“People walking, people walking.”
It was a hot day, skirting the high ’80s last Tuesday, when I went with my class on a tour — for lack of a better word –— around Skid Row.
My professor had told us to dress in an unprovocative way and wear closed-toed shoes. So, despite the warm weather, my attire for the afternoon was dark-wash jeans and a baggy T-shirt with no symbols or labels. But when I got out of the car on East 6th Street and Stanford Avenue, I realized that I would stand out — regardless of what I wore.
The Skid Row community is just that, a community – it knows its own. Though my classmates and I all come from diverse walks of life, when we stepped onto the street, we morphed into one homogenous group: outsiders.
The inhabitants stared at us as we walked down the street in one tight cluster. Not sure what to do, but also not wanting to keep my head down, I stared back. It was hard not to feel like we were in a zoo. All of us in our own cages, looking in and looking out.
Our guide for the afternoon was Kevin Michael Key of the Los Angeles Poverty Department — the other LAPD — which is working to build a sense of community on Skid Row through the arts. As he shuttled us along the sidewalk, he stopped to explain what we were seeing, telling us the stories of some of the denizens of Skid Row and introducing us to them.
I took in the cardboard boxes, the shopping carts and the tents. On the sidewalk, some people were talking to others around them, some to voices only they could hear. Some were shooting up. And then there were those just sitting there listlessly in the sun.
A few had laid out a hardscrabble collection of items on their tarps, either to sell or just to look at. One of the collections, a small selection of second-hand VHS tapes and paperback books that were gathering dust, caught my eye. My favorite book, To Kill A Mockingbird, was tucked among the brood.
Skid Row is a place that breaks your heart in moments. I have only come here a few times, but every time I return, I realize that I forget the details, the reality of the situation. Skid Row houses one of the largest populations of homeless people in the United States, and a significant percentage of the people there have mental illnesses of one kind or another. There are services available for the community — on the tour we passed by places like the Downtown Mental Health Center (a branch of the Department of Mental Health), the Union Rescue Mission and the Midnight Mission, popularized by Steve Lopez’s column in the Los Angeles Times. But many people are not yet ready to come off the streets and accept these services.
The noise is the other thing I forgot about — walking around there is the sound of music blasting from the radios and of people screaming at each other, at themselves. There is a chaos of noise here; a cacophony of sound that pulses and throbs.
On our walk, we stopped inside Lamp Community’s art program. The Lamp Community works to end homelessness in Los Angeles through housing and service. In the noise-dampened walls of the studio, there is an instant contrast to the outside uproar. The workshop is open to anyone, and the walls of the building are draped with artwork from the program. Some of the paintings include words: “Skid Row Love,” “Skid Row Community,” “Skid Raw.” One of them depicted Los Angeles covered in a thick coat of brown slime. But the piece that held my attention was of a woman drawn in grayscale with heavy black eyeliner and a hard stance, holding a gun. Her hair is dark purple and wild, set against a technicolor rainbow background. Blurs of reds, yellows and greens take up the space behind her, the swirls and checkerboards creating an abstract tornado.
We talked for a little with Hayk Makhmuryan, the fine arts coordinator for Lamp Community, who said a lot of interesting things about the program, what it’s doing for residents, its open mic nights once a month and its collaborative art projects. But what I remember most is the point he made about volunteers. It was almost an afterthought, tossed in as a known commodity: poverty and mental illness just aren’t as attractive as volunteering with children or puppies.
Having only spent an afternoon there, it was hard to argue with that point. I felt out of place and uncomfortable as I walked along the streets with my class. Skid Row is not an easy place to just step into. You can’t just say, “I’m here!”
One person on the street stared at our class as we walked past her.
“Are you for real?” she asked.
I didn’t have a response.
Right at the end of the visit, back at the LAPD office, a woman outside, all angular and bony, collapsed on the sidewalk. People helped her into the shade. The cause was unclear: it could have been drugs, or it could have been that she hadn’t slept for days. Or maybe some combination of the two.
Writing this, I can’t describe what her face looked like as I passed by her. Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. But I don’t think I really even looked.
“People walking, people walking,” was Kevin Michael’s constant refrain as he walked us through people camped out on the sides of the streets, letting them know that we were just passing through.
And that’s exactly what it felt like we were doing that afternoon, just passing through. A 10-minute trip in the car and I was back at USC, showering and putting on a nice outfit to go to attend a musical in Orange County. But the shock of purple hair in that painting stayed with me — that image of the woman holding the gun, with so many emotions on her face.
You can’t see Skid Row from a non-superficial level in one afternoon, or even in a few. But just as the people in the organizations we met with that afternoon, such as Lamp and LAPD hope to use the arts as one way for the Skid Row community to connect with themselves, maybe it can also be a way for those who live outside of Skid Row to connect with those inside of it.
I hope so. Skid Row is 10 minutes from USC — it shouldn’t be so easy to drive away from.
Jackie Mansky is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “City of Angeles,” runs Tuesdays.