L.A. Riots: Little Change For South Central's Pipeline To Skid Row
This story is part of a special Neon Tommy series revisiting the upheaval 20 years ago surrounding the Rodney King trial. See more of our anniversary coverage here.
Depending on what zip code you’re in and who you ask, you can get variety of answers to this question.
But if you make your way to Skid Row- the 50 blocks nestled between 7th, Main, 3rd and Alameda Street in Downtown L.A.- it’s not hard to see that the same tension that sparked the riots 20 years ago is there.
Skid Row is home to over 4,000 homeless men and women-- a number that has risen in the past two decades and continues to rise.
For General Jeff, a resident representative for Skid Row who also sits on the Board of Directors for the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, the conditions of Skid Row reflect the poverty that still exists throughout the whole city.
“It’s almost like a direct pipeline from South Central to Skid Row,” said Jeff. “There are a lot of folks who fall flat in South Central and they go straight to Skid Row.”
A vicious cycle
South Central, prior to 1992, was the breeding ground for poverty, drugs, and crime.
The community had a Black majority, but was also was made up of Latinos and Asians.
Jeff, who was born and raised in South Central remembers when the crack epidemic overtook the area in the 1980s. The life of a drug dealer was considered the career of choice by many Black teens in the community who saw no other options available to them besides flipping burgers for minimum wage.
“If you’re broke, that was the way to go,” said Jeff. “And it’s hard to tell people different because they were doing it for so long.”
The influence of drug culture in South Central inevitably led to conflict with police.
Back in 1992, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who was only a sergeant for the department back then, remembers how bad tensions were between the police and the community. For Beck, animosity between the two was primarily because of police tactics that unfairly targeted Blacks and Latinos in the city.
“During the 1980s, 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department was all about making arrests and responding to crimes in progress,” said Beck at a community forum hosted by the Los Angeles Human Rights Commission on April 24.
From 1990-1992, the LAPD was roughly 59 percent White. Beck pointed out that even though the LAPD was actually smaller than it is today (it had 2,000 less officers back then), it still made over 300,000 arrests each year. Compare that to the 116,000 arrests LAPD made in 2010.
The result: hundreds of Black men and women- but mostly men- were arrested in South Los Angeles and sent to jail or prison on a daily basis. Once released from prison or jail, many Black men, who had already been shunned by society for the color of their skin, became cut off even more for their criminal record and no education.
In the end, their only option was Skid Row.
Back to old habits?
“When you heard about Skid Row, it sounded like the Wild Wild West, where anything goes,” said Jeff. “It was a free-for all. People were smoking crack and doing drugs and had no respect for the law.”
Skid Row fast became what many called a Sodom and Gommorah, where crime often went unchecked and where society’s “undesirables” were banished to.
It wasn’t until 2006, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), that law enforcement began to crack down on crime. The initiative put 50 more officers in Skid Row to patrol the area and heavily curb petty crimes. Under the SCI, police cited Skid Row residents for anything-- from urinating in public to jaywalking to sleeping on the sidewalk during daylight hours.
SCI immediately brought down the crime in the area by 30 percent in the first year and significantly decreased the number of homeless sleeping on the street. However, Jeff says this type of law enforcement has been creating bitter distrust between Skid Rows residents and the police.
According to a survey done by the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), about 53 percent of Skid Row respondents had been arrested in the previous year. And of those who were arrested, 51 percent lost their housing, 42 percent lost access to social services and 16 percent lost employment. Also, 80 percent of respondents also reported that they don’t feel safe from police harassment and violence.
Being the change
When General Jeff came to Skid Row in 2006, he saw many of the same tensions and issues that were apparent in 1992.
“I used to spend time walking around the community and see how deplorable the conditions were,” said Jeff. “I use to say ‘Somebody’s gotta make a difference.'”
Eventually, Jeff realized he was that ‘somebody’ and that he needed to give back to the community in some way.
“After awhile, whenever I would say ‘Somebody needs do this.’ Or ‘Somebody needs to do that’ I started replacing ‘somebody’ with ‘I’,” said Jeff.
He started organizing clean-up projects, mural paintings and basketball tournaments for the residents, which gave him first-hand insight from the men and women on Skid Row.
Jeff created his organization Issues and Solutions in 2007 after attending several community meetings where everyone kept bringing up their issues without finding solutions. His first major project was the renovation of Gladys Park on 6th Street and Gladys Avenue.
In 2008, his knowledge of the community led him to be elected to two-year terms on The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. In 2010, Jeff was re-elected with double the votes of any other candidate.
“The community really likes my effort. That makes me feel good. We really want to move the community forward,” said Jeff.
Jeff says Skid Row’s infrastructure is the biggest challenge in moving forward. Although the non-profit organizations and missions for Skid Row receive federal funding along with public and private donations, more funding is needed to renovate vacant warehouses into much-needed housing complexes.
Despite SCI’s success in getting more people off of Skid Row’s streets, the lack of housing is putting more people right back on the streets again. In 2009, the SCI had helped reduce the number of homeless sleeping on the streets to 500. In March of this year, the number of people sleeping on the street increased to 1,207.
“There is zero family housing in Skid Row. All funding go towards low-income housing, which means only one person per room” said Jeff. “So if a mother comes with a child, there is no housing for her.”
Jeff says the lack of family housing is now becoming an even bigger issue partly due to the economy. After the economic collapse in 2008, Jeff says he saw more middle-class families, who had lost their homes and jobs, coming to the Skid Row to look for assistance. Most missions and housing options on Skid Row don’t allow men and women to sleep in the same room, so families are often split up.
“We need family housing. We need to bring people together, not divide them,” said Jeff.
Early prison releases are also at fault for Skid Row's overcrowding. Assembly Bill 109, which went into effect last October, is supposed to help reduce prison overcrowding by allowing inmates to serve less than 90-day sentences. As a result, many parolees are ending up at Skid Row due to the lack of jobs and affordable housing in this economy.
Moving forward together
Though Jeff has seen progress in Downtown L.A., he says he has yet to see it for Skid Row or South Central L.A.
“You start to wonder, is it because those communities' majority is African American? Are African Americans doing it to themselves? Or is the funding not reaching the people?” said Jeff.
Either way, Jeff says every race-- not just African Americans-- must do more to help themselves.
“It’s interesting that last year no one was talking about the riots. Now it’s been 20 years, and it’s the hot topic,” said Jeff. “”Is it going to go away after this? Are they going to talk about it next year? You know, we need to come together to keep this dialogue going.”
Reach Staff Reporter Angela Blakely here.