Down to the Nickel: The History and Built Environment of Skid Row, Los Angeles

“A circle spinning faster/ And getting larger all the time/ A whirlpool spelled disaster/ For all the people who don’t rhyme/ Him who don’t fit through the needle’s eye” (Quoted from Gil Scott-Heron, The Needle’s Eye 1971).

The story of Skid Row, Los Angeles follows this theme lamented by the singer Gil Scott-Heron.  For the tragic, yet resilient human struggle over poverty, substance abuse, racism, and mental illness converge in this densely populated region creating “a circle spinning faster” that is home to the uprooted, to those “who don’t fit through the needle’s eye”.  Skid Row, Los Angeles is located in downtown, bordered by Main and Alameda Streets to the east and west, and Third and Seventh Streets to the north and south.  Skid Row, sometimes also known as “The Nickel” because Fifth Street lies at its heart, has historically been situated in this location.  As railroads moved into the area in the 1870s, Los Angeles evolved into an industrial district attracting a large transient population of seasonal workers downtown, housed in the many single room occupancy hotels (SROs) able to accommodate them (Spivack, 1998).  Furthermore, social services catering to a transient population’s needs began to take root here, as missions, soup kitchens, and other services became established.   These services, along with the very affordable, and flexible housing option of the SRO, attracted the downtrodden to this area for many generations.  Today, 5,131 homeless persons live in Skid Row (LAHSA, 2007), which is the greatest concentration of homeless persons in the county (www.lahsa.org).  Well over 2/3 of this population have a “severe and chronic mental illness, a serious addiction problem” or both (Blasi, 2007).

 This paper explores the built and lived spaces of Skid Row, and centers around the contentious struggle over public space, where I address the following: What constitutes the built environment of Skid Row, Los Angeles?  What social, economic, and political dynamics factor into reproducing this space?  Who are the key actors battling it out in this ongoing struggle over space?  The historic built environment of Skid Row reflects the politically, socially, and economically fragmented nature of the city of Los Angeles.  This contested, negotiated space will be analyzed in terms of (1) the SRO hotels that have endured here, and (2) the everyday inhabited spaces of Skid Row. 

            The SRO was—and continues to be—a cheap and adequate housing alternative popular to very low-income individuals.  In Los Angeles, the SRO hotels first emerged in the 1880s to accommodate a transient population of single workers along Main Street (Spivack, 1998).  As Los Angeles transitioned from an agricultural center to an industrial district, work was to be found along the railroads where engineers and brakemen were in demand, along with work growing, packing, and shipping agricultural products (Spivack, 1998).  This area would historically accommodate a needy population, as cheap restaurants, missions, and social services would serve the SRO clientele.  In New Homeless and Old, a brilliant and exhaustive study of SRO hotels in North America, Charles Hoch and Robert Slayton (1989) explain, “The SRO hotel was designed as a way to maximize density and provide for the minimal needs of these migrants, most of whom came as single individuals” (Hoch, 1989: 13).  At its peak in the 1960s, there were 15,000 SRO units located throughout Skid Row—a number that would be cut by more than half in the 1970s (Milionis, 2006).  Today, there are sixty-five SRO hotels located in Skid Row, where seventy percent are owned and operated by non-profits, and the rest by for-profit agencies (Blasi, 2007). 

SRO hotels offered residents the privacy and autonomy that missions, and other lodgings (e.g. flophouses) could not.  Hoch and Slayton discuss that SRO hotels appeal to low-income workers seeking autonomy: “these buildings housed one kind of resident—poor, transient working people—who moved back and forth within a self-defined poverty scale seeking dignity and autonomy” (Hoch & Slayton, 1989: 13).  Further, they add that residents’ preference “was for decent facilities, but where each individual could decide how his or her own life should proceed, and where communal issues were decided by the building’s residents” (27).  This presents an important dimension of SRO hotel living.  That is, these accommodations are far from being a last resort for the down-and-out.  Rather, they are a decent abode that fit a particular lifestyle.  This point is left out in many discussions of SROs and was completely ignored by social reformers hoping to shut down their operations by the mid-20th century.

