California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Skid Row, Hell’s Half-Acre (aka The Nickel)

California Fool's Gold

Mural in Skid Row

This blog entry is about Skid Row. Joining me on the adventure were Aussie Chinese American film-producer Diana Ward and Colombian Chinese American designer/illustrator/downtown resident Wendy Chin — both by now used to playing the role of “traveling companions” to my Doctor.

Skid Row is a neighborhood in Los Angeles‘s Central City East District. It’s also known to locals as “The Nickel” because it’s centered on 5th Street (and a Nickel is worth five cents). Skid Row is neighbored by the Fashion District, Little Tokyo, the Toy District, the Flower District and the Downtown Industrial District.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s Official Map of Skid Row — available in art prints of various sizes and costs as well as on a wide variety of merchandise

Skid Row and the surrounding area is home to one of the largest homeless populations in the US (about 8,000 of Los Angeles’s 60,000 estimated homeless). As of the census of 2000, there were 17,740 people and 2,410 households residing in the neighborhood. Because of inadequate beds at shelters, people are allowed to sleep on the streets in the neighborhood between 9:00 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. 

The area that is now Downtown Los Angeles was the site of the Tongva village of Yaangna, the sacred sycamore of which stood nearby at the modern day intersection of Commercial and Vignes streets. After the Spanish arrived, they established La Placita nearby, in the neighborhood of El Pueblo. By the time of the miners who swarmed the area following the California Gold Rush of 1849, the land had passed through the hands of the Mexicans to the Americans. One, a Kentuckian named William Wolfskill, had the area planted with citrus trees to sell to scurvy-prone miners. Other areas of what became Skid Row were then the Moreno and Reyes vineyards.

LAPD mosaic

By the 1870s, trains began arriving in the area both to transport the citrus to far off locales and to bring in migrant workers to work in the groves. In 1888, Southern Pacific opened its main station, the Arcade Depot, on 5th street, near Central Avenue. In 1893, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe opened its main station, La Grande Station, at 2nd Street and Santa Fe Avenue, in what’s now the Arts District. The city’s population exploded from roughly 11,000 in 1880 to 100,000 by 1896.

Union Rescue Mission in the 1930s

Following the arrival of trains and the immigrant laborers they brought, the area began to rapidly industrialize. Much of the work in Los Angeles, based as it was on agriculture, was seasonal. To cater to the workers between jobs, many bars and flophouses sprang up between downtown proper and the growing industrial district. Soon it was a magnet for the down-and-out and thus, Los Angeles’s Skid Row was born… although the term “skid row” didn’t enter the vernacular until the early 1930s. The earliest printed mention that I’ve found of it applied to Los Angeles’s neighborhood is from 1939, which not coincidentally is the year La Grande Station closed and Union Station opened a few blocks north in what had, until then, been Chinatown.

Broadway in the 1940s

Just a few blocks to the west, Downtown Los Angeles was experiencing its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. Twelve movie palaces opened up in the nearby Broadway Theater District between 1910 and 1931 and the area was the hub of entertainment in the city.

Meanwhile, back in Central City East, cheap residential hotels had sprouted up to accommodate the down-and-out. Today, a great many of these hotels remain, their functions mostly unchanged (although often adapted to additionally provide social services). If you ignore the sight and foul smells of defecation, urine and garbage; Los Angeles’ Skid Row is, in many parts, aesthetically quite beautiful.

Hotels on Wall Street including Carlton Hotel (1903), Haskell Hotel (1912) and Ward Hotel
San Julian Park fka Thieves Corner aka Crack Corner

On the 500 block of San Julian there’s The Angelus Inn (1907), Simone Hotel (1991), Russ Hotel (1925), Marshall House (1906), Leo Hotel (1910), and James M. Wood Apartments (2009).

Hotel Norbo (built 1912)
Golden West Hotel (built in 1913)
The Lyndon (2008) and Madison Hotel (1924)
Panama Hotel (built in 1911)

Other Skid Row residential hotels include the Abbey ApartmentsAster Hotel, Boyd Hotel Apartment, Brownstone Hotel, Charles Cobb Apartments, Crescent Hotel Apartments, Dewey Hotel ApartmentsEdward Hotel, Ellis Hotel, Eugene Hotel, Florence Hotel, Ford Hotel, Gateways ApartmentsHarold Hotel, Hart Hotel Apartments, Haskell Hotel, La Jolla Hotel, Las Americas Hotel Apartments, Leonide Hotel, Lincoln Hotel Apartments, the notorious Lorane Hotel, New Genesis Apartments, New Pershing Hotel Apartments, New Terminal Hotel, Olympia Hotel Apartments, Palmer House, Prentice Hotel, Produce Place/Produce Hotel Apartments, Rainbow Apartments, Regal Hotel, Rivers Hotel, Rossmore Hotel Apartments, San Pedro House Apartments, Sanborn Hotel Apartments, Senator Hotel Apartments, Southern Hotel, St George Hotel Apartments, St Mark’s Hotel Apartments, Star Apartments, Ward Hotel, Weldon Hotel, and Yankee Apartments. Most of the above buildings are managed either by the Skid Row Housing Trust, SRO Housing Trust, or Volunteers of America. Many of the newer buildings are quite innovative and absolutely worth checking out if you’re at all interested in contemporary architecture. 

Back to our story; after the Second World War, suburbanization and freeway construction lured many downtowners away from the city’s core. Many of the business headquarters followed and between the 1930s and ’50s, downtown went into steep decline. In 1955, the “slums” of Dogtown and Bunker Hill were to be cleared to make way for future skyscraper development. Central City East remained ignored, though. The old picture palaces on Broadway began showing Spanish-language films.

