Monday, August 20, 2007

Iron Butterflies

As I was reading earlier this week about Jamie Foxx's upcoming role as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Skid Row homeless musician turned Disney concert hall performer -- it reminded that I wanted to go back to the multi-part Skid Row feature I read in the LA Times right after we moved downtown.

(photo is of Joe Michaels - Francine Orr/LAT 2005)

Over the course of a month - October of 2005 - LA Times reporter Steve Lopez authored a series of articles looking at the desparation and insanity of life on Skid Row. Someone in San Francisco actually told me about it, when we moved to 4th & Main I finally read it. It's a hard series to read and I can only imagine how hard it was to write. Lopez toured the missions, the alleys and the support services that house the homeless pandemic in downtown Los Angeles. His story even got the attention of the Mayor who turns up in the wheelchair piece meeting the homeless in the courtyard at the Midnight Mission.

I don't know much about Steve Lopez beyond what's in his biography on the Times website. But I know that if you read his series - and you may not get through the whole thing - but if you do read it, you will take away a humanizing picture of a crisis that all of us living downtown are trying to get our heads around.

Click here for a link to the stories Steve wrote back in 2005. I'm not sure much has changed since then.

One thing that frustrates me about living downtown is feeling that one way or another, we are all looking the other way; because we have to maybe - or because we don't know what else to do. I try to be informed and understand the issues but after that I am at a loss. I'm not opposed to volunteering or trying to getting involved, but I'm pretty sure we can't volunteer our way out of this one. It will take a citywide, series of initiatives that tackle what are clearly long term problems to deal with the spectrum of issues that this community is facing.

One night Orlando Ward, who heads the Midnight Mission, explained to me that you see a kind of bell curve in the homeless population. There are the recently evicted/recently homeless who maybe had a job but lost their apartment or vice versa and who have landed on the streets simply because they are poor and lacking a safety net (this is often the case for homeless families/kids). Then there is another shade of folks who started out in that boat, but who have since sucumbed to the hardening of the tented life and will struggle more to get back on their feet, after that there's a pretty sizeable population that is facing drug/alcohol addiction along with living on the street and whether it was a cause or effect some level of depression or mental illness. Then the curve drops off to the other end of folks who have no chance. They have either been homeless for so long or have such severe mental illness that the damage might be irretrievable. I imagine some of these folks who are older could be victims of Reagan-era VA closures or cuts in funding for housing for the mentally ill. Where schizophrenia or severe untreated depression combined with the hopelessness of their situation have had devastating effects.

Ward says for the people on extreme ends of the "bell curve" there are more obvious solutions for those at the beginning of their stay on the streets - housing might be all that's needed. For the folks at the other end of the curve it might be long term inpatient treatment. It's the folks in the middle in the most complicated spot. I went to a meeting at the James Woods' center where one formerly homeless activist said "if you haven't been homeless you can't imagine how low your self esteem gets, you just get used to people looking at you like you have a tail." I couldn't shake that thought. The feeling of invisibility, of shame and the way that might shatter your psyche.

In the end I think it is the labryinth of addiction, of mental illness, the sheer anxiety of having no place to live, no place that is safe and no guarantee of the basic requisites for life, food, water, shelter that leaves I think many politicians bewildered. Where even to begin? And for many it seems like a long-term problem in what for many elected officials is a short term career. Most politicians want a fight they can win, something they can point to as they term out of one office and head for another. It's hard to imagine Skid Row fitting that bill.

Still, I have been waiting for some kind of platform of issues to emerge maybe from City Hall - or the City Council - waiting for one of our leaders to step to the plate and say if we did x, y & z we'd be on track to making improvements in this nightmare. But I gotta say it seems like a slow train coming.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Just the messenger for the good folks at the Cornerstorne Theater Co.
LOS ANGELES, August 16, 2007—For three nights only on September 6-8, Cornerstone Theater Company will block off Traction Avenue in the Los Angeles Downtown Arts District to present a whimsical street edition of Suzan-Lori Parks' 365 Days/365 Plays. Intricate shadow puppetry, mod dance, and film projected onto industrial buildings will be just some of the elements included in the company’s contribution to the largest theater festival in U.S. history. 365 Days / 365 Plays

Written by Suzan-Lori Parks

Directed by Lynn Jeffries, Shishir Kurup, Page Leong, Jennifer Li & Laurie Woolery
September 6, 7 & 8 (Thursday-Saturday) at 8:30pm
At Joel Bloom Square
Located outside the Cornerstone Theater Company office at 708 Traction Avenue, between East Third and Hewitt Streets in the downtown Arts District, Los Angeles, CA 90013
For more information, call 213-613-1700 x33
or visit

Dirty heroin & the bloody baseball bat...

