'Broken Windows' Rebuffed: The Social Life of Skid Row

On L.A.'s Skid Row, revitalization efforts fail to consider the human aspects of life on the streets, according to Rocco Pendola.

 Rocco PendolaAs an urbanist I grow weary of repeated references to Jane Jacobs. Large numbers of planners and architects have heeded her advice of mixed-use, diversity-focused city crafting. The struggle of making it happen in the communities where they work is long underway. I argue, though, that some of the people advocating Jacobs' legacy have missed an equally as important point she emphasized in The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

"There is a quality meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served" (emphasis added).

In his excellent book Sidewalk, Mitchell Duneier makes a similar claim:

"Only by understanding the rich social organization of the sidewalk, in all its complexity, might citizens and politicians appreciate how much is lost when we accept the idea that the presence of a few broken windows justifies tearing down the whole informal structure."

These seminal pieces of urban wisdom directly relate to Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles. "Central City East," as it is euphemistically called, is gentrifying rapidly. High end residential and retail projects are popping up all over Downtown, on the edge of Skid Row, as well as inside its boundaries. I started conducting research in Skid Row in 2006 when the LAPD began strict implementation of "broken windows" policing under the guise of Chief William Bratton's "Safer Cities Initiative." Skid Row has been a target of stepped up policing, on and off, for decades. A sense of urgency underlies the latest effort due to Downtown's influx of new residents and visitors. The LAPD claims great success in "cleaning up" Skid Row. Dr. George Kelling continues to ride the coattails (to the tune of about a half million dollars in LAPD consulting fees) of his brainchild "broken windows," a scheme systematically rebukedby UCLA Professor of Law Gary Blasi and others.

 Skid Row by Matt Logelin

Skid Row, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matt Logelin.

Skid Row is victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity. Most people perceive Skid Row via media reports and second hand accounts. This information typically portrays Skid Row as a wholly negative place in need of wholesale changes. Under the impression that Skid Row is nothing but a problem, intense police scrutiny, accompanied by gentrification, is the automatic answer. The LAPD arrests and/or cites people for once overlooked, minor infractions, including small marijuana sales, jaywalking, or sitting on the curb. "Broken windows" proponents insist that micro-enforcement of the law trickles up, deterring more significant crime. This and previous similar efforts have not worked. The rhetoric surrounding Skid Row, from all sides, is the same today as it was in 2004, as it was in 1984.

Why then do we continue on the same failed track of paternalistic police harassment and empty promises of more housing and appropriate service levels for the poor and homeless? The cynical and pessimistic, but potentially true answer is that the City of Los Angeles could care less about what happens to Skid Rowians; their overtures are smoke-and-mirrors displays. The tired battles between non-profit developers and real estate speculators or the LAPD and the ACLU are sideshows as gentrification advances practically unfettered much to the delight of the Mayor and other Downtown boosters. There is truth to this view, but I think it is only part of the problem.

Even folks who are "on the side" of the homeless tend to share the view that Skid Row is little more than a wretched abyss. Overworked homeless service providers, for example, deal with Skid Row's problems all day. It is easy to become jaded and buy into the popular misconception that the Row is all about alcohol, drugs, crime, and mental illness. Very few stakeholders, other than actual Skid Rowians, spend time consistently, on the ground, interacting with community members. I spent over a year hanging out with people in the streets or playing dominos in San Julian Park. I did this almost daily. The experience showed me a side of Skid Row that goes unnoticed and unreported.

 San Julian Park, Skid Row, by Cathy Cole

San Julian Park, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Cathy Cole.

I uncovered a diverse and complex community in the heart of Skid Row. A convivial place, where people spend time interacting socially and helping each other out. San Julian Park is a fine illustration of this. Although the corner it anchors is "the weed capital of Los Angeles," with nickel bags being sold at a pace I have seen approach thirty transactions an hour, San Julian Park is known to some Skid Rowians as "Sober Park." Despite erroneous LAPD claims, drugs are not sold inside the park with any frequency whatsoever. The reason has little to do with law enforcement; rather Skid Row regulars self-police the park. I have seen people verbally warned and physically thrown out of the park for breaking its unwritten rules. This is a type of informal social control, written about by Jacobs and Duneier, yet curiously ignored by many big cities when dealing with poor neighborhoods.

The relentless focus on Skid Row's negatives – and the attendant police scrutiny – is counterproductive. It stifles "the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served." I suggest a policy of broken windows-in-reverse. The city of LA should decriminalize low-level drug offenses, crosswalk violations, curb sitting, and other slight or nuisance crimes in Skid Row. Enforcing them to the point of harassment has done nothing to benefit the neighborhood. If we ignore "broken windows" in favor of a policy of nurturing the positive that exists in Skid Row, I see the potential for a grassroots approach where the Skid Row community regulates itself. Positivity breeds positivity. Given the failure of establishment led interventions in Skid Row, it is time to reinvent the wheel from the ground up.

