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LA’s Skid Row: “The Way I Picture 1st Century Jerusalem”

From the comments section for this post, by Sean Landers:

When I lived in LA, last year, I worked downtown – basically, right in this area, in the old Sewing District, about a block from the Grand Central Market to the north and east, a few blocks from Pershing Square and the LA Gas Building to the north, and a block from Skid Row to the south.

The whole place is a mess of dilapidated and abandoned businesses. The entire downtown core is neglected and forgotten. There are two basic centers of legitimate employment — the large corporate towers that cluster near Pershing Square, and City Hall/the police headquarters.

“Downtown LA” is kind of a misnomer — LA has no true core, no heart. It is a loose confederation of towns that sprawled into each other, interstitched by freeways. Downtown LA is, generally speaking, a ghost town and a leper colony.

Downtown swarms with the homeless — but these aren’t your ordinary homeless, by and large. There are certainly a great number of functionally homeless individuals who aren’t too strung out or nuts to go about their day-to-day needs… securing food, shelter, hygene, et c.

What’s really going down there is that there is this truly massive number of totally hopeless people. Hopelessly addicted to drugs, no concern for their health and welfare, alternately aggressive and totally withdrawn. Its like walking through Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain”, or maybe the way I picture 1st century Jerusalem, choked with lepers and madmen. The streets are littered with amputees. Half of the homeless get around by wheelchair; it is really surreal. Toothless mouths in perpetual sneers or screams. There are open wounds, boils, sores. It has to be seen to believed. People screaming, just constantly screaming, with no rhyme or reason. People openly urinating and defecating in the gutter — or the street. I saw a woman bathe her baby in a plastic bucket, dabbing the washcloth in the filthy runoff. I was routinely approached with offers of crack, sex for money, et cetera, by utterly hopeless people.

The more ‘together’ and functional homeless seem to cluster together in families and tribes, impromptu tarp-tent cities along the sidewalks, et c. Many of these individuals are also multiply addicted, and handicapped, in wheelchairs. More amputations, poor hygene, inability to maintain basic needs.

It is also choked with squads of private security guards on bikes, hired by the nearby corporate interests — the banking district is right nearby, and there’s a bunch of streets just lined with jewelry stores, some kind of jewelry district — who patrol in purple shirts, on bikes, trying to rein in the worst of the excesses, calling in the cops when it gets too heavy.

The actual LA cops here don’t even seem to care about something so ordinary as drug dealers selling product on the corner — they’re too busy stopping the all-too-frequent fights and beatings that seem to be routine amongst the dispossessed here.

To call it “heart-breaking” defies the true power of this place. It literally defies description. It really did a number on me — there’s no real SANE way to cope with it, other than the time-honored solution of total apathy, rejection — pretending these people don’t even exist.

It isn’t like a city like Boston, where you can ‘come to terms’ with the homeless you frequently see — striking up conversations, sparing cigarettes and change, taking time to treat them like the human beings that they are.

To an extent, some of the homeless in downtown Los Angeles seem hell-bent on rejecting their own humanity, on being desocialized, on becoming wild, feral, and savage within the heart of one of the most wealthy cities in America, if not the world. Skid Row exists within an easy walk of City Hall, of the celebrated Gehry designed Disney Opera House, of the Museum of Contemporary Art, of a cluster of corporate clusters… total squalor in the midst of utterly lavish wealth.

A lot of the abandoned buildings have been converted into loft space for artists and similar. I worked in one of those buildings — aside from our production company, the building was crowded with bohemians and starving artists (metaphorically starving, generally).

Downtown LA is one of the craziest places I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. I spent something like eight months of lunch breaks there.

I used to walk the neighborhood and find some cheap place to eat lunch, or walk through the masses offering me crack, cheeba, h, as I wandered up the steep hills to the LA Public Library to consult their remarkable offerings.

I sort of never ever want to visit it again. But that won’t help — because I know all too well that it exists, will always exist as it does in my mind’s-eye; choked with misery, self-destruction, hopelessness; the sick, the dying, people literally rotting on the ground, urine-soaked gutters and streets hazarding human feces. The Third World in the heart of the First.

Published in researchmaterial


  1. This blows my mind, but I am troubled by the description of Skid Row folks as hell-bent on rejecting their humanity. Even if that is the case, we are hell-bent on rejecting our own humanity by letting them do that. Friends don’t let friends go feral, and a society that allows something like Skid Row to happen doesn’t deserve to be called a society.

    I don’t know what it should be called, but definitely something unflattering.

    Of course, my diatribe invites the question, “So, civilized lady, what’s your solution?” and I don’t have one. I just have dismay at the picture in front of me.

  2. Adam Rogers Adam Rogers


    Perhaps your observant correspondent occasionally walked about two blocks further eastward during his lunchtimes out and about in downtown Los Angeles — my hometown. If he did, he might have found Broadway, the heart of the Latino city and one of the most vibrant shopping streets in the United States. And if he was there today, he’d see a neighborhood getting transformed by the conversions of building after building into condominiums, ensuring the kind of 24-hour population that keeps a district safe and vibrant.