Well at least life downtown isn't boring... This week one downtownhound blogger witnessed the endgame of a beating at 4th & Winston that rolled out like so - two angry guys, a fight over a woman and one victim left bloody after a fight involving a baseball bat. Yikes. At 11AM no less. At Winston & Main St. Our morning coffee was improved after we met two beat street cops assigned to the block. Apparently drugs are on the rise, as are beatings and fights and apparently a more recent incursion of some MS-13 activity. More on that later. The fuzz advised us that they have been recently sent to spend their days on foot keeping Main St. safe and pushing out an incursion of drugs. We told them about the baseball bat incident, they said there have been fights on the rise and some seems to stem from an influx of dirty heroin. As if being a heroin addict isn't bad enough, you find out you've been shooting up melted down BeeGees records.

MS-13, Reagan & that damn cold war...

Any-hoo, officer #1 bummed a smoke and continued sharing with us this delightful factoid, there's been a surfacing by MS-13 in downtown. If you don't know who they are, stop reading now because you're blissfully ignorant and I recommend carrying on that way. If you do know who they are then you know that MS-13 is nothing you want any part of. MS-13 stands for Mara (army ant, also La Mara a street in San Salvador) Salvatrucha (Salvadoran + alert) - 13 from a merger with the Mexican Mafia. The Salvatrucha are one of the deadliest gangs at least on the continent. Likely in the world. They are a local born gang traced to the Pico-Union/ Rampart neighborhood two decades ago - but really born out of a bloody civil war that the US was on the wrong side of.

The El Salvadoran civil war raging in the early 1980's and which killed a reported 70,000 Salvadorans and sent thousands of Salvadoran immigrants north over the border, was only exacerbated by the election of President Reagan in 1980. Prior to 1979, El Salvador was ruled by Carlos Humberto Romero and his military government. Romero had succeeded Colonel Arturo Armando Molina two years earlier; both Molina and Romero ran "de facto" military dictatorships, deeply repressive and violent to the citizens of El Salvador. Romero was overthrown in 1979 in a reformist coup. For 2 years resistance groups struggled against the military. By 1981, five Salvadoran revolutionary resistance groups had organized with several guerrilla groups in El Salvador and established the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion or FMLN) and began to maintain control of key strongholds. In August of 1981, France and Mexico officially recognized the FMLN and their political legitimacy.

The inauguration of Reagan changed everything. The administration's Cold War outlook oriented their empathy not with the leftist rebels. but with a military government that looked more likely to crack down on an communist insurgencies. As a result. the Reagan administration sent aid to the El Salvadoran military, the civil war raged on for another decade, backed by US resources in "a conflict reportedly fueled by billions of dollars in aid from the United States government". It wasn't until 1989 and the brutal murder of six Jesuit priests a housekeeper and a young girl that the international community intervened. Massachusetts Congressman Joe Moakely was tasked, by then Speaker Tom Foley, with heading a congressional task force into US foreign policy in El Salvador. Moakley was horrified by what he discovered and felt the Reagan administration was deeply dishonest about the status of the war in El Salvador. Congresional aid James McGovern wrote: "The United States did not cause the war in El Salvador. But our policy did help prolong a war that cost tens of thousands of innocent lives. Had we used our influence earlier to promote a negotiated settlement, many might have survived. We in the United States need to acknowledge that fact. In particular, our leaders need to acknowledge that fact. There was an arrogance about U.S. policy that rationalized, explained away and even condoned a level of violence against he Salvadoran people that would have been intolerable if perpetrated against our own citizens."

