Near Downtown's Glitter Lies a Civic Problem

By Carla Rivera
Times Staff Writer
August 24, 2005

In the shadow of downtown Los Angeles' glittering Bunker Hill skyscrapers is a 50-block area of grime, despair, struggle and hope known as skid row.

Every day, office workers, tourists, suburban moms and urban pioneers traverse the edges of skid row, which has the largest concentration of homeless men, women and children in the nation. It is likely that most outsiders have no idea how skid row came to be or why cleaning up its streets and housing its occupants has proved to be such a thorny task.

Skid row, also called Central City East, is no accident. It came about through deliberate civic policies that at the time were considered humane.

Surprisingly, skid row itself is a hub of economic growth, with hundreds of mom-and-pop operations and toy and electronic businesses. But it is the street dwellers -- and the many homes made of tents or boxes -- who have come to define the area. Now, with renewed interest in revitalizing downtown Los Angeles and an influx of upscale loft dwellers, the future of skid row looms as a huge question mark.

Question: Where is skid row?

Answer: The heart of skid row is a portion of greater downtown Los Angeles -- 50 city blocks -- roughly bounded by 3rd Street on the north, 7th Street on the south, Main Street on the west and Alameda on the east. Those boundaries have remained over the years because of the entrenchment of Little Tokyo to the north and heavy industrial concentration to the east. In recent years, there has been a drift of homeless people and services west from Los Angeles Street toward Main Street. The southern border has been the most flexible, with some homeless enclaves stretching to 8th and 9th streets.

Q: Who lives on skid row?

A: Estimates of downtown's homeless population range from 8,000 to 11,000 people. It is predominantly a male population and predominantly black, although the numbers of homeless women and children are increasing. About 20% of the population are veterans, and many suffer from substance abuse and mental illnesses.

Skid row now contains dozens of service providers and thousands of single-room-occupancy hotels that house low-income residents who work in the nearby garment and produce industries or subsist on government aid.

Q: What is the history of skid row?

A: The skid row evident today emerged in the mid-1960s and '70s but has its genesis much earlier, said Donald R. Spivack, deputy administrator of the Community Redevelopment Agency and an authority on skid row.

It goes all the way back to the 1870s, said Spivack, when the railroads were built on the periphery of an emerging downtown. The largely agricultural fields east of downtown soon gave way to more industrial uses, which attracted a transient, mostly male population that arrived by train.

There arose the need for living spaces and thus the creation of the single-room-occupancy hotels, with their small rooms and shared baths, and a service community geared to the needs of the workers and increasing numbers of opportunity seekers and social outcasts fleeing families or the law. The Great Depression brought to skid row hobos and other rootless people, many addicted to alcohol. During World War II, Los Angeles was a stopping-off point for people looking for war jobs or shipping out to the Pacific. The USO was located in skid row, and many bars, adult bookstores and small theaters there trace their roots to that era.

In the 1950s and '60s, the city concluded that many hotels in the area were unsafe, and they were demolished, resulting in a substantial displacement of the residential population, many of whom could not afford to live elsewhere. In the late '60s and early '70s, skid row saw a wave of veterans returning from the Vietnam War, largely young, African American, unemployed and suffering from trauma or addictions.

"The area shifted from older whites to younger minority, from alcoholics to drug addicts," Spivack said. "Many soldiers became addicted to drugs in Vietnam, and a lot of them coming home didn't get farther than California."

In 1975, Los Angeles adopted a redevelopment plan that called for stabilizing skid row -- preserving the single-room-occupancy hotels and social agencies -- rather than razing it, as other big cities had done with their indigent districts. The policy would be called "containment," but Spivack said the idea was not to put a fence around skid row to keep people in but to designate an area where shelters and missions would be encouraged to centralize.

Q: How has skid row changed?

A: Since the 1980s, nonprofit housing agencies, including the Skid Row Housing Trust and SRO Housing Corp., have acquired and rehabilitated scores of hotels for use as low-income housing. Now there are about 8,000 residential single-room-occupancy units in the area, many of them providing supportive social services to tenants. Religion-based missions have served people on skid row for more than a century, but the 1980s saw the growth of 24-hour emergency shelters and other secular programs. The area has about 1,270 shelter beds.

The growth of the toy and electronic wholesale businesses has spawned several business improvement districts in and around skid row, which provide, among other services, bicycle security forces. One of the biggest changes downtown in recent years is the burgeoning numbers of residents in market-rate housing, usually lofts. There are about 4,000 new units and an additional 7,000 in the planning stages or under construction around the outskirts of skid row. The demand is creating competition for spaces that advocates would like to see used as low-income housing.

Q: What are the major challenges facing skid row?

A: Major issues include the sometimes-uneasy coexistence of loft dwellers and homeless people and the continued concentration of homeless services and people downtown. Service providers recount instances of suburban police officers dropping off homeless people downtown rather than providing services in their own communities. Criminals from around Los Angeles County discharged from the nearby jail frequently land in skid row. As a result, advocates charge, wretched conditions and illegal activities exist in skid row that would not be tolerated elsewhere.

City and county officials are trying to regionalize homeless services but must buck strong not-in-my-backyard sentiments in other communities.

Q: Why is it called skid row?

A: In the timber industry, "skid road" refers to a path paved with logs or tree trunks along which other logs are skidded into water for delivery to saw mills, according to Webster's. It is claimed that the term "skid row" originated in Seattle, which had a thriving lumber industry. During the Great Depression, Seattle's "Skid Road" went into decline, attracting vagrants, winos and brothels. Skid row (with "row" replacing "road") became synonymous with the part of town where vagrants and alcoholics congregate.

Seattle's Canadian neighbor, Vancouver, British Columbia, also claims that its "skid row" was the first. Not all cities use the phrase to refer to the rundown part of town. New York's equivalent was the Bowery, a street that borders Chinatown, Little Italy and the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

After World War II, the area attracted homeless people, alcoholics and flophouses. But Mitchell Netburn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and a native New Yorker, said the Bowery was far less dense than Los Angeles' skid row and never had tent encampments. The Bowery has gentrified and now includes high-rise condos.