At the same time, gay Angeleno culture began to flower. Under Chief William Parker, who served as Los Angeles’s chief of police from 1950 until 1966, the LAPD cracked down on homosexuality by raiding gay bars and entrapping gays by paying aspiring Hollywood actors to serve as bait for gays. So many arrests occurred that an entire section of the Lincoln Heights jail, nicknamed the “fruit tank,” was reserved for queer inmates. As one of the least desirable parts of town with thousands of men living in residential hotels, Skid Row became home to the 326 on Spring Street catered to “queens.”

In the late ‘60s, many returning emotionally-disturbed and drug-addicted Viet Nam vets joined the older, by then permanent population of alcoholic ex-hobos, tramps, and bums. Many missions had long serviced the indigent area and the mostly abandoned industrial area became a hotbed for those both dropping out of society and those dropped out by society.

The Printing Building

In the ’70s, lured by the abundant and abandoned space, artists began moving into the adjacent Arts District but Skid Row plunged further as it transformed what was, for all intents and purposes, an open air drug market. In the ’80s, smokable crack cocaine was introduced, AIDS began to proliferate, and President Reagan began cutting federal expenditures for low-cost housing — from $32 billion in 1981 to just $7 billion in 1987. In the ’90s, methamphetamine proliferated, joining heroin and crack as popular and easily accessible street drugs in Skid Row. Gang members from all over the southland still come to the area and temporarily put aside their differences to sell drugs to the desperate.

Then, in 1999, the long abandoned historic buildings in the Old Bank District began to be renovated into lofts. Although some complained about gentrification and increasingly strict policing, the homeless situation has seemingly improved. The presence of more residents in the area has also meant more attention has been focused on the area. In 2005, 2006 and 2007, several local hospitals, including Kaiser Permanente and Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center as well as various Los Angeles County community cops were exposed to be dumping patients and homeless people from elsewhere in the neighborhood. Still, a big part of the improvement of the situation in Skid Row is due the missions and services helping the homeless.


There are also many missions in Skid Row and on the day we visited there was a convertible van with a megaphone man warning “The end is nigh! The end is nigh!” or something to that effect. Skid Row missions include Azusa Lighthouse Mission Church, Emmanuel Baptist Rescue Mission, Emmanuel Baptist Rescue Mission, Fred Jordan Mission, Jesus Loves World MissionJWCH Institute, Los Angeles Mission, Midnight Mission, Rotary House (formerly Transition House), St. Mark’s Mission, Union Rescue Mission and Volunteers of America Grace Project. 


The Weingart Center (fka El Rey Hotel — 1926)

Secular services serving the poor and otherwise underserved include the Downtown Mental Health Center,Downtown Women’s Center, Frontline Foundation, LA Center for Drug & Alcohol Services, Los Angeles Christian Health CenterLamp Village, Los Angeles Mission Community Clinic, Skid Row Development CorporationSkid Row Housing Trustand the Weingart Center. In 2009, The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported an astonishing and heartening 38% decrease in homelessness just over the past two years. So, even though hopelessness is always in fashion, in seems that things are getting better, due to efforts of many.


Green Apple

It’s hard to imagine even the most irony-obsessed knaves venturing into Skid Row for eats. For the most part, there aren’t a lot of restaurants in the neighborhood. There’s Coffee Coffee, Chicken House, Corner Kafe, Lalo’s, Martha’s Kitchen, New Downtown Cafe and Market, Pizza Xpress, Myung Dong, Pop’s Food, Sunday Cafe, Tony’s Burgers, and three Green Apple Markets. Also in the vicinity, if not as closely associated with Skid Row, are Catch 21, The Escondite, and Fisherman’s Outlet.


Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician of considerable talent, used to favor the nearby 3rd street tunnel but has been spending more nights in the Lamp Village in Skid Row after Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez brought attention to his story which was the basis of the film The Soloist (2009). Jon Bon Jovi has made efforts to help various city’s homeless communities as well, mainly through the efforts of his JBJ Soul Foundation.


Not too many have been filmed in Skid Row and those that have are mostly documentaries. One exception isThe Little Shop of Horrors (1960), parts of which were shot on 5th. 

Pras‘ Skid Row (2007), concerns a rich dude spending a few nights outdoors, getting in too deep, and in the process learns that being homeless isn’t easy.

Skid Row has also been seen in Reflections of Evil (2002), Into the Wild (2007), Somewhere in the City(2007), American Drug War – The Last Great White Hope, Chorus – Skid Row Stories, and Hova (all 2010). There’s also a company, Skid Row Films.

LAPD Bike Rack

There is art happening in Skid Row. There is the sculpture, LAPD Bike Rack (pictured above). There are several murals: A Rain Drop Falls From My Lips (by Yreina Cervantez, 1993), What I See Can Be Me. There’s also the non-profit Los Angeles Poverty Department (by Yreina Cervantez and Michael Schnorr, 1993), and RETNA‘s collaboration with Estevan Oriol, and The Jonah Project, pictured at the beginning of this blog (2010). Skid Row is also home to the Skid Row Arts Collective, whose members sometimes exhibit work over in Harlem Place Alley. And finally, there’s Inner City Arts — which offers amazing arts education to children from the area.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and the 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject and/or guest in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAOffice Hours LiveSpectrum NewsEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m YoursNotebook on Cities and CultureKCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles.

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