Finally the United Nations sponsored talks in 1992 to broker a landmark peace accord that has largely been honored to this day. A quote from Reinaldo Figueredo of the UN Truth Commission lays the foundation for a country reeling from violence: "In examining the staggering breadth of the violence that occurred in El Salvador, the Commission was moved by the senselessness of the killings, the brutality with which they were committed, the terror that they created in the people, and in other words the madness, or locura, of the war."

Ultimately, it was the influx of immigrants from the civil war that sent thousands of Salvadorans into Los Angeles and specifically Mexican-American gang territory. As a result, the Salvadorans created their own gangs to defend against the already established Mexican gangs. Over time they aligned with the largest hispanic gang in the US the Los Surenos or Sur-13 upon doing so MS became MS-13. According to a 2005 Justice Department "threat assessment" report the MS-13 were reported "... in the jurisdictions of 145 law enforcement agencies across the country, although only 12.1 percent of respondents indicated that this gang had moderate to high activity. MS-13 was present in 31 states." The report continued... With growing numbers of undocumented persons in the region, investigators are seeing increases in Mexican and Central-American gangs in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. One of the more prominent gangs,MS-13 is recognized by investigators as the most fearless...MS-13 has also been found to be a serious threat in Massachusetts.This gang, with between 75 and 100 members in the state, has an affinity for excessive violence and little respect for law enforcement."

For their crimes many have been deported back to Central America resulting in recruitment from the major cities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Multinational by nature the gang is managed both by gang leaders in the US and in El Salvador -where they are considered highly organized and highly disciplined -, Honduras and Guatemala. They are not a trifling group. They are alleged to be the largest gang in Central America and credited with the kidnapping and assassination in 1997, of the Honduran President Ricardo Maduro. Newsweek called them, The Most Dangerous Gang in America and in
In December 2004, the FBI launched a multi-agency MS-13 National Gang Task Force - noted as the first of its kind. **Also check this story from the NY Times.

Not trying to be a fearmonger I swear. I have read about MS-13 a lot over the years and I thought it was time to understand them better...

A little more just about downtown...

All this talk of gangs got me on the website for a little research. I think for the most part downtown still looks pretty safe. I searched the LAPD crime maps for all reported crime within two miles of the Old Bank District over the last seven days and I found:
  • 7 counts of personal theft
  • 7 counts of theft from a vehicle
  • 8 aggravated assaults
  • 6 instances of grand theft auto (not the game btw there's probably more than 6 of those downtown)
  • 3 violent robberies
  • 3 burglaries
  • 0 rape
  • 0 homicide
I search the gang injunction maps and the funny thing is that downtown while is smack in the "central zone" which is home to among others - Big Hazard, Krazy Ass Mexicans, Varrio Nuevo Estrada, 38th St., 42nd Street Gangster Crips, Harpys, MS-13, 18th Street, Crazy Riders, Down In Action (DIA), Krazy Town (KTO), La Raza Loca, Orphans, Rockwood St. Locos, Varrio Vista Rifa, Wanderers, Witmer St. Locos - is basically gang-free. The closest gang presence is the MS-13 outline that runs from Olympic to the south to the 101 to the north and looks to be between Western to the West and Lucas to the East. I attribute this to the lack of housing downtown, mostly it's lofts, SRO's and high-rises. I am guessing the demographic of gangs requires more houses and apartment buildings, probably not a lot of gangbangers checking into the run down SRO's of Skid Row or the upturned lofts of the Toy District; only an educated guess, I'm no criminologist.

All that to say, I hope our new friends on the street beat are wrong about MS-13.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Goodbye Joe's Parking...