SRO hotels would come under attack by social reformers beginning in the 1930s.  Reformers were vehemently opposed to them, arguing that they contributed to the pathology of cities.  Harsh conditions did exist at these hotels, as the buildings were becoming under-serviced and unsightly, and where a relatively high incident of crime took place.  However, reformers overstated these conditions, taking an overly moralistic and condescending position.  Hoch and Slayton describe this attitude: “The core of the reformers attack on the SRO…was a moral one, rooted in the fact that it did not fit Victorian middle-class concepts for home, family, and community” (73).  Individuals were to live a stable and settled home life, and the SRO way of life simply did not seem natural to these critics.  This reflects a longstanding attitude towards the poor that characterizes them as social misfits, unwilling to comply with the moral code of society.  SRO hotels would also be targets for policymakers responding to the physical deterioration of downtowns.  As Hoch and Slayton remark,

The deteriorating physical appearance of the SRO hotels when combined with the negative assessments of their physical quality by city inspectors, public officials, and professional reformers contributed to the public perception of the SRO hotel as a nasty and dangerous environment unfit for human habitation (155).

This rationale followed the federal government and the city of Los Angeles as they underwent an urban renewal plan. 

Urban Renewal was a large-scale federal slum clearance project that emerged out of the Housing Act of 1949.  This first undertaking of the federal government into the area of public housing coupled the construction of affordable public housing with the ambitious demolition of blighted zones.  SRO hotels were prime targets for redevelopment agencies, and were seized through eminent domain.  This plan would ultimately lead to the demolition of nearly half of the SRO housing stock in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s.  Although given the choice to rehabilitate the buildings up to code, property owners chose instead the least expensive route, letting them fall by the wayside, to be seized and demolished.  Donald Spivack (1998) elaborates on this point:

There was a substantial amount of displacement of the resident population that resulted from property owners choosing to comply with seismic codes by demolishing the buildings rather than repairing them. That also fed into the fact that there was additional value to be had by selling the property for industrial or related development, than to keep it in residential use. So, it was both the pressure of seismic code enforcement and demand for sites for the growing industries in the area (food, produce, garment and flower related) that precipitated the loss of almost half of the area’s housing stock. (Spivack, 1998: 5-6)

Here, Spivack mentions an important theme that would be revisited in this area time and time again.  That is, redevelopment and the potential to recoup large profits in revitalizing downtown areas would take precedence over displacement, thus overshadowing this human tragedy.  Hoch and Slayton echo this point, discussing the inevitable demise of Skid Row housing:

What made the demise of Skid Row housing inevitable in Chicago and other large cities was the policy of wholesale land clearance adopted by redevelopment agencies and supported by the local growth coalitions.  The modest revenue of the SRO hotels could not compete against the financial promise of commercial redevelopment plans backed up by the threat of condemnation under the municipal police power of eminent domain (Hoch & Slayton, 1989: 116)

By 1975, the city of Los Angeles made an about-face, adopting the “policy of containment” over dispersal, which would call for the preservation of SRO hotels.

            The 1975 redevelopment plan was a reaction to the negative effects of dispersal.  Initiated by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), Skid Row was to be stabilized with a commitment to safety, stable housing, and social services.  Here, Spivack sums up the plan:

The effort in the area, then, was three-fold.  One, to try to stabilize the residential base by funding the acquisition, rehabilitation and quality operation of SRO hotels.  Two, along with that, to attract and consolidate social services into locations that were physically proximate to where the population was.  Three, to retain and expand the industrial base in the area. (Spivack, 1998: 8)

Their goals however were not altogether benevolent.  In actuality, for city administrators, dispersal failed because it caused undue friction in the surrounding neighborhoods.  The increased presence of homeless persons compounded by the loss of SRO hotel rooms brought the homeless uncomfortably close to a usually sheltered middle-class.  Or as Hoch and Slayton explain:

CRA officials recognized the social costs of dispersal, especially the environmental effects of Skid Row residents’ mingling with the patrons and employees in the newly landscaped public thoroughfares surrounding the commercial office towers built with urban renewal subsides. (Hoch & Slayton, 1989: 241)

From this point forward, city officials looked to reduce the size and thus the impact of the built environment of Skid Row onto the larger downtown area.  This policy looked to “Minimize the impact…by reducing its physical size and scattered nature, while locating new facilities to the east of the present concentration to discourage the spread of Skid Row into the new commercial development area to the west” (241).  As a result of the 1975 redevelopment plan, two non-profit organizations—the Skid Row Development Corporation (SRDC) in 1978 and SRO Housing Corporation (SROHC) in 1983—were created.

