Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Skid Row, and Skid Row Lite

In January- internal way-too-far-in-advance programming note- I intend to head down to Los Angeles for vacation. Some particulars have to be sorted out yet, but that's the plan.

Originally, I was intending to vacation in early November and deciding between Los Angeles; San Francisco; and Portland, Oregon. However, I do work in retail, and we've been discouraged from taking vacations in November or December so that we may properly oversee you fighting over Lego Ninjago or Monster High or whatever it is that you'll be fighting over this year. This pushed things back to January, and pushed me south. I have no intention of spending a January vacation driving around northern Oregon, and while San Francisco is climate-controlled, the outlying areas I was hoping to go aren't, resulting in too much of the same problem. This, of course, left Los Angeles.

When my parents found out where I'd settled on going, the initial reaction was to say the least apprehensive. For one, there's the whole driving aspect. Driving in Los Angeles is famously harrowing, and I've never driven anywhere larger than Milwaukee or Minneapolis. But it was Los Angeles' more unsavory aspects that really scared them; my mom in particular. (She's not really a city girl.) In fact, the very first local landmark that was brought up by my mom was Skid Row. (NOTE, 1:20 AM: Mom says it was actually my dad, who visited Los Angeles a number of years ago, that brought up Skid Row. She's more worried about traffic. Got the two mixed up. Sorry about that, mom.)

Now, let's be clear: Skid Row is not a good place to find yourself. It is known as America's ultimate rock-bottom. The dumping ground- often literally- for the alcoholic, the addicted, the destitute, the physically handicapped and mentally wayward. The name for what is officially Central City East (although nobody calls it that in practice) is synonymous with ruined lives, with failure, with loss of hope, with being left on a sidewalk to drink and drug yourself to a miserable death amongst the sounds of gunfire from local gangs and your own silent tears.

It's not exactly a tourist hotspot.

To be sure, I've no intention of placing Skid Row on my itinerary. This is, after all, intended to be a vacation. However, even though I don't intend to go there, while I won't be at THE Skid Row, I can say I have witnessed A Skid Row, and having seen it, my heart goes out to anyone whose life has relegated them there.

For I have been to Hawaii.

Driving north on Oahu's west coast, as you near the last accessible stretch of the Farrington Highway before Ka'ena Point, you'll notice a lot of campsites, not all of them on the beach. Some are amongst the trees. They're not all campsites. Many of them are homes. They're not all occupied by the unemployed or the down-and-out, though my traveling party didn't realize that at the time when we drove along that stretch last November. Some are merely people for whom Oahu's sky-high housing prices have risen too sky-high to be able to find a home in which to live. They pack up camp in the morning (so as to get around local laws prohibiting residency), drive to work, then drive back and reset camp at night. It was an utter shock to us all to see this long stretch of road that contained so many people who considered the beautiful stretch of road we were driving on to be their last resort.

That stretch of road is far from unique in Hawaii, a state tied with Oregon for the third-highest homeless rate in America, behind Nevada and the District of Columbia. (California is next on the list, in fifth.) If people with jobs who would on the mainland likely be able to find housing are driven onto the side of the highway, you can imagine how the less fortunate make out. An ever-shifting array of local ordinances and police patrols, combined with the fact that Oahu is, after all, an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with all flights to more affordable locales prohibitively expensive, results in homeless camps emerging and moving all over the island despite all efforts by the local government to provide low-cost housing or at least shelter. And they must do this on a budget that is simply not equipped to handle such a wide-scale problem that geography forces them to handle themselves.

Not far west of Waikiki Beach, still within the part of Honolulu frequented by tourist trolleys, is Ala Moana Beach Park. You may know it best by a big black wall. (It might be a tarp. Not sure. Didn't check.) One day, while the rest of my group wanted to go east to visit Diamond Head and Hanauma Bay, I opted to go west and take a walk through Honolulu proper. My walk took me to Ala Moana, which as it turns out is probably the most enduring- and most dangerous- of these camps, not that I knew it at the time. Peppered throughout the park, there sat tents. Tarps and plywood arranged into the shape of tents. Shopping carts. Broken people, broken lives, sheltered in their tents, under trees, under several layers of clothing in some cases, against walls, visible on Google Earth if you like, not so much surviving as existing. It was one of the most depressing sights of my life.

It was quickly followed by one of the most infuriating.

