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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Gentrification Leads To Clashing Interests On Skid Row

Fiona Wang |
October 18, 2013 | 12:22 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Homeless population struggling to survive on skid row, (Neon Tommy)
Homeless population struggling to survive on skid row, (Neon Tommy)
In the eyes of its supporters, gentrification can be seen as the transformation of long neglected neighborhoods into vibrant, successful areas. However, gentrification is also a phenomenon that forces long-term residents to move out of their homes and communities when the cost of living rises. No matter how one defines gentrification, it alters a neighborhood’s ethnic composition, household income, business distribution, and other characteristics. 

Silver Lake’s proposed gang injunction and the redevelopment plan of University Village, a shopping area next to University of Southern California, have both raised concerns about gentrification.

The redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles, with the creation of L.A. Live in 2009 also brought major changes to city's identity. The luxurious shopping, dining, and entertainment complex has since attracted many businesses—especially to high-end neighborhoods like Bunker Hill.

Young people from across the globe who are looking to settle in a big city flock to the newly remade areas of Los Angeles; yet, the city's appeal leads to increased demand for space in the big city, which consequentially drives up rent and living costs in downtown L.A. 

READ MORE: Skid Row Photography Club Give Homelessness A New Angle

Furthermore, the real estate boom has brought changes in land planning policy—including the relocation or closing of numerous homeless shelters and a drastic increase in costly new restaurants. The landlords of some low-income buildings have had to sacrifice the interests of their residents in order to meet economic and social demands.

Located on Main Street, the New Genesis Medical Center has tried to meet this challenge in a way that helps Los Angeles's homeless population while also working within the city. Opened last year, the building has become a successful model of mixed-use housing on Skid Row. 

New Genesis is primarily used to house people who are suffering from addiction and who have recently become homeless while also providing space for more commercial uses. The first floor, however, has been dedicated for commercial use since an ice cream shop opened in one half of the building early this year.

Controversy, however, arose when the building's landlord, Skid Row Housing Trust, began trying to open a restaurant with a liquor license on the ground floor of the other half of the building. 

READ MORE: An Hour On Skid Row

"The main thing is that these are people who are recently addicted and in their recovery now, therefore, they are very vulnerable," said Kevin Michael Key, the community organizer of United Coalition East. "The problem is that the restaurant is inconsistent with the needs of the people who live in the building."

However, land use consultant Elizabeth Peterson—also the representative for the application of the liquor license of the restaurant— pointed out that the restaurant is not the fundamental problem for the residents.

"It is a personal choice whether you drink or not," said Peterson. "Even if you have an addiction to alcohol, it is still become a choice that comes from within."

Agreeing with Peterson, Skid Row Housing Trust's community relations manager Daniel Rizik-Baer said "Our belief is none that our residents cannot be around alcohol. It is really about teaching alcohol responsible use within the restaurant." Rizik-Baer added that living in an urban setting, their residents pass by bars and restaurant that serves liquor on a daily basis. Thus, it is impossible to create an alcohol-free environment for them.

Instead of an alcohol-free environment, the restaurant actually provides a better solution to the New Genesis residents according to the project's supporters. 

"It is far more important for people who are recovering to have a gorgeous building and not showing any difference from any other buildings in downtown," said Peterson. "I think it is a greater [step towards] recovery than putting them in an area...with no alcohol." 

READ MORE: L.A. Homeless Community Plagued By Income Disparity 

What's more, Peterson pointed out that the restaurant might provide a safer environment for the residents because the restaurant lighting may decrease robberies, the main safety concern on that street.

However, the premise of safer streets does not seem to entice the residents.

According to Wright, they want the space to be dedicated towards some sort of non-profit, or at least something that promotes physical fitness.

"This community has nothing, absolutely nothing, for physical fitness," said Wright. "And physical fitness is a part of recovering—not a restaurant with liquor."

Key also pointed out that a restaurant with liquor is contradictory to the mission of Skid Row Housing Trust, a non-profit organization that aims to provide affordable housing to low-income people on Skid Row.

Additionally, Key worries that the restaurant would serve high-price foods that the residents would be unable to afford. He suggested that even a family-owned restaurant with no liquor would work better.

But Rizik-Baer argued that only a restaurant with wine and beer would attract enough customers to keep the restaurant in business. The profits would help maintain the building, thereby servicing the residents.

As a non-profit housing program, Skid Row Housing Trust needs to be able to maintain its projects. With limited sources of funding, the income from a profitable restaurant could be incredibly beneficial. 

Out of consideration for the residents, however, Rizik-Baer said that they would limit the use of alcohol by only having one outside access point and no entrance through the inside of the building. Also, the diners would be required to order food, not just wine or beer.

The application for a liquor license is still underway, with a hearing coming up next month. The restaurant will open early next year if it gets approved to serve wine and beer. But activists like Key will keep fighting for the residents in order to keep an alcohol-free living environment. 

Contact Staff Reporter Fiona Wang here.



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