 The SRDC, SROHC, and later the Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT) in 1989, used CRA funds to preserve the SRO housing stock by purchasing and rehabilitating old buildings.  In short, these non-profit agencies were able to do what private owners refused to do—rehabilitate and maintain SRO hotels for low-income tenants.  The focus on aesthetics and the replenishment of facilities would become important strategies deployed by these organizations.  Russ Rymer (2001) describes this strategy in the following excerpt:

The salutary effect of ambitious architecture is a gospel common to both SRO Housing and the Trust. Rents are rock-bottom — typically around $190 a month for a room — and tied to Section 8 or other subsidies that keep them within reach of unemployed or marginally employed tenants; yet the buildings are handsome, with nicely upholstered lounges and communal kitchens sporting professional-grade stainless steel ranges. (Rymer, 2001: 4)

Through these renewed efforts, 6,000 SRO units have been maintained here with sixty hotels concentrated along Skid Row.  However, since the 1990s, gentrification has made downtown a real-estate hotspot, and has brought redoubtable pressures to the Skid Row area.  The competition over space and real estate has made the struggle between developers and non-profits like SRHT evermore acute.  Rymer sees this as a consequence of containment and downtown revitalization:

The rehabbed SROs are in this way strategic redoubts against a dilemma intrinsic to the policy of containment. Just as envisioned by the plan’s authors, a new class of entrepreneurs has set up shop in the Row, and the neighborhood’s economic growth rate has skyrocketed as a result. But instead of offering jobs, the businesses have increasingly militated against the jobless (3).

The struggles taking place today will have a considerable impact on the built environment of tomorrow’s Skid Row.

            Gentrification is very much a contentious issue on Skid Row, drawing a pro-development camp, which hopes for dispersal of the homeless population, against an anti-gentrification group intent on staving off displacement.  In his article “Policing L.A.’s Skid Row”, Bernard Harcourt (2005) points out that “L.A.’s s Skid Row is at the heart of an urban struggle that may reveal how America’s disorderly urban neighborhoods experience change.  It is a battle over land and lofts, and it covers everything from zoning to public toilets” (Harcourt, 2005: 8).  Developer Tom Gilmore stands in the middle of this controversy, arguing that containment has been a huge failure.  Gilmore, owner of the San Fernando Building, which was converted into high-priced lofts near the heart of Skid Row, hopes to transform Skid Row completely seeing redevelopment as the area’s primary hope.  For example, he lauds downtown redevelopment for bringing more awareness to the problems that plague Skid Row.  Allison Milionis describes this as a “changing of the guard”:

Gilmore credits the current redevelopment effort for bringing attention to the plight of the homeless and Skid Row residents. It coincides with what he considers to be the “changing of the guard”: A sub-movement among policy makers, business people, and homeless advocates that favors decentralized services and a more holistic, solution-based approach to homelessness, rather than policies that perpetuate blight. (Milionis, 2006: 2)

Alice Callahan, founder and board member of SRHT, stands at the polar opposite of the debate.  Her main objective is to maintain SRO hotels on Skid Row, to assure that the lowest of income groups can continue to access housing.  As Harcourt explains, “Callahan’s combat plan is to try to keep the young professionals out until she has

secured enough property to make sure that Skid Row remains Skid Row. Callahan has her eyes on the large hotels.” (Harcourt, 2005: 51).  In this article, Callahan explains that

All I can do is save the existing housing for the people who are there now.

Saving housing, creating nice housing for people, that doesn’t solve the drug problem, that doesn’t solve the crime problem, doesn’t solve the unemployment problem, but until people are living in places of dignity with safe, clean housing, they can’t even begin to work on those other problems.” (11)

Gilmore and Callahan target the same land and properties in a virtual tug-of-war—each finding solace in their prospective plans to improve the living conditions on Skid Row.  For Callahan, Main Street, where the majority of SRO housing units are located, must be preserved: “Callahan is particularly troubled by these developments because so many of the housing units of Skid Row are on Main Street.  If Main Street becomes unaffordable for low income housing, then one-third of the Skid Row housing stock will disappear” (50).  However, Gilmore argues that he is targeting only vacant buildings, and that he has not made plans to replace existing SRO hotels.  He calls Callahan shortsighted, and unrealistic in her goals and demands.  Callahan, in turn, sees Gilmore as an opportunist trying to profit off the most deprived, and that gentrification necessarily brings about displacement.  In the following, I examine some of the specific projects that have taken place in this hostile climate of redevelopment.