Directly across the street from Ala Moana Beach Park is the Ala Moana Shopping Center. Visible from the sidewalk of the park, one can see a storefront for Neiman Marcus.

Neiman. Marcus.

If there is one business establishment on Earth that defines "idle rich", Neiman Marcus is it. While day-to-day they mainly deal in high-end apparel, Neiman Marcus' very foundation revolves around selling overpriced testaments to audacious luxury to people with more money than sense. It is ingrained into their corporate culture as back in the 1950's, they began trying to score cheap headlines through offering something expensive and ridiculous in their Christmas catalog every year. It got to the point where by 1960, Edward R. Murrow and then-assistant Walter Cronkite would ring up then-owner Stanley Marcus directly to ask what outrageous thing was going on offer this year. They've made a business out of it ever since, while making sure to offer outrageous things at a wide variety of prices.

Over the years, Neiman Marcus has made available for sale in their Christmas catalog such things as his-and-her airplanes, a toy tiger encrusted with jewels (price: $1 million), a $130 14-ounce tin of caviar (with airmail rush delivery), a milk-chocolate Monopoly board (price: $600), a Dallas Cowboys endzone in your backyard (price: $500,000), and a truckload of pink air.

Outside of Christmas, in fact available now on their website, you will find such things as:

*A $300 Christmas ornament
*A $250 crystal candy heart
*A $421 fork
*This $4,000 whatever the hell it is
*And don't forget the gourmet online food court, where you can order such things as $85 worth of Maine lobster pot pies.

This monument to frivolity stands one street crossing (two if you count the median) and what might as well be a galaxy away from a group of some of the most desperate people on the island, almost as if to taunt them as time and again, someone with little idea what to do with their money, instead of using it to help their most helpless of fellow men, instead buys a $605 set of envelopes or something, right in plain sight of those same helpless.

The only reason I did not march into the mall's food court and buy lunch for one of those people right then and there is that, as far as I could see, they happened to be asleep, and I didn't want to wake them up. I ended up feeling immensely guilty about it. I still do. As a tourist from deep inside the mainland, I couldn't offer housing, or a job, but I could have at least offered a meal. Later in the trip, I would try to make the slight up to myself and to the homeless community by seeking out some other person in similar circumstances and buying that person a meal, but it still felt kind of hollow, like I was now forcing it. And the person I ended up buying a meal was in a much better-trafficked part of town, and was in better position to be helped than those who I passed up and would not pass again for the remainder of the trip.

At least it was something, I guess.

It is still nothing close to the Skid Row of Los Angeles infamy, but they share at least one similarity. Only a handful of blocks away is the start of the Los Angeles skyline, as stark a contrast as that on either side of Ala Moana Boulevard. The nearby development even provides a sort of visual cue as to where Skid Row is. The streets get grimier, the skyline fades from view. The border streets are like an asphalt River Styx: on one side of the street, prosperity and life; on the other, pain and death.

Instead of shifting campsites strewn across an entire landmass, Skid Row is a concentrated community that has endured for decades, and its population centralizes on one street in particular, San Julian Street. To some, Skid Row is not a neighborhood; it is this one single street. No report about Skid Row is complete without a visit there. And despite sincere efforts by a number of blessed souls to help the residents get out of Skid Row and back on their feet, their more powerful local peers only blocks away are more interested in the increasingly attractive and potentially valuable land on which they sit. Their inclination is to get the residents out of Skid Row, arresting them if need be (most commonly through jaywalking tickets that cost more than the homeless person's net worth), and then to consider the problem solved. As if a magician's cape had been waved and they all just vanished into thin air. The only reason they have not is a decade of legal battles fought by the charities, clinics and shelters on the ground.

Part of the reason for Skid Row becoming Skid Row is because homeless services have been concentrated in that area of town, to the point where people are directed there for services, even as the police attempt to direct them right back out. Attempts at development are short-lived, as the concentration of services means there are few other places in Los Angeles for those who need help to go. But even if Skid Row were to be cleaned out and developed to its limit without truly helping those who have been driven there, they aren't going to just march into the ocean and drown themselves. They will merely go somewhere else. Perhaps multiple somewhere elses, like on Oahu. And you don't know, or get to decide, where they'll pick, unless services are spread more evenly throughout the city.

Failing to do so would make a Los Angeles life, not to mention a vacation, much less safe.

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