Posted November 3rd 2011 at 8:23 am by
in Audio Portraits, HOPE meets HOME on L.A.'s Skid Row, Los Angeles

On the Outside

The daily scene on San Julian Street (Skid Row). Photo by Jorobeq on wikipedia.

Skid Row, a district in downtown Los Angeles, is a community of over 4,000 people who make up the largest and most racially diverse homeless population in the United States. Officially known as Central City East, the area is bounded by Third and Seventh Streets to the north and south and Alameda and Main Streets to the east and west. Anyone walking through the area would be hard-pressed to ignore the streets lined with cardboard boxes and makeshift tents – during the day and night – regardless of the City of Los Angeles’s daytime anti-camping ordinance.

The majority of the city’s homeless and social service providers are located within the district. They include Volunteers of America of Greater Los Angeles, Union Rescue Mission, The Jonah Project, Downtown Women’s Center, The Weingart Foundation, Los Angeles Mission, Fred Jordan Mission, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Cardinal Manning Center, Midnight Mission, The Catholic Worker, L.A. CAN, Inner-City Arts, SRO Housing Corporation, and the Skid Row Housing Trust.

While initiatives such as the Safer City Initiative and commitments from local government agencies have improved crime and reduced homelessness, a stark socio-economic contrast still exists with the encroaching gentrification of downtown L.A.’s adjacent Historic Core. According to one Skid Row Housing Trust resident, “This is where you go when you lose everything and start over.”

Drumming on 3rd and Main by CoLab Radio

Historically, the Skid Row area was a bustling center of activity, due in large part to its connection with the transcontinental railroads (the area included the main Los Angeles termini for the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway). Rail tracks and roads were made from harvested logs to prevent any “skid” in poor weather. Over the years the name “Skid Row” stuck.

Railroad workers came from around the country. Informal tenements, brothels, and taverns – along with single room occupancy (SRO) hotels – slowly began to develop. Employment was seasonal, leaving many workers penniless during the off-season months. They found refuge living on the streets and in the local social service agencies that sprouted throughout the 19th-century. Today, many of these organizations continue to serve Skid Row’s homeless population.

During the 20th century, events like the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, and the deinstitutionalization of hospitals serving patients with mental illness and physical disabilities continued to fuel Skid Row’s growing problems. As housing and affordability became scarce, many residents of America’s inner-city joined President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and began to move to the suburbs, allowing for an accelerated decline in Skid Row’s already deteriorating housing stock.

Life at San Julian Park by CoLab Radio

In the 1970s former Mayor Tom Bradley responded to the growing problem by establishing a Blue Ribbon Commission, which recommended that the Community Redevelopment Authority (CRA/LA) take a leadership role in providing financial incentives to developing housing for the homeless. During the same time, homeless advocates lobbied to pass a moratorium on SRO demolitions.

In 1989, the Skid Row Housing Trust was born. Its mission was to rehabilitate the existing SRO hotels through a commitment to architectural beauty that “does not need to be isolated from the rest of the city and can handsomely co-exist in revitalized areas.”  In essence, it aimed to create dignified homes in the shadow of slums.

Today the Trust continues to develop, manage, and operate homes through their permanent supportive housing/Housing First approach. The permanent supportive housing/Housing First movement was pioneered through a partnership with Dr. Sam Tsemberis at the Department of Psychiatry of the New York University School of Medicine and Pathways to Housing in the early 1990s. Over 20 years later, it continues to serve as a national model and solution to homelessness. Apart from providing a permanent home, supportive housing is a cost-effective solution that includes a complete range of on-site services that address primary medical care, mental illness, addiction, financial planning, cultural expression, and social services. For more information on permanent supportive housing, please visit the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Since its founding in 1989, the Trust and its non-profit allies have developed more than 1,492 apartments for both the homeless and low-income men and women (NOTE: A person is considered chronically homeless if s/he is continuously homeless for more than one year or if s/he has four episodes of homelessness in three years). Trust residents include the disabled, artists, older adults, counselors, veterans, chefs, gardeners, young adults, transgender men and women, and clergy. According the Trust, “During any given year 1,500 men and women call Trust buildings home, with over 80% of those residents staying for more than one year.” They are united by their resiliency and experience in overcoming homelessness. “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.”

This map shows the Trust’s 22 residential facilities. Projects are coded as “Existing,” “Under Construction,” or “In Development.” New Trust projects are named after formerly historic (now demolished) SRO hotels that were demolished prior to the creation of the Trust, as was the case with the celebrated New Carver Apartments.

Following on the success of his Rainbow Apartments (completed in 2006), the New Carver Apartments were also designed by Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan. The New Carver opened in 2009 with 95 special needs housing efficiency units (92 of them being Section 8 subsidized units), each measuring approximately 304-square feet. Whereas the Rainbow Apartments are directly located within the confines of Skid Row, the New Carver Apartments are further south, in South Park, near the rapidly transforming area the Staples Center, L.A. Live entertainment complex, and the forthcoming Farmer’s Field stadium. The six-story, 53,000-square-foot building cost a total of $18.4 million.