Rocco Pendola received a BA in Urban Studies from San Francisco State University. He works as a freelance grant writer, focusing mainly on needy communities in Orange County, including Santa Ana. He is presently working on a book about his experiences while doing research in Skid Row entitled, Hanging Out in LA's Skid Row: Nickel Bags, Bones, and Community.




Great post. It reminds (favorably) of the paper I found linked on Planetizen last week; Salingaros, et al., "Favelas and Social Housing: The Urbanism of Self-Organization." Both make a compelling case that we pathologize and try to stamp out so many constructive behaviors because they don't match what we perceive as healthy or civilized, when in fact they are exactly the kind of independent and interdependent self-help that we say we champion.
Mike Stanger

Nurturing the positive.

Congrats on the article, Rocco.

How does decriminalizing low-level offenses "nurture the positive that exists in Skid Row"? The call for both of these in the final paragraph seems reasonable, but the implied causal link between the former and the latter doesn't make sense to me.

What are the positive things that should be nurtured? Are we talking mostly about the self-policing in the park? The sense of community you found? What specifically?

The self-policing seems to show that Skid Rowians might not want drug deals decriminalized.

Great article, Rocco! It's

Great article, Rocco!
It's really satisfying to see in "print" a report of the crucial work of a classmate and fellow grad of SF State's excellent Urban Studies Program.
rob bregoff

Nice Work!

When you explained your research to me last winter as my T.A. for Dr. Hoffman I thought it was pretty cool. I got a big surprise when I clicked on the top story in my planetizen newsletter and saw your face pop up. All in all it was a great article, but do you have any specific suggestions for these new policies to replace "broken windows"?
Looking forward to the book.
--Seth Weiss

Skid Row is more complex than you know

I have a hard time believing that the one year you spent in Skid Row qualifies you to fully understand the problems there, much less a solution. I have lived and worked on Main Street in downtown LA for 5 years, which is on the edge of Skid Row, and in that time have seen the significant changes in the area that you describe. It sounds to me like you arrived after the October 2006 drug sweeps that changed the area from a 30 square block open air drug bazaar to the neighborhood it is now. Before the drug trade was curtailed, 90% of the heroin on the west coast came through 5th Street, and there were hundreds of addicts lining all the streets as far west as Broadway, 2 block west of Main into the historic downtown.

The original effort to clean up Skid Row had two primary components: Police enforcement of rampant lawlessness (mainly drug activity), and a city and county effort to provide additional housing and services. Full budgeting was allocated for the enforcement, but not enough for the housing and services, although there has been some increase in that area as well. In the past few years, there has been a net increase in the renovation and creation of permanent housing, including supportive housing (Project 50 is one example).

The effect of the curtailing of the drug activity has had enormously positive effects. The number of deaths on the streets has plummeted. The violent crime rate, which was actually already quite low, was further reduced. The people living in Skid Row, who were previously shut-ins due to fear, have begun to organize politically and participate in the local Neighborhood Council. The very community you see taking form inside San Julian Park was made possible by this increased law enforcement. The empowerment of Skid Row has resulted in an increase in neighborhood pride, which was lacking a few years ago.

Examples of this are the new 3 x 3 basketball league and the Skid Row Photography Club.

For more than 30 years Los Angeles County had had a containment policy which created and solidified Skid Row as the place where society's ills could be swept under the rug. A few years ago, as security cameras began to be installed in a few locations, there was suddenly verifiable proof (and which was used to prosecute in some cases), that police from other jurisdictions and hospitals from all over Southern California were DUMPING homeless, criminals and patients in Skid Row (as everyone here had known for years). The media attention to this and to the sordid history of the area's deliberate creation as a ghetto of misery caused a real change. Much of the support for this change came from assistance provided by the new residents and businesses who had began to move back into to the area.

The residents of Skid Row had been begging the city for years for increased police enforcement, cleaner streets, and other services. Not until the advent of nearby revitalization were these demands met, and not as a result of gentrification but as a result of an empowerment that was made possible by alliances between the old and the new residents.

There are some activists and those such as Gary Blasi, who argue otherwise, but they do not live here, and do not have any stake in the improvement of the conditions of downtown residents. I am skeptical they they actually understand the problems of this area, and I question their political and ideological motivations for their critical analysis of Skid Row's problems, and especially any solutions that they propose.

It is this faction only that argues that enforcement of petty crimes is the sole focus of the enforcement of the law in Skid Row. I know otherwise, as do many of my neighbors. We all do find the high rate of petty crime citations annoying, but that is a small price to pay compared to the relative calm that has been restored in the past few years.

The best thing that could be encouraged now is to hold the city and county to honor their responsibilities to provide an increase in services to compliment the increased enforcement.

For the record, the neighborhood's official name is "Central City East." It is euphemistically known as "Skid Row," not the other way around.

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