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Early History of Skid Row

 

The term “Skid Row” originated during the construction of the railroads in the mid-19th century. The first railroad construction began in the Pacific Northwest, where tracks made from harvested logs were sent to construction sites along “skid roads.” These “roads” also were built from logs and their purpose was to make it much easier to keep the logs rolling along the heavily muddied streets around sites.

The workers who built the railroads were mostly transient, immigrant men. As the construction took hold, businesses that catered to these men sprang up – usually brothels and taverns for the most part. Since the men were far away from their families and homes, single room occupancy (SRO) hotels were built to house them.

When the men were working, they had money to spend on prostitution, liquor and hotels. But employment was often seasonal and scarce. When the men were out of work, they wound up often drunk and sleeping in the streets. Alcoholism grew among this population of men. The religious community responded to their needs by opening shelters to house, feed and proselytize to the men. These neighborhoods were considered seedy, dangerous and dirty. Because of the “skid roads” that were in the center of the neighborhoods, they became known as “Skid Rows.”

Towards the end of 19th century the rail lines were built in Los Angeles to connect Southern California to the rest of the country. The railroads were constructed to end just east of the historic core of Los Angeles, which was the bustling downtown core of the city at the time. As in other urban areas, the brothels, bars, SRO hotels, and missions developed to serve first the men who worked on the railroads, and later men who traveled west on the railroads in search of work and opportunity.

Since its inception at the end of the 19th century Los Angeles’ Skid Row has been defined by the mix of cheap residential hotels, industry, and religious missions and the people they serve, ranging from workers to those down on their luck to the poor and disabled.

20th Century

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, LA’s Skid Row saw an infusion of men from the rest of the United States heading West in hopes of earning a living. Often, they wound up on Skid Row, where they could find housing, food or shelter of some kind.

The pattern of this hobo population continued into and past the Depression well into the 1950’s and 1960’s. But the 1970’s saw a dramatic and profound change. Where once the population had been dominated mostly by men who suffered from alcoholism, the 70’s brought Vietnam veterans and heavy drug users. In addition, legislation was passed to deinstitutionalize hospitals serving individuals with severe mental illness. Well meaning as this was, the government did not follow through on the community treatment needed to stabilize these individuals outside of hospitals. With nowhere to go, many wound up in Skid Row, where services and shelters were the only help available to them.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s many of the residential hotels fell into disrepair. The city increased building and safety code enforcement of the residential hotels and many owners found it cheaper to demolish the hotels, rather than comply with work orders. The stock of affordable housing provided through the residential hotels was reduced by half during this period and many residents found themselves unable to afford other housing and now homeless.

These years also saw the deterioration of entire inner cities across the entire country. Residents with the resources moved out of urban areas and into the suburbs. To address the growing urban blight issue, a “War on Poverty” was declared by then President Lyndon Johnson. With government funding, commercial interest in urban revitalization grew.

In Los Angeles the urban revitalization began with the Bunker Hill redevelopment (which also displaced many low income residents). Business interests and developers expressed concern that Skid Row and the homeless population downtown would hamper economic development opportunities.

In the 1970’s Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was facing increasing pressure to address the issue, but it was an ethical and moral dilemma. Displacement of the poor and disabled had only increased homelessness downtown. The city clearly needed a new approach. Mayor Bradley created a special Blue Ribbon Commission charged with coming up with a response to the dilemma.

After much study and consideration, the commission recommended that the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which collected and managed developers’ fees paid to the city and generated tax increment financing, use those fees to care for and house the homeless. The commission recommended that the CRA fund residential development in Skid Row to preserve the community for its low-income residents and provide decent housing for them. The recommendation was that all housing and services for the homeless be centered in the Skid Row neighborhood where they would both be protected for the pressures of gentrification, but also concentrate the homeless away from Bunker Hill and the new financial core of the city.

 

Today Skid Row is both one of the largest recovery communities in the world, but also remains home to one of the largest concentrations of homelessness in the nation. Skid Row Housing Trust and other nonprofit organizations provide more than 2,000 apartments for homeless and low income men and women, but there still remain many residential hotels in varying states of decay. The debate about Skid Row and its residents’ fate continues.

Amongst this debate one fact stands out: Homelessness in not intractable. Providing a home closes the door on homelessness. Once stable, drug and alcohol addiction can be treated; mental illness and physical diseases can be managed. Skid Row is both the community that has demonstrated that thousands of men and women have broken the cycle of homelessness, and the community that demonstrates the work that still lies ahead.

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