Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Academic Postering

Professor Slater,
I’m writing you in response to your ill-informed op-ed on gentrification in downtown Los Angeles. I’m sure by now that you’ve heard from others about the factual errors in your article, such as the wrong assumption that loft conversions are happening to SRO hotels (almost every loft conversion downtown has been of underutilized office space, and there is currently a ban on SRO conversions) and even more egregiously, your description of the homeless being “literally swept and hosed out” of their encampments. I witnessed the cleaning of the skid row sidewalks first hand, and in no way was it as you described. It was instead the kind of orderly street maintenance that one usually sees in cities, and that one rarely sees on Skid Row. No homeless were hosed out, as you so vividly wrote. That you would use such a simple act as hosing down sidewalks as the entrée into your argument tells me that your argument was decided upon long before you happened upon this particular “fact”. If you had gone looking for evidence about the sidewalk cleaning, you would have learned a different story that did not fit your pre-conceived thesis. Since I both work in Skid Row and until recently lived in the neighborhood, I can tell you that regular cleaning the streets would be just a basic start to reversing the historic neglect of this neighborhood. Professor, I’ve lived in the “third world”, in some real poverty-struck places, but I’ve never seen the kind of physical filth one sees on the streets of Los Angeles. To leave people lying amongst human waste, used syringes, used condoms and discarded colostomy bags is doing no one a service. Sweeping and cleaning the streets is the minimum of what this city should be doing.

But then again, your whole article was a lovely bit of theory at odds with the facts on the ground. Skid Row in Los Angeles comprises the epicenter for the largest homeless population in North America, a statement that has been true since the 1970’s, long before the very recent and still rather tenuous renewed interest in downtown living. Los Angeles County has a homeless population of over 90,000 that dwarfs the small population of loft-dwelling downtown residents. Most of these homeless folks are there for two reasons, drug addiction and mental illness. We’re not talking about the kind of transitional homeless that one sees often in other parts of the country, people who have lost their housing through economic circumstance and who are struggling to find a new home. These are the long term, people incapable of fulfilling even the base requirements of caring for themselves. Cut the rents by 75% in Los Angeles, and you would still have this population on the streets. Gentrification is affecting a small corner of downtown Los Angeles, and has done little to change the larger dynamic of downtown as both a warm weather beacon for transients and a regional dumping ground for the homeless from throughout the area. If you wanted to actually address the real issues that create the homeless problem in L.A. maybe you could have talked about the severe under-policing of downtown, the dumping of medical patients, the blind eye turned to an open-air drug market, and the long-term unofficial policy of shipping the addicted and mentally ill to this neighborhood; instead you use your precious bullhorn on the Times editorial page to bring up the factually erroneous idea that a few loft conversions have forced people out of their homes, people that I would remind you are simply incapable of living on their own without real help.

Your one stab at an actual explanation even missed its mark, professor. It wasn’t the Reagan Presidential Administration that adopted the disastrous policy of “deinstitutionalization”. It was the Reagan governorship of California in the late 60’s-early 70’s that started this trend, abetted by advocates of the mentally ill who didn’t bother to plan out what would happen to the deinstitutionalized. The mentally ill are almost totally a state responsibility in the U.S., and it was Ronald Reagan’s actions as governor, which were widely followed across the country, that precipitated the wholesale release of the mentally ill onto the streets. By the time Reagan became President, Skid Row in L.A. was already in its deplorable state. I know because I’m a lifelong resident of the city, which you seem to have visited a few times.

But then again, what are facts and experience when held up against a good gestalt theory? Unfortunately professor, your theory is one that will do damage. Downtown Los Angeles is just starting to revive; it’s still largely a ghost town on evenings and weekends, populated only by the sad figures of the wandering neglected. As more attention comes to downtown, as more people connect with it, move here, come here for entertainment, participate in the neighborhood, increasing awareness of the problems of Skid Row is happening. This is what downtown really needs, more people who feel an actual stake in the neighborhood and what happens here. I’ve witnessed in the last five years the death of the old neglectful business establishment in downtown and the birth of a resident-driven neighborhood council that is worried about far more then real estate values. Yes, our neighborhood is changing, but this is still the most disgracefully neglected neighborhood in America. Change must happen. It cannot continue as it was. Downtown’s problem is not I-Pod’s and latte’s. Downtown’s problem is hardcore drug addiction and mental illness. We’re fighting that fight as best we can. The last thing we need is an academic with a grand theory stepping in and lecturing us. As my nation has learned most recently in its foreign adventuring, big theories are no replacement of actual facts, knowledge, and experience on the ground. As a downtown L.A. resident with just such experience, all I can say about your article is that you are not.

Then again, what do I know about Bristol? Nothing, really. So I’ll refrain from writing op-ed’s in the Bristol Evening Post.

Spencer Windes
Downtown Los Angeles


Anonymous said...

Wow, how did I miss that sorry OpEd piece in the Times? Thanks for pointing it out, and for producing a far more enlightened rebuttal. I remember the Reagan mental health cuts and hospital closures when he was governor. He crowed about all the money he was saving the state, but no one ever explained where all of those patients would go.

5:41 PM  

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