CityDig: How Skid Row Became a Gathering Place for the Homeless

This map depicts the downtown district where the down-and-out congregate as it appeared in 1921
Baist Real Estate Atlas, George William Baist, 1921
Baist Real Estate Atlas, George William Baist, 1921

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Recently, Mayor Garcetti and the City Council pledged to spend $100 million to eradicate homelessness in Los Angeles, a problem our city has faced for over a century. This 1921 atlas sheet shows the ever expanding area we know as Skid Row, where the homeless sleep on the streets just blocks away from luxury condos and revamped restaurants and bars.

Skid Row may now cover some 50 blocks of downtown (Main to Alameda between 3rd and 7th), but as we can see here, much of that area began as vineyards. Near the intersection of 6th and Maple streets on the map, the tracts, though developed, are still named after vineyard lands like Reyes Vineyard, Moreno Vineyard, and Rivara & Vignolo. That part of the city was agricultural land until the railroads came in and re-calibrated downtown.

The vineyards and orchards employed seasonal workers for planting and harvesting, and the farm hands—along with railroad workers—needed short-term housing. Small hotels, cafes, saloons, and houses of ill repute all sprang up to cater to the new residents, who were mostly male.

After the grand Arcade Station depot was completed near 4th and Alameda in 1888, the Skid Row we know today began to form. The depot was a point of arrival for migrants, many of whom eventually gravitated to nearby streets that offered cheap temporary housing. When this map was made, there were scores of small hotels packed into the mean streets: the Huey, the Johnston, the Hudson, Hotel Spokane, the Earl Boy, the Weldon, the Blaine, the Doane, King Edward, the Leonide, the Rennie, the Poinsettia, the Clarence, and the Buckeye.

When drought and the Great Depression drove thousands of Dust Bowl refugees from the South and Midwest out to L.A., poverty forced many to live on the streets of Skid Row. Despite the good work of religious organizations and rescue missions, the sad stories and number of homeless only multiplied.

By the 1950s, Skid Row had been filled with flophouses, liquor stores, burlesque halls, pawn shops, greasy spoons, and hopelessness. Within a few blocks one could find the original, not-very-fun Hard Rock Cafe (300 E. 5th Street), California Transfusion Services (where men could sell their plasma), the New Follies, and four missions: Lower Lights, Emmanuel Baptist, Good News, and the venerable Union Rescue Mission (276 Main Street).

During the 1960s the neighborhood devolved as many of the poorly maintained old hotels failed to meet safety and fire codes and were demolished, cutting single-room occupancy housing in half. The situation has only grown more dire in the past decade. The recent economic downturns have only made matters worse, swelling the numbers of those living on the streets to an estimated 26,000. While $100 million may sound like a lot, it is only a baby step toward actually eliminating homelessness in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.