    (Credentials: In addition to spending my first 18 years in Los Angeles, I also spent a summer working in downtown LA while I was in college. And as a teenager I spent stupid, probably dangerous weekend nights wandering downtown to see what was going on. Since then I’ve lived in a lot of big cities.)

    No question, the homeless on LA’s Skid Row presennt a special kind of post-apocalyptic horror. I’m pretty sure that’s not because there are more of them there than, say, Boston, or that they’re more non-functional than the homeless guys in, say, Boston (as your correspondent suggests). Or Harford. Or parts of San Francisco. More likely it’s that LA’s homeless live on otherwise deserted streets shaded by the city’s tallest skyscrapers. Deserted citiyscapes are spooky, and populating them with shambling zombies makes them worse.

    But seriously, the equally substance-addled homeless men who trawl the otherwise lilly-white, blazer-and-khaki-pants-uniformed streets of northwest Washington DC are just as scary (both in their behavior and in what they say about us Americans for letting such a problem persist).

    Furthermore, there’s a long tradition of non-natives coming to Los Angeles for a few months, a year, and then observing that the city has problems because it has no real downtown. I have no idea how long your correspondent actually spent in LA, and I wouldn’t dream of applying any kind of blanket criticism to his obviously well-considered analysis. But I will say that many people who spend time in LA, or who live there, eventually figure out that the strength of the city is that it has *many* downtowns, connected by roads and freeways and the occasional bus.

    It’s a better town than most people give it credit for.

  3. Mike Lewis Mike Lewis

    Mike Davis wrote a book in 1991 or 92 that looks at the history behind of LA called “City of Quartz”. In the book he outlines what one might classify as a conspiracy to lock away the homeless in rundown neighborhoods. The way Davis tells it – it is cheaper to ignore the homeless in Skid Row than put them in jail/help them.

  4. Curtis Curtis

    Eight months of lunchbreaks does not an Angeleno make. I lived in Los Angeles for eighteen years and this is my take – almost everything you can say about the place is true. It is beautiful and ugly; horrfiying and transcendent; heaven and hell on Earth. People seem to love coming to the city for a fairly limited amount of time, declaring themselves some sort of expert on the place and making broad pronouncements based on a very narrow experience. Yes, there is a Skid Row downtown, as in every city in America. But there’s a lot of everything else there too. All the cliches about LA are true and none of them are.

  5. Sounds like an excellent, new horror genre. In the worst way possible, of course.

  6. Chris Chris

    I took the bus downtown once, I walked around 6th, 7th, and 8th street. Any area beyond that is desolate. The few people around are passing the time somehow. One busy street had a guy strumming away on his electric guitar on the corner, the next was dead, with a few people looking suspicious an stuff. I’ve lived in southern california (reasonably quiet ‘burbs) all my life, but downtown is something to see.

  7. I a native Angelino born and bred in Pacific Palisades live the life of luxury and excess, and in comparison to those that live on Skid Row still do. My mother a healthcare advocate for the poor and impoverished would drive by and show me Skid Row and tell me that these are the people that we need to help the most, but it never really meant anything to me until I experienced it first hand. I moved to one of those bohemian downtown LA buildings where I work as a photojournalist. As a child I was fascinated by downtown, both of my parents worked in the vicinity and would bring me along often. I remember looking at all of the old buildings in awe of their beauty, and astounded by the presents and energy of Los Angeles’s glorious and decadent past. I can still feel the presents of this past. Like all things in life Downtown is going thru a period of revitalization trying to become the center of attraction. The skyline is filled with cranes and new buildings. I appreciate this renaissance in the sense that these lowly old buildings and empty streets are being restored to their original valor and Downtown IS slowly transforming into the city that is was destined to be. The question that lies heavy in my mind though: at what cost? Up until very recently Downtown has been a very dark place. Aside from those that work there it is filled with desperate people addicted to drugs and troubled by lives of crime and extreme poverty. Having worked on a series of stories about the Skid Row population my eyes have been opened to another side of Skid Row. I call the this population the “lost and forgotten” As a society we have pushed these people into a corner where they cannot be seen by the masses. Now however Skid Row is in the “hot seat” because of this massive gentrification process and these people are slowly disappearing from the streets. The city comes once a week and bulldozes their homes and camps. But where are they going? What is it that we can do to help these people back into society where they will not be abandoned and forgotten like downtown was for so many years, and so that the “suits” don’t just push them away into the next Skid Row. These people despite their situation do not deserve to be treated like feral animals. Babies deserve more than to be washed in a bucket in the street with dirty washcloth. Children should not be living in SRO hotels with known sex offenders and drug addicts. It should be the moral obligation of those that wish to profit from this ghost town to help this desperate population. We as writers, artists and filmmakers must make it our priority to show the truth behind this gentrification process and make those whom wish to profit also realize that it is their duty to also care for what they are destroying. And we as a population MUST force them to do so. It should be mandatory for every dollar that they profit from to give back some to the community that they are destroying without regard for those that inhabit it. This is a small price to pay in comparison to their future profit. THERE I SAID IT!

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