Making toys, furniture, artificial flowers, storing and processing fish, along with providing services to the homeless are the main economic activities of Los Angeles’ Skid Row an area of about fifty square blocks beginning less than half a mile south from City Hall. As one learns more about the complexity of each of these businesses as well as of their interdependence and relationship to the missions and the street people, the more extraordinary this urban economy appears, thriving as it has done for decades amid the poverty, disease, and despair of the street.
For decades Skid Row has been the largest public display of human misery in the United States, certainly since I started documenting the area in
1995. Derelict people-- mostly African Americans and Latinos--numbering in the thousands, —are concentrated in Skid Row. The missions came to the area first. The Fred Jordan Mission is over forty years old, and the Union Rescue Mission, now in a new building on San Julian Street, has been in the community for ninety years. Many of the hotels built long ago to accommodate travelers arriving by train became single room occupancy hotels providing cheap places to live. After the missions came the soup kitchens, health facilities, and methadone clinics. City residents know they can always drop off food and clothing for the homeless here, and their charity gives further
impetus for the down-and-out to congregate in the area.
However, in recent years Skid Row has been transformed. In addition to the museums, corporate offices and government buildings, many old industrial and commercial buildings in the area are being transformed into lofts, galleries, restaurants and luxury hotels. As Los Angeles’ old downtown is transformed into a new city center, officials have necessarily declared that the old Skid Row and the new downtown cannot coexist.
Since the Fall of 2006 the atmosphere on the streets of Skid Row has changed. The Los Angeles Police Department has stepped up the search and arrest of the homeless, and now people are kept from congregating on the corners and are forced to keep moving along the streets. Over the years, I have witnessed many such incidents along Skid Row, but none impressed me more than the one I saw in May of 2007 when a police car arrived, siren blaring and its loudspeaker screaming “Wake up!, Wake up!” Startled—and thinking a violent crime must have occurred—I saw a policeman standing over a sleeping figure on the sidewalk at South 4th Street. It was nine o’clock in the morning and apparently the destitute person under the blanket had overslept.
When I asked who was pushing the homeless out of Skid Row a woman explained “the city, the police, the maintenance people.” I asked: Where are they going? She replied: “They are going to jail. They are going under the bridges, by the LA River. They are going to the missions, but some don’t want to go there.”
As the police gradually gain control over Skid Row, I feel I am witnessing its last days. In a decade or so Skid Row will perhaps become LA’s equivalent of New York’s Greenwich Village. Indeed, a Whole Foods is coming to the new downtown LA.