            Even with a climate of intense redevelopment, SRO hotels have been preserved at a steady rate on Skid Row.  Downtown’s revitalization has been spurred by billions of dollars in investments with recent mega-projects the Staples Center, the Nokia Theater, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall coming into the area.  In addition to these projects, more than 7,000 new housing units, mainly lofts, have been added to the downtown area (Streisand, 2006).  However, to many vested interests, the only thing standing in the way of a complete renaissance is the ominous presence of Skid Row.  Some developers, like the restaurateur Adolfo Suaya, have ventured into the heart of Skid Row buying old hotels.  In 2004, Suaya purchased the Bristol Hotel, converting it into a nightclub and restaurant, and subsequently displacing one hundred residents (Stewart, 2004).  Although this adds to a competitive and hostile climate, SRO hotels have persevered.  For example, in August 2007, CRA created a plan to use fifty million dollars to buy seven low-income hotels and refurbishing 1300 rooms (George, 2007).  SRHT has recently completed construction on the Rainbow Apartments and the St. George Hotel creating handsome buildings with state-of-the-art amenities (Coates, 2005).  Also, SROHC have remodeled the Lyndon Hotel, having acquired and rehabilitated twenty-one buildings (Coates, 2006).  On May 10th, 2006, Los Angeles city council signed off on a major piece of legislation that would help preserve Skid Row’s residential hotels.  Drafted by city councilwoman Jan Perry (9th district), this moratorium temporarily banned the demolishing of residential hotels over the course of a year (Coates, 2006).  Chris Coates (2006) writing for Los Angeles Downtown News reports: “Perry stressed that the ordinance is not intended to stifle development, just to keep a housing stock available for lower income people. She said developers should have no concerns” (Coates, 2006: 1).  Preservation of SROs in Downtown Los Angeles has also found support by Mayor Antonio Villaragoisa.  In a 2005 report about the preservation of SROs, Mayor Villaragoisa offers the following recommendation:

A citywide program based on the San Francisco model, which would, by ordinance, require one-for-one replacement of existing residential hotel/SRO units currently housing very low income residents, or, allow payment of an in-lieu fee equivalent to the cost of replacing such units (Villaragoisa, 2005: 10)

The built environment of Skid Row, Los Angeles is important to look at through SRO hotels.  In the following section, I shift courses a bit, and look at the everyday lived spaces of the area focusing on the exclusionary, policing strategies over public space impacted by containment and gentrification.

            There have been a number of repercussions of containment—the policy adopted by the city in 1975—translated into the built environment of Skid Row and its surrounding area.  For logistic reasons, it clearly made sense to consolidate services in one area of the city, tending to the varied needs of a deprived population.  However, by confining services into one area, the city exercises power over a malleable subject.  In the essay “Journey and Pauses”, Paul Cloke et al. (2005) refer to this idea, referencing philosopher Michel de Certeau:

In de Certeau’s (1984) terms, the planned containment of institutional support for homeless people represents a strategy by which power is imposed through the disciplining and organisation of space, and the socio-spatial and highly politicised cartography of service provision has significantly defined the geography of homelessness in the city (Cloke, Johnsen & May, 2005: 5).

Through this policy, the city was able to manage the dispersal of homeless residents into the burgeoning downtown.  At this level, by regulating the outskirts of the contained area, the city was in fact able to regulate space throught the use of the law.  Author Don Mitchell (1997) calls this “the annihilation of space by law”:

That is, they have turned to a legal remedy that seeks to cleanse the streets of those left behind by globalization and other secular changes in the economy by simply erasing the spaces in which they must live—by creating a legal fiction in which the rights of the wealthy, of the successful in the global economy, are sufficient for all the rest (Mitchell, 1997: 305).

In this sesnse, public space becomes monitored and exclusionary—focusing on the rights of the wealthy.  This process was indeed carried out through the urban design of the more affluent surrounding areas.  This took form in the design of benches that were impossible to rest on (or the outright removal of benches), in the constant surveillance by security patrols, and by the use of sprinklers to create wet parks to discourage sleeping.  Martin Pluss (1993) provides greater detail: 

The CRA developed an official policy of containment which was also adopted by the public. A number of strategies to control public space have been developed. The Rapid Transit Districts’ barrel shaped bus bench offers a minimal surface for uncomfortable sitting while making sleeping impossible… There is the aggressive deployment of overhead random outdoor sprinklers to prevent park use or sleeping, drug dealing and prostitution. The system was copied by local businessmen and women to keep the homeless a way from the publics sidewalks.  Restaurants and markets even responded by building ornate enclosures to protect their rubbish. (Pluss, 1993: 147)

These strategies continue to be used today.  However, gentrification has caused a reverse effect where homeless persons are being pushed out rather than confined into a given area.

