Several days ago, as I drove through L.A.’s Skid Row, I was blown away at how much things had changed in L.A. while I was living in different cities: Seattle, Greenwich and Stamford (CT), and New York. I had not been to this part of downtown in many years–probably 20. Since relocating back to Los Angeles fulltime a few months ago I’ve visited the downtown area four times, including three times to volunteer for a film festival being held at L.A Live. The fourth, for an interview in the Ernst and Young building. Making my way through Skid Row I was struck by the unabashed poverty. Since moving back, a few times I’ve found myself stunned at the distinctions of those getting by and those getting richer. Once a subtlety, the nuances of this multifaceted, multicultural city have become much more difficult to interpret.
But Skid Row? I was aghast. I am not sure why I am taken aback at something that has been troubling for decades. Perhaps my own circumstance has forced me to see things in a more discernible light. Once, while living in Paris, I was accused of being “materialistic” by Americans I associated with. Those same Americans would view me differently today. While I never perceived myself as materialistic, I understood back then that living in L.A. came with certain stigmas. That has since changed because the city has become extraordinarily diverse and complex. This is no longer Tinseltown. Like the dry, withering palm trees because of the drought, the City of Angels is not as charming as it once was. Among other things, Los Angeles no longer holds its economic power and national importance as it did in my youth.
When I moved to L.A. in the mid-70s, the starving actor waiting tables or the struggling screenplay writer tending bar and doing chauffeur gigs to at least make the once-affordable L.A. rent could pull off being middle-class: a studio apartment in Hollywood with enough left over to eat, get into a nightclub or two and buy drinks, and to put gas in a decent car (which back then was absolutely essential in L.A., and gasoline was très cheap). When I first moved here there was nothing cooler than living in Los Angeles. If you wanted to be real you moved to Manhattan, but if you wanted to be cool you lived in L.A. It had perks: the sun, the beaches, the casual but trend-setting lifestyle. It was–at least it was my mind-set at the time–the place to be. Citroëns, TR6s, Rolls-Royces and MGBGTs were plentiful on the road; no SUVs. People lunched at chic restaurants in tennis outfits, and the Hollywood types (i.e., wannabes) drank Perrier at sidewalk cafés. With its looping freeways and sprawling panorama, albeit laid back, Los Angeles was a bit of a superficial town in those days.
Back in the day, law enforcement worked at containing Skid Row, and its breadth was not nearly as extreme. In 2014, roughly 5,000 homeless occupy 50 city blocks. As I made my way to my destination, I caught sight of a man sleeping in the curb on Alameda. Briefly, while at a red light, I said a quiet prayer. (Subconsciously I hoped that he was alive, but then later I would ask myself why. What kind of life is this? In what way is God using this man? This man’s purpose is to suffer?) He was a block away from the cluster of other homeless that crowded the two blocks of Skid Row I’d just travelled through, as some slept on worn sofas, various other pieces of furniture they managed to confiscate around the area, and cardboard boxes. Shopping carts and plastic bags were everywhere; perhaps containing personal belongings. The man sleeping in the curb wasn’t a part of the party-like atmosphere and rowdiness of the others. He just wanted to sleep. Making my way to Factory Place, just blocks from Skid Row where artsy lofts make up the Art District, I couldn’t shake the sadness I felt each time I swallowed. How—or rather why—does this happen? America is still considered a Superpower; irrespective of downgrades and economic woes. Whether it has become a myth or not, we preserve the image of being the wealthiest country in the free world. Redefining oneself is possible here. We greet the tired, poor, and huddled masses at the entryway because our country was founded, in part, on freedom and opportunity. How can a country with so many resources allow this to happen to its citizens? I’d like to see the data that can adequately explain (or even justify) the why. Have politicians distanced themselves from this, or has no policy been effective, or is the task so daunting they have just given up trying?
The homelessness I’d witnessed stirred me for a minute, and in a way I might not have been stirred before; at least not about something like this. I, myself, have walked over or around plenty of homeless in my day, but likewise have stopped to offer a little something. This is not the L.A. I once held in high regard; defended. Even when I was living elsewhere, L.A. remained my adoptive home. The struggling artist is now a barista, working at Chipotle, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. He or she is no longer a waiter or parking cars for a living until their agent gets them a role on a TV pilot. The would-be artists that come from small towns across America now live in two-bedroom flats they find on Craigslist and share with five other people and a dog or two. Undoubtedly, among the thousands of homeless on Skid Row there are some who once had that same Hollywood Dream that faded due to circumstances, or life in L.A.