Skid Row, Los Angeles

Posted: December 29, 2012 in The Road to Skid Row

Downtown Los Angeles has a rundown feel to it I like. Art Deco buildings line the streets for miles, some with faded pre-Depression advertisements painted like murals on their walls. We were walking around the charismatic part of Downtown, a neighbourhood straight out of The Great Gatsby which sits east of the characterless skyscrapers of California Plaza and west of the slums of Skid Row.

Kate was attending a volunteer induction evening at the Downtown Women’s Center, a homeless charity based in the heart of Skid Row. I didn’t like the idea of my sister going there alone, so I decided to walk with her before heading over to Pershing Square for Occupy LA’s weekly assembly.

We took a right on Spring Street and headed east down Fifth Street. Downtown LA was neglected for years before its recent gentrification. Unlike Hollywood, which can afford face lift after face lift, Downtown shows its age like an old smoker. Rumour was that Downtown was gearing up for a new Botox session, this time in Skid Row. Nip and tuck takes on a whole new meaning when you’re covering up poverty.

We crossed over Main Street and passed the Skid Row Housing Trust. We were close. I could feel the atmosphere change; fewer cars were on the road and pedestrians looked more dishevelled. We crossed Los Angeles Street, walked a hundred feet or so and the neighbourhood changed drastically. Shop fronts were boarded up and litter was spread all over the sidewalk.

Up ahead, a young Hispanic man wearing jeans and a t-shirt sobbed loudly while leaning against a wall. He jerked up and with his right arm holding his head, zig-zagged down the sidewalk. His sobbing gave way to bursts of angry shouting – I couldn’t make out what he was saying, or if he was even shouting words. He stumbled towards the road, teetering on the edge of the sidewalk and then hurtled backwards towards the wall, slamming his body against the brick. He was moaning uncontrollably now, his whole body kneeling against the wall.

I was so distracted by him that I hadn’t noticed all the people lying on the sidewalk. Dozens of people lay in sleeping bags, many oblivious to the world around them. I felt like I was entering a refugee camp, like they were casualties from some horrible war, but they were just going about their daily lives on the streets. We crossed to the north side of the street to avoid the young man who was zig-zagging again, his sobs giving way to angry shouts and animal-like moaning.

We crossed Wall Street and saw a Mission Center on the left. 15ft high railings formed a border between the sidewalk and a big playground-like space in front of the Mission. Near to a hundred men were standing there; I guessed they were waiting to be admitted for the night. The scene looked like a picture of a breadline from the 1930s, except instead of wearing caps and suits they wore tracksuits and hoodies.

We carried on down Fifth – we were close now. I fixed my eyes on the stop lights; I couldn’t look anymore. For the first time since I arrived in LA I was afraid. I had waltzed into Skid Row with the ignorant curiousity of a tourist. I knew this place was destitute but I didn’t know what destitution looked like. Now I knew. After seeing dozens of human beings lying around like discarded trash, a courtyard full of men loitering like extras on a film set, I had an idea of what real despair was.

On San Pedro we saw the Women’s Centre. We rushed off the street, relieved to enter the safety of a dark, air-conditioned interior.

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