For Some, L.A.'s Skid Row Is For Beginnings

First of a three-part series

Tents line the street in Skid Row i i

hide captionAt 5:15 a.m. in the morning, tents line the street in Skid Row.

Justin Maxon/Aurora for NPR
Tents line the street in Skid Row

At 5:15 a.m. in the morning, tents line the street in Skid Row.

Justin Maxon/Aurora for NPR
Narrated Skid Row Slideshow

hide captionRapper General Jeff Page offers a narrated tour of his neighborhood.

Take A Tour Of Skid Row
Justin Maxon/Aurora for NPR
Luis Meceli, with his dog, on the streets of Skid Row i i

hide captionLuis Meceli, 55, has been living on the streets in the Skid Row area for the last ten years with his dog, Sacha.

Justin Maxon/Aurora for NPR
Luis Meceli, with his dog, on the streets of Skid Row

Luis Meceli, 55, has been living on the streets in the Skid Row area for the last ten years with his dog, Sacha.

Justin Maxon/Aurora for NPR
Kristen Trattner rings up customers at the Nickel Diner i i

hide captionKristen Trattner rings up customers at the Nickel Diner on 5th Street. The down-home diner caters to the downtown community, serving loft-dwellers, businessmen and the neighbors who live on the street.

Amy Walters/NPR
Kristen Trattner rings up customers at the Nickel Diner

Kristen Trattner rings up customers at the Nickel Diner on 5th Street. The down-home diner caters to the downtown community, serving loft-dwellers, businessmen and the neighbors who live on the street.

Amy Walters/NPR
Hotel Rosslyn sign in Los Angeles i i

hide captionThe sign for the Hotel Rosslyn points away from downtown Los Angeles and toward the train tracks that once brought transient workers from around the country. Today it faces Skid Row.

Amy Walters/NPR
Hotel Rosslyn sign in Los Angeles

The sign for the Hotel Rosslyn points away from downtown Los Angeles and toward the train tracks that once brought transient workers from around the country. Today it faces Skid Row.

Amy Walters/NPR

Los Angeles is sometimes called the homeless capital of the nation. More than 40,000 people in this city have no permanent place to live. The highest concentration of homeless is on Skid Row. In less than 1 square mile, on the edge of downtown L.A., you can see hundreds of people sleeping on the sidewalks.

Unlike other depressed neighborhoods around the country, Skid Row is not a faded remnant of a neighborhood fallen on hard times. It's long been a destination for low-wage, transient workers coming off the nearby railroad tracks to work in the city's factories and warehouses. They were mostly men staying in cheap hotels with tiny rooms and a shared bath.

You can still get a glimpse of that history from a sign on the roof of the Rosslyn Hotel. Like many hotels back then, the Rosslyn sign faces away from downtown and toward the railroad tracks. All a newcomer had to do was get off the train and look up, to see where a room could be found.

The Missions

Another remnant of Skid Row's history is the missions. At one time, they provided a sermon and a bowl of soup for the population of hard-drinking single men.

Today, they have big new buildings and provide many more services.

At the Midnight Mission, hundreds of people, mostly men, line up with their trays to receive a typical meal of spaghetti, whole wheat bread, salad, corn and iced tea. Some of the diners will be spending the night on a cot upstairs. Others live at the residential treatment centers for drugs or alcohol, or stay at one of the many neighboring single-room occupancy hotels, the ubiquitous SROs, as they're called, where the rooms are tiny and the kitchens nonexistent.

Then there's David Michael. He'll eat here, but he won't come inside to sleep. He's been living in the Mission's courtyard for two years. "I'm unemployed, I'm 37, $21,000 in debt. I can't find a job. Whatever," he says as he walks off with his tray.

The Residents

Whether sleeping indoors or out, many of the people on Skid Row are not just passing through. This is their neighborhood.

People wind up on Skid Row for all kinds of reasons, says 40-year-old Jamie Irby, but they still have one thing in common. "This is a place where, when you lose everything, you start all over," he says.

After living on the streets, Irby was able to find a room at the Simone Hotel, one of Skid Row's SROs. Irby's hotel is run by the nonprofit Skid Row Housing Trust. Residents have access to medical and mental health services right in the building. This is where Irby discovered he was bipolar and schizophrenic. He now receives therapy under the watchful eye of an on-site case manager.

"I lost a little bit, but I gained a little bit more now," he says. "I got my life back together, I'm united with my kids, got a place to stay, my bills is paid. So I'm doing all right."

Doing Business On Skid Row

Skid Row's identity today as a sort of village for the homeless is the result of official city policy. In the 1970s, Los Angeles decided to concentrate services for homeless people in this one area. The policy was called "containment." But there's been a conflict between Skid Row's role as L.A.'s homeless central, and the area's other primary role as an industrial center, especially for seafood distributors.

One of those is Ore-Cal, which is owned by the Shinbane family. The plant has been located on Skid Row since the 1960s. Mark Shinbane is the son of the company's founder. He says there are special challenges involved in operating a business on Skid Row.

"We've kind of created our own little fort down here to kind of protect ourselves," says Shinbane, referring to his building's iron gates and security cameras, "but you've got to be careful."

That doesn't mean the police and social service agencies don't do a great job, he says. But coexisting with the homeless can be especially difficult for food businesses.

"We have some [metal] roll-up doors in the back of our building," he explains, "and people were urinating on them, and eventually ... [it was] ruined ... and rusted. We actually had to replace it. You could push it through with your hand. They could have gotten into our buildings."

Lawlessness

There is a sense of "anything goes" on the streets of Skid Row. You can see people smoking crack in broad daylight or passed out in the street. It was a daunting scene for newcomer Laurie Breveleri.

"When I first came here, I was kind of afraid," says Breveleri. "But I've learned that there are loving, caring people here."

Breveleri now lives at the corner of 5th and Main in another SRO hotel run by the Skid Row Housing Trust. She found caring people in the drug rehab program, the mental health center and in the room next door, where her neighbor Rowena Brown lives.

Brown's a fierce defender of her neighborhood. "A lot of people get scared of where we live," she says. "I don't think there's nothing wrong."

A lot of Los Angeles residents agree. They've been moving into loft apartments in rehabbed old commercial buildings just a block away from Breveleri and Brown's hotel.

The Nickel

Just a few doors down is the Nickel Diner. Monica May, the chef and one of the owners, explains that the diner's name is a nod to neighborhood lingo.

"This area's always been known as the nickel [because it's at] 5th and Main — because it's a straight slide down to Skid Row."

May and her partner, Kristen Trattner, opened the place in the summer of 2008. Trattner says they envisioned their diner as a place to include both loft dwellers and the guys hanging out on the sidewalk in front.

Trattner recalls the diner's beginning: "I went outside and I said ... 'If you guys could have any dessert that you wanted, what would it be?' And they're like, 'Peach cobbler, we want peach cobbler, peach cobbler.' " So she had the pastry chef try three different versions. "I had these gentlemen test it, and they designed their own peach cobbler."

Still, not all the neighbors feel comfortable taking a seat. So the Nickel does a lot of carry-out, says May, at steeply discounted prices. "And that's cool," she says. "We live together. You take care of your neighbors."

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