Row constituents. “We are pushing him to get the Department of Transportation to do a cost analysis for putting bike lanes on Fifth and Sixth streets,” Alcaraz says. “We'll probably have to come here again and again to demand bike lanes on Skid Row.”
Asked if Huizar would support Skid Row bike lanes, his communications director, Rick Coca, said in a statement: “Our office is currently working on plans to expand bike lanes in downtown, including Skid Row, and we look forward to working with the advocates and community stakeholders to make this a reality.”
Community activists say that having a neighborhood council devoted to Skid Row would be a great mechanism to push City Hall into addressing community issues such as bike lanes, restrooms and housing. But efforts to create the Skid Row Neighborhood Council recently failed, and some residents blame Huizar.
The bike ride continued down Broadway, zooming past Grand Central Market, where Saturday patrons caught a glimpse of it over their iced coffees. One man yelled “What's this all about?” As the cyclists began to circle and block the traffic at the intersection of Fifth and Broadway, various riders led a series of chants that provided an answer.
“What do we want? Bike lanes! When do we want them? Now!”
Activists say that public displays of support for Skid Row are crucial as newer residents and patrons continue to flock to downtown; many of them don't know much about the struggles just blocks from their new loft apartments.
“That we would have to sit here and fight and ride for bike lanes is crazy,” White says. “But we do.”
For L.A. CAN, the fight for bike lanes is just one part of a larger battle. Dogon plans to keep fighting it. “That's why we ride,” he says. “For justice.”