Maltzan’s design succeeded in breaking residential conventions and designing a beautiful home not only for the body – but also for the spirit – in the shadow of the busy I-10 (Santa Monica Freeway). The building includes a community kitchen, social services for the residents, a panoramic terrace, community room, a landscaped garden space, and its crown amenity – a dramatic 40-foot-diameter circular central courtyard.

On the Outside

A place to rest under the I-10 (Santa Monica Freeway), across the street from the New Carver Apartments.

On the Outside

The plaque for the Hope Street Terminus: The Garden of Conversion, where many New Carver Apartments residents go to relax.

I-10 Freeway Entrance Near the New Carver Apartments by CoLab Radio

Growing up in Los Angeles, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the perception of fear and hopelessness that most locals have of Skid Row. From crime to illness, Skid Row is certainly a part of the city that many purposely avoid.

Yet despite rampant and unnecessary criminalization of its residents, the community in Skid Row is one of the most special I’ve found across Southern California.

While the homeless population is the center of the community, Skid Row is also made of active social agents, optimists, and people trying to improve their lives or the lives of others. Driving past Skid Row at 50 MPH, few have the opportunity to hear the special stories of its denizens. Many of Skid Row’s residents previously owned houses, had jobs, and were part of families. Unfortunately, life changed in an instant and they were forced to find refuge among others who fell victim to the similar circumstances. For an outline of myths about Skid Row and Permanent Supportive Housing, click here.

This series will document life and community at the Trust’s New Carver Apartments. At the core of this series is the basic question:  Where is home?

I will use audio portraits and photography to collect stories and reflections about the social and aesthetic value of permanent supportive housing. Entries will feature perspectives from residents and staff (program managers, architects, and case workers) at the Trust and recordings of communal and independent programs occurring internally at the facility or externally at Skid Row-based venues (including the Trust’s November 2011 Community Supper – a wonderful opportunity to meet local Trust residents and stakeholders and witness the benefits of permanent supportive housing, the Story Teller’s Celebration at the Last Bookstore, and the Home and Architectural Design Panel at Blue Dot). While there are many angles and facets of Skid Row, I will primarily focus on life at the New Carver Apartments.

On the Outside

Construction site of the Hope Street Family Center (a project of California Hospital Medical Center), adjacent to the New Carver Apartments.

Construction Near the New Carver Apartments by CoLab Radio

Years ago many would have rendered a solution to L.A.’s homeless issues as impossible. While the problem continues to persist today, organizations like the Skid Row Housing Trust have found a promising solution in the supportive housing/Housing First movement. The New Carver Apartments are a testament to that power.

Located at 1642 S. Hope Street, it’s no coincidence that the New Carver Apartments were built at the intersection where Hope Street meets “HOME.”

On the Outside

A public art project in the lobby of the New Carver Apartments translates the word “HOPE” in various languages.

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For a comprehensive history of Skid Row, please visit the Skid Row Housing Trust’s website.

For a self-guided tour of Skid Row (including local public spaces, residential projects, and social service facilities), visit the USC Dornsife College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences map and guide.

For a group-led tour of Skid Row, join the Central City East Association’s monthly Skid Row Neighborhood Watch Walk (first Wednesday of every month at 6 pm beginning at the Midnight Mission).

For an in-depth series on Skid Row, read Steve Lopez’s multi-part Points West column for the L.A. Times from 2005.

High school artists may be interested in the Volunteers of America’s Skid Row High School Mural & Art Contest.

Post by John Arroyo. John is an urban planner, journalist, and cultural producer living in Los Angeles.

5 responses to “On the Outside”

  1. James says:

    Great post John! I went to a presentation on the architecture of these buildings at GSD, but this post begins to tell the real story. I look forward to more.

  2. John Arroyo says:

    Thanks for the great comment James! I’m really glad this post helped add to the story and expand on how design affects residents living at the New Carver. Future posts will include some very powerfula nd remarkable stories.

  3. Wow, John, this post is great and I’m looking forward to your series! I’ve thought for a while that Skid Row would be a great place to collect stories and find out more about the people who live there. I’m so glad you are doing this. I also love that you are weaving in your knowledge of the built environment as always.

  4. John Arroyo says:

    Stefanie, Thanks for your interest and awesome comments! I’m really looking forward to the series — many residents have already shared very powerful stories. 🙂

  5. John Arroyo says:

    Here’s a great follow-up article/profile on ARCHINECT about L.A. urbanism from architect, artist, and friend, Jia Gu:

    http://archinect.com/blog/article/26224276/week-6-where-is-home-where-is-la

    “You won’t find LA within centralized public spaces as you would the piazzas in Italy or the main axis of most European cities. But you’ll find it along the corners of 6th and Western, at its informal vendors and late night taco trucks on Olympic and La Brea, in the sprawling district of Santee Allee, in the mini shopping-cum-eating plazas of Monterey Park… or in Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself. “