I had a few hours before a gallery opened that showcased the art of LeRon Wilson, an artist I met in Detroit in 2019. It was in LA’s Arts District. I was dropped off on the corner of Alameda and Sixth. In the south, the towers of downtown. Behind me, warehouses, lofts, galleries. I decided to walk toward downtown to see a building I had failed to visit during my past trips to the City of Angels, John Portman’s Westin Bonaventure Hotel. It was made famous by its prominence in a book that in 1991 made postmodernism the leading theory of what many considered to be a new social order, Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. My plan was to walk to the hotel, take pictures of it, and think about it. But after walking two or three blocks in downtown’s direction, I found myself in what should have been a slum but was not. It was just row upon row of tents and tarp and misery and human shit (I first mistook it for dog shit). I put one and one together and realized I was in Skid Row.
And like that African ghost story where a person eternally walks, at dusk, toward a home that’s never reached, the more and more I walked, the more the towers of downtown refused to get nearer. I finally found a corner with lots of traffic, looked on my phone for my location on Google Maps, and found a wormhole out of an economic depression that had few comparisons. It was a bar—the High Tide. It was only a block away. I walked up the street, turned to the west, and there it was. A security guard was posted at its entrance. I showed him my ID and vaccination card and entered an establishment whose theme was a tropical island.
Cue “City of Angeles” by 10,000 Maniacs:
Heaven, is this heaven where we are?
See them walking, if you dare
If you call that walking
Stumble, stagger, fall and drag themselves
Along the streets of heaven
That’s what I heard when I walked into the High Tide. How was my name known here of all places? Was I mistaking myself? Maybe I did not survive that nightmare after all. Maybe I was not me but a ghost of me. Maybe that private security guard was actually Peter. Heaven had accepted me without believing in God during my days in time. One of the pink flamingos on the bar’s wall was standing on one foot in a pool of tropical-warm water.
It turned out the bartender had once worked at Pioneer Square’s Damn the Weather. I did not know her, but she was familiar with my work. After we talked about her time in Seattle and her second job in LA, which had been doing booming business because of the pandemic (cremating soulless humans), I gave my Skid Row walk some thought, and this is what I came up with.
The key problem was its suspension between the politics of the right, which has considerable policy force, and the politics of the left, which always a policy force that’s easily compromised. As a consequence, Skid Row can’t become a slum (the way out of this political impasse), though it has the concentration of one. What this meant is it had none of the benefits of a slum and all of the misery of living on the streets. And yes, there is a huge difference between the streets and a slum. The former cannot develop from its starting point, which is basically camping. The latter, like the Hooverville in Depression-era Seattle, and also what you find in much of the Global South today, might start with shacks but is considerably more open to improvements inspired by human ingenuity. The Tokyo of today evolved from post-War slums. A street blocks human intervention and demands submission. How can you build even a basic latrine pit in the middle of Grand Avenue?
The left has to understand that there have been only two solutions to housing the poor in a capitalist economic order. One is slums. The other is public housing. Skid Row wasn’t always about camping. It was once a slum composed of cheap housing, most of which took the form of hotels. It was meant to be a place that guaranteed “a meal and a bed.” But in the 1970s—the end of the post-war social democratic experiment, the age of urban renewal—a massive number of this area’s hotel units were demolished. What was left? Only the streets. And this is exactly where I found, on a sunny late winter LA day, many who had gone way beyond the skids.
The right (which always has the upper hand) will not let a city have slums or public housing, and so this leaves the left with the worst option possible: camping on streets. Tents are easy to remove. In fact, you do not demolish them; you can just sweep them, as we are doing in Seattle.
‼️ hella cops at city hall encampment, area taped off and ready to clear ‼️
“it’s important to keep the busiest sidewalks in the city open and accessible to all” says the Downtown Seattle Association. This fence makes this sidewalk neither open nor accessible. Sweeps are not about compassion or accessibility. They’re about power. https://t.co/WykALbmxhR pic.twitter.com/avy7mfGYrj
— Devin Silvernail (@silvernailsea) March 10, 2022
Let’s get pessimistic at this point, and for the purpose of not being overwhelmed but to truly understand the power that’s available to those who protect and further the interest of the rich. The fact is the US would have no public housing whatsoever if it weren’t for one great war in the 1910s and a massive economic crash that plunged the 1930s into a depression that had no equal. Only then was public housing, the far better option for housing poor in a surplus value regime, even considered. And some of the leading urban planning minds of those times made progressive proposals that the government considered, but were watered down by the time they were implemented. This is the sad story of the left and housing in the US. It happens over and over and over again.
Historian Steven Conn writes in his 2014 book Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century:
The push for public housing, clearly a high priority for American cities, reached a climax of sorts in 1937, with the passage of the Wagner Public Housing Act, the second major housing act of the New Deal. [Catherine] Bauer, along with the veteran Progressive reformer Mary Simkhovitch, helped draft that legislation.
The act proved an incomplete triumph at best. As it emerged in its final form, it provided money for slum clearance, but it limited the availability of public housing to the poor, cementing the equation between public housing and poverty that haunts it to this day. The act gave a great deal of discretion to local authorities over where such housing could be built, and it created strict construction cost limits for projects. Thus did public housing become synonymous with bad neighborhoods and shoddy building. Bauer and Simkhovitch might have helped draft the bill, but the final version of it had the footprints of the real estate lobby all over it.
And this is where we still are today. The right will give the homeless nothing but the streets because they produce a spectacle of wretchedness that wins them wide support from voters who are provided no other options to the crisis than sweeps.