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A Los Angeles Primer: Skid Row

I grew up thinking of the “inner city” as a byword for criminality, disrepair, inconvenience, and destitution. Only later did I realize that, outside the United States and much of the United Kingdom, the term and its international equivalents never picked up those off-putting associations. To most of the rest of the world, whose capitals’ established centers didn’t suffer the same extensive degree of postwar population drain, a city gets only more attractive (if exponentially more expensive) the farther in you go. But once-derelict downtowns all across America have enjoyed a renaissance of late, and Los Angeles’ downtown, once among the most derelict, now looks among the most promising. Walk through most of its neighborhoods, and you may well believe the hype; walk through Skid Row, a substantial piece of the old inner city spread for blocks and blocks from about 5th Street and San Pedro outward, and you begin to wonder.

The San Francisco of my early childhood left me with only a few memories, most of them having to do with the size and assertiveness of its homeless population. The situation there has improved, but then, when I saw it at three feet off the ground, I saw it at its late-1980s nadir — it had nothing left to do but improve. That sense memory of passing into an environment, no matter how otherwise stimulating, shot through with drug use, mental illness, aggression, and desperate poverty never quite left me. But anyone going to San Francisco back then would have expected to encounter all that; these days, in that city and others, you more often find it in unexpected pockets, or rather, you suddenly find yourself in those pockets. I think, to take one stark example, of Vancouver’s Hastings Street, onto which the city somehow steers what seem like all of its transients.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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