Thoughts on the road to Skid Row

Posted: February 7, 2013 in The Road to Skid Row

What is the road to Skid Row paved with? I’ve ruminated on this question since I decided to steal the title of Orwell’s book and change it for my own story. In asking this question several others sprang up:

What brings a person to the point of homelessness? What brings a nation to the point of accepting it? What forces send a man or woman onto the streets? Are they purely economic, social, and cultural? Or are they simply the arbitrary forces of suffering? The forces which drove Lear mad and impelled Buddha to sit under a tree?

A better question might be: what is the road to Skid Row? I see it as a personal and a societal journey; it’s a road individuals take from poverty to destitution, but it’s also a road we all take. The road to Skid Row is the economic, social and cultural force which sends vulnerable people onto the streets. From a socio-economic point of view, it is lack of affordable housing and healthcare, crippling debts, low wages and lack of (meaningful) employment. From a cultural point of view, it is intimately tied to race and economic background. From a personal point of view, it is frustration, mental illness and despair.

I will attempt to answer my original question with another question: Is the road to Skid Row paved with the fallout of the American Dream? If the American Dream is a dream of improvements for all, then yes. A place like Skid Row is incompatible with the idea of upward mobility. You can’t jerk off to success like Horatio Alger did when you sleep on the streets.

The American Dream is dead, that much is beyond doubt. The dream of social mobility – the idea that you can start poor and improve your lot – died sometime in the early 1970s when planners began what Noam Chomsky calls the “financialization of the economy” , leading to greater and greater inequality. In the absence of the American Dream we have the road to Skid Row.

Roads are man-made things. They aren’t valleys or cliffs; they are not created gradually over millions of years. The road to Skid Row is no different. People who walk down it do so for various reasons, but the road itself is built and maintained by the powers that run this country. It’s like any other highway, except it only goes in one direction and the tolls literally bankrupt you. Once you exit there’s no getting back on, and the off-ramps always catch you off-guard.

The road to Skid Row is real: it carries people from poverty to destitution. But it is also an idea, the idea that the road is just the way it is. The road to Skid Row is an extreme example of roads we all walk down, roads which are built for us by political and economic power, illuminated by money and status, and paved with fears and hopes.

All roads are channels dug in our minds which trickle our thoughts and emotions in calculated directions. They are channels which were mapped out for us, but the map was hidden so we think the channels were made my nature, like a stream forming a river, when they were actually blasted out with dynamite.

I am one of the lucky ones: I only visited Skid Row, I didn’t end up there. As such I have certain responsibility. For me, that responsibility starts in the mind. If I understand how the road to Skid Row was built in the first place, I’ll have a better idea of how to destroy it.


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