So I live at 4th & Main and I'm trying to get my head around the new Medallion Project going in next door (where they broke ground this week). From the start the word "medallion" puts me off. It conjures up the kind of generic mixed-use development I've seen from Seattle to LA. It makes me think of yellow siding and sage green trim, a Starbucks on the ground floor, maybe even a Gap. I hope that's not what the blueprinters have in mind at 4th & Main. We moved here, as I imagine a lot of people did, because of the historic feel of the neighborhood. It's precisely because Pete's is not the Daily Grille and the Banquette is not Starbucks that we feel like we can lounge around day and night, with our friends and neighbors, 42 dogs tied to the rail. It is the distinct lack of sterility that makes 4th and Main such a pleasant place to live. (note that in the rendering Mr Farkhondepour has rerouted traffic to make Main St. 2-way - phew that would make it easier to get into the parking garage.) Now on the subject of sterile development... I hate it as a rule. So I'm trying to figure out how to reconcile that with the fact that the NE corner of 4th & Main (both the parking lot and the sidewalk) are NASTY. The parking lot is full of rats and cockroaches and aside from the regular traffic of studio trucks and craft service tents - it's pretty deserted. Furthermore, it does seem like having a parking lot inhabit an entire city block is wasteful and really the opposite of a plan seeking urban density.

I know Gilmore is a controversial man in our neighborhood and some folks like him more than others, I haven't formed a real personal opinion of him, but I feel like the consensus is that he has created a charming life for the few hundred people that populate his holdings. I fear that the Medallion potentially sits in contrast to the cozy, bohemian vibe cultivated by Gilmore & Co.

The developers says his goal is to connect the project to the surrounding neighborhood. From the LA Daily News:
"Blueprints show an intricate layout of buildings crisscrossed by public alleys
and separated by plazas that will increase the flow in and out of the complex... "It's nine separate buildings and because of the way it is broken up, it is not going to have the big long block that's typical in L.A." ... said Farkhondepour. A wide pedestrian road will stretch from where Boyd Street dead-ends into Los Angeles Street across Medallion's lot and exit to Main Street with a wide staircase. Another thoroughfare will run north-south... A roughly one-acre plaza will mark where these paths intersect near the southwest corner of the block. There, plans call for a lawn-covered platform that will sit on top of a single story of stores and hold food kiosks. Farkhondepour said that he wants a variety of eateries to fill the bottom floors and have their seating flow out into the plaza... An amphitheater-style staircase will look out toward a smaller residential building with ground-floor retail. That could hold a large screen for projecting movies. To the west of the plaza, running along Main Street, will be a two-level row of restaurants and shops. The building's style will be a modern version of the historic structures to the south, with cornices and tidy rectangular windows. "The ideal situation for us is to copy properties in the Santee Alley area, and have all that weekend traffic. That's why we have the small spaces with big front-facing windows, to have the feel of an outdoor shopping mall but with all the security and the landscaping of private ownership," said Farkhondepour. A pocket park will fill the corner of Third and Main streets. Farkhondepour said he is looking for a small grocery store to fill a 12,000-square-foot storefront."

It all sounds good I guess but the secret is the execution, if it's executed badly it could at worst an eyesore at best a really corporate feeling development. Let's hope "Medallion" isn't code for “Medici". Also I don't want to take any shots at Santee because it actually seems like a decent place, but I've been over there a couple of times and really nothing about Santee is integrated into the street - there is a small entrance leading into the convenience store and leasing office and from the food court to the sidewalk, but Santee should not be the model for how to integrate new development - at street level- into an existing neighborhood.
I am always full of mixed feelings when I think about where downtown is headed. On the one hand it's obvious that it won't stay like this forever and it's far from perfect. My hope is that downtown develops without too much corporatization. It's hard to explain what it is but you know it when you see it. It's anywhere USA - Cheesecake Factory, Banana Republic, Borders... all the things that make cities feel like malls. There are cities that hold their urban core without sucumbing but I think it's hard when development comes late. But San Francisco, Seattle and Portland have managed to let development in without surrendering to chain domination of the urban landscape.
It requires vigilence though, in San Francisco there are citywide ordinances that specifically address chain retailers and provide much greater restrictions for their location and development. This is true in Seattle as well. The development that occurred in Seattle in the early '90's placed tremendous emphasis on cultivating charm and neighborhoods over the invasion of Outback Steakhouse and Borders... That's not to say Seattle, Portland and SF aren't populated by large retailers - it's just that they are kept in balance with urban development. But we can't rely on the Farkhondepour's of the world to look after urban planning - that responsibilities rests with the City Council, the Mayor's office and the CRA. It's on their shoulders to manage this redevelopment smartly.