            Gentrification has crept into even the Skid Row region of Los Angeles, causing a dynamic of dispersal.  Although this new gentry has pushed for dispersal of the homeless population and services, they have not outlined a feasible alternative.  The bottom line remains that outside neighborhoods simply do not tolerate the presence of the homeless, as strong NIMBY cohorts fervently guard their territories.  Dennis Romero (2004) makes this point in his article “Shelter Shell Games”:

These difficulties raise the question of whether homeless officials and government leaders are sincere in their long-range plans to move homeless services outside of downtown’s gentrifying “Center City East”…If they can’t place 231 temporary beds in surrounding areas, how can they spread out housing, shelter, and services for tens of thousands of people in the long run? (Romero, 2004)

Although dispersal in this sense cannot be implemented, homeless services have in some ways relented to the pressure of gentrification.  For example, the remodeling of the Midnight Mission includes a large space that shields the presence of the homeless from neighboring loft-dwellers:

The Midnight Mission plans will deal with the demographic changes, in part, through the design of the space itself. The Mission will build a large inner courtyard in order to accommodate the homeless, get them off the street, and keep the neighborhood more orderly in appearance. The enclosed inner courtyard is designed so that “long lines of homeless people don’t have to wait outside for food and services”. (Harcourt, 2005: 58)

Gentrification has not only reshaped the built environment of Skid Row, but has influenced a new set of exclusionary practices in the control of public space.

            The Safer City Initiative (SCI) adopted by Chief William Bratton in 2006 in hopes to create a safer Skid Row, has added to the tensions in the region.  Although seemingly benign, SCI are mainly anti-homeless laws that clear out transients from sleeping in the streets, and using public spaces.  Don Mitchell explains how anti-homeless laws work:

Anti-homeless legislation, by seeking to annihilate the spaces in which homeless people must live—by seeking, that is, to so regulate the public space of the city such that there literally is no room for homeless people, recreates the public sphere as intentionally exclusive, as a sphere in which the legitimate public only includes those who…have a place governed by private property rules to call their own. (Mitchell, 1997: 321)

SCI called for the addition of extra police and services to the Skid Row area, as fifty new officers and an additional twenty-five narcotic officers joined the Skid Row beat (Blasi, 2007).  SCI was based on the “broken windows” philosophy of law enforcement in which quality of life crimes would be seriously pursued to further deter larger, more violent crime.  As a result, homeless persons were bombarded with jaywalking citations, cited for loitering and other such small infractions (Blasi, 2007).  As writer Andrew Gumbel (2007) explains, this creates a paradoxical and absurd situation:

The 12,000 tickets issued on Skid Row over the past year – one seventh of the total for the whole of L.A., in an area covering about 0.25 percent of the city’s population – create a huge problem because the street people are in no position to pay them. That puts them on a spiral of debt, court warrants and, eventually, possible jail time – a spiral Sobel likens to the debtors’ prisons of Victorian London so evocatively described and denounced by Charles Dickens. (Gumbel, 2007: 2)

This creates an expensive and wasteful system overextending city jails, as a constant pipeline was created for the homeless here between Skid Row and prison.  As Gary Blasi (2007) had noted, this strategy is both ineffective, being unable to solve any long-term problems, and extremely expensive costing the city about $119 per day (Blasi, 2007).  Here an exasperated Gumbel writes:

Yes, crime is down on Skid Row. Yes, fewer people are sleeping on the streets there. But that is not because people have been helped “back on their feet.” It is because of a singularly aggressive – and legally dubious – policy of hounding the poorest Skid Row residents that has scared them away but has hardly made them disappear.” (Gumbel, 2007: 1)

Without question, safety is an imperative in Skid Row, one of the harshest places imaginable.  However, SCI fails to establish safety and security for the people most susceptible to the vagaries of life on Skid Row.

            The built environment and history of Skid Row, Los Angeles painfully reminds me of Gil Scott Heron’s song, written about those “who don’t fit through the needle’s eye”.  In this paper, I attempt to look at these spaces, paying careful attention to single room occupancy hotels, which are to many individuals a last ditch resort for housing.  By and large, the history of Skid Row has been in flux, attracting people in need, even as that face changes.  Numerous forces that reflect the political, economic, and social context of the time have shaped the built environment of Skid Row.  Unfortunately, the built environment has been shaped, constructed and policed in such a way as to either trap people in or scare them out.  The preservation of SRO hotels has played an instrumental role in reclaiming this space to the benefit of the most vulnerable. 

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