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'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.
October 6, 2008, 5am PDT | Rocco Pendola
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 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.

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