I grew up thinking of the "inner city" as a byword for criminality, disrepair, inconvenience, and destitution. Only later did I realize that, outside the United States and much of the United Kingdom, the term and its international equivalents never picked up those off-putting associations. To most of the rest of the world, whose capitals' established centers didn't suffer the same extensive degree of postwar population drain, a city gets only more attractive (if exponentially more expensive) the farther in you go. But once-derelict downtowns all across America have enjoyed a renaissance of late, and Los Angeles' downtown, once among the most derelict, now looks among the most promising. Walk through most of its neighborhoods, and you may well believe the hype; walk through Skid Row, a substantial piece of the old inner city spread for blocks and blocks from about 5th Street and San Pedro outward, and you begin to wonder.
The San Francisco of my early childhood left me with only a few memories, most of them having to do with the size and assertiveness of its homeless population. The situation there has improved, but then, when I saw it at three feet off the ground, I saw it at its late-1980s nadir — it had nothing left to do but improve. That sense memory of passing into an environment, no matter how otherwise stimulating, shot through with drug use, mental illness, aggression, and desperate poverty never quite left me. But anyone going to San Francisco back then would have expected to encounter all that; these days, in that city and others, you more often find it in unexpected pockets, or rather, you suddenly find yourself in those pockets. I think, to take one stark example, of Vancouver's Hastings Street, onto which the city somehow steers what seem like all of its transients.
Or I think of an urban stroll vividly described by the usually fearless traveler Jan Morris: "Following the tourist signs towards the Old Town District and Chinatown, and expecting the usual harmless flummery of restored gas-lamps and dragon-gates, I crossed Burnside Street and found myself in a corner of hell. Suddenly all around me were the people of Outer America, flat out on the sidewalk, propped against walls, sitting on steps, some apparently drugged. [ ... ] They did not look exactly hostile, or even despairing, but simply stupefied, as though life and history had condemned them to permanent poverty-stricken sedation." Though she entered this scene in a troubled part of Portland, her words could just as easily describe Los Angeles' Skid Row, which takes up roughly 50 city blocks downtown, saturated with a proportionately greater feeling of despair.
The relative newcomers to Los Angeles I meet show, on average, more optimism about the prospects of downtown than do the natives. And indeed, to someone born and raised here, a witness to the past thirty, forty, fifty years, calling downtown the center of Los Angeles must sound only somewhat less plausible than predicting the rise of the next Manhattan in, say, South Gate. Going by the improvement of downtown in general over just in the past ten years, I tend to side, perhaps predictably, with my fellow non-natives and their confidence in the city's centripetal future. But the experience of Skid Row in particular, with its thousands upon thousands of street-based residents and their rickety battalions of shopping carts and wheelchairs, could turn anyone from bull to bear. It raises the question of whether and how a city can work around such a huge, indigestible chunk of destitution, one which sounds both critically important and unanswerable.
Not that many go to Skid Row on purpose. Friends have stories of winding up there after a wrong turn or two, the luckier driving by day, the less lucky walking by night, looking around and noticing dozens of figures staggering in the shadows and impromptu tent villages thrown up in front of missions, clinics, residential hotels, and sparsely stocked convenience stores. Their incongruous presence alone sometimes draws the attention of policemen or concerned bus drivers. One hears quite a lot about the "invisibility" of the homeless in mainstream society, but Skid Row reverses the polarity: its no-fixed-address population — the estimate ranges between 3,000 and twice that — gives obvious outsiders only the most furtive glances. As discomfiting as its streets feel to someone not relegated to them, rarely do they actively threaten.
Whatever menace this grim neighborhood exudes, it never feels like a threat to me personally, much as it feels like one to the health of downtown Los Angeles as a whole. I once met an American expat in Mexico City who provided as elegant a definition I've ever heard of culture: "an accumulation of survival strategies." In that sense, Skid Row makes for quite possibly the most revealing cultural destination in the city, on such clear display does it put the survival strategies of its people. Everyone in Skid Row — and especially everyone on Skid Row — finds their own way to live another day, and everyone outside Skid Row has a different theory as to what causes the whole place, whether they consider it community or blight, to not just exist but so stubbornly persist. Some blame a failure of compassion, others a failure of politics, of economics, of work ethic, of family.
Whatever its explanation, Skid Row and its increasingly stark contrast with its surroundings stands as the single most powerful argument that Los Angeles stands somewhere outside the developed world. David Rieff, in "Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World," took withering criticism for making so much of his mildly affluent west-side friends' reliance upon bus-riding Latin American nannies and housekeepers, but I often wonder if his title claim doesn't hold up anyway. We can, and often do, make too much of the contrast between rich and poor here, which usually looks about the same as that of America's other major cities. But Skid Row, located in its utter raggedness right up against rents fast rising to the highest in the city, has become troublingly reminiscent of the ever-spreading shantytowns surrounding the skyscrapers and mansions of South America and south Asia. Only time, and its attendant rising real estate prices, can tell which world Los Angeles will join. I even now ponder the issue over a cappuccino at a Little Tokyo coffee shop, a reality apart from the heart of Skid Row — but only a half-mile away.
Photos by Colin Marshall.