A Short History of Skid Row

By: Dave Roos  | 
woman walks past a Skid Row sign
A woman walks past a Skid Row sign pointing out a population of "Too Many" in Los Angeles, California, April 26, 2021. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Tourists from around the world travel to Los Angeles to visit Disneyland, stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame, take in world-class museums and watch the sunset from the Santa Monica Pier.

What they don't expect to see is Skid Row, 50 city blocks in the heart of downtown Los Angeles where between 8,000 and 11,000 people live a precarious existence at the margins of society.


At any given time, between 2,000 to 3,000 Skid Row residents live on the streets in a "tent city" of tarps, blankets and boxes. Others live in shelters and the few remaining single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels. The most fortunate have mini-apartments of their own in new or renovated buildings built by nonprofits like the Skid Row Housing Trust.

The current population of Skid Row is predominantly Black and male, but the area attracts increasing numbers of women and children. Veterans make up about 20 percent of residents. Los Angeles has the highest percentage of "chronically homeless" people (i.e., people who have lived on the street for over a year) of any major metropolitan city in the U.S.

But how did Skid Row get this way? Why does an entire neighborhood in one of the world's wealthiest states remain walled off from the rest of the city and home to such a high concentration of people struggling with addiction, serious mental health issues and economic hardship?

It's a long and messy story, but here's a condensed history of Skid Row.


The First "Skid Row" Was in Seattle

Back in the 1850s, lumber was the lifeblood of the pioneer town of Seattle, Washington. In logging camps, a "Skid Road" was the name for a path carved out of the forest on which teams of oxen would drag the felled logs to the sawmill. In Seattle, most of the sawmills were down near the water and logs would be slid or "skidded" down from First Hill on steep streets lubricated with bacon grease or salmon oil to make the logs slide easier.

The area near the Seattle sawmills along the Skid Road was populated by lumberjacks and mill workers who spent their pay at the saloons and brothels that sprung up to entertain them. The unsavory district was called Skid Road or Skid Row and throughout the 20th century the nickname began to be applied to any city neighborhood of last resort for the destitute, addicted or otherwise down and out.


Starting in the late 19th century, the Bowery was the "last stop" for men down on their luck in New York City (known as "Bowery bums"), and became known as Skid Row in the 1940s. By the mid-20th century, there were Skid Rows in dozens of American cities, but the most famous one, and the one that has endured in the very same location for over a century, is Skid Row in Los Angeles.

Skid Row Christmas dinner, 1955
Some 2,000 Skid Row residents ate Christmas dinner at the Union Rescue Mission, Los Angeles in 1955. Union Rescue Mission still serves the homeless on Skid Row today.
Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images


The Railroad Comes to LA

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 with its final west coast destination in San Francisco. In the 1870s, Los Angeles convinced the railroads to extend a line down to Southern California, which was home to productive fruit orchards and vineyards.

The railroads needed a level surface to lay the tracks, so they chose a path along the Los Angeles River and built the first freight depots nearby. The orchards and vineyards drew seasonal workers to Los Angeles to pick and pack the crops and more workers to load the trains.


"All of these transitory workers needed places to live and the area around the train stations began to fill in with small hotels, bars and other facilities to serve them," says Donald Spivack, the former deputy chief of operations and policy at the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, and a historian of Skid Row.

The single-resident hotels, saloons and brothels that served the agricultural and rail workers — all young, single adult males — were the founding institutions of the neighborhood that would become Skid Row.

By the turn of the 20th century, oil had been discovered in Los Angeles, bringing even more young men out to work the oil fields and the shipping yards. Around the same time, the temperance movement was in full swing and the first charitable missions popped up in Skid Row to save "lost souls" from the bars and brothels and give those who needed it a place to stay.

The early 20th century brought the automobile industry and then the film industry to Los Angeles, transforming the sleepy agricultural outpost into an economic boom town. The railroads advertised Los Angeles as a tropical paradise and more Americans moved West to find their fortunes.

Then came the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that ravaged Midwestern farms, spurring even more economic migration westward. But there wasn't enough work in Los Angeles, and the hardest hit slept in train cards and hobo encampments down by the rail yards or rented rooms in the dilapidated SRO hotels.

Spivack says that the 1930s saw the beginning of a "permanent underclass" living in the hard-luck Los Angeles community that would become Skid Row.

homeless encampments
Entire blocks are packed with homeless encampments on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images


Why Skid Row Continues to Exist in Los Angeles

During World War II and the Korean War, Los Angeles was the departure and return city for tens of thousands of soldiers. Some of them came home suffering from PTSD, alcoholism and drug addiction. In Skid Row, they found a home.

By the 1960s, Skid Row was a downtrodden and dangerous place, and its existence in the heart of Los Angeles had scared away businesses. The city knew something needed to be done to save downtown, so it began enforcing stricter housing standards for the single resident hotels in Skid Row. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, roughly half of the SROs (comprising 7,500 units) were demolished in the name of urban renewal. But not all of them, says Spivack.


"Unlike most other cities that were using urban renewal to clear and demolish their Skid Row neighborhoods, LA made a conscious decision not to do that in 1976," says Spivack. "Instead, the public policy was that there should be a place for extremely low-income persons to be able to live."

The policy was humanitarian, on one hand, in that it preserved a place in the city for the poorest and most marginalized residents as well as the charities and social service organizations that served them. But it wasn't entirely altruistic, says Spivak. It was called the "containment strategy" since its goal was to contain this population within the 50 blocks of Skid Row and "discourage them from wandering through the rest of downtown."

By concentrating low-income housing and services in Skid Row, the city could attract investors to develop other parts of downtown.


The Future of Skid Row

The official name of the 50-block Skid Row neighborhood in Los Angeles is Central City East, and it's bordered by Little Tokyo to the north, the Fashion District to the south, the Arts District to the east and the Historic Core to the west.

Starting in the 1990s, Spivak says, these surrounding downtown neighborhoods began to attract investment and revitalization. Industrial warehouses were renovated as lofts and live/work spaces. Old banks and retail storefronts became boutique hotels and restaurants. As those surrounding neighborhoods gentrified, developers began to eye Skid Row as the next stop.


But the city has stood firm and has denied requests from developers to turn Skid Row into the next gentrified neighborhood with unaffordable housing.

"The city's policy still is that the city has an obligation to make sure there is a substantial amount of extra-low-income housing and accompanying social services in Skid Row," says Spivak.

The Skid Row Housing Trust has renovated or constructed nearly 30 residential buildings inside Skid Row, some that have on-site services like addiction recovery counseling, health and wellness classes (yes, there's yoga) and community activities like urban gardening.

Augustine Hurtado, Kevin Hall
Augustine Hurtado, 65, left, chats with Kevin Hall, a baker at Superior Grocers on Central Ave. in Los Angeles. Hall said he has a soft spot for Hurtado and other homeless customers because he once lived on Skid Row.
Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

But for those Skid Row residents who still live on the streets, life is a daily struggle. And the Los Angeles Police Department has also struggled to strike the right balance between keeping Skid Row safe and making life even harder for the people living there.

Spivak thinks that Skid Row should continue to exist into the future, but that "it shouldn't be the only destination."

"Los Angeles County is 4,000 square miles [10,360 square kilometers]; Skid Row is 50 city blocks," says Spivak. "You can't serve the entire county-wide need for housing and homeless services in a single, 50-block neighborhood. There really does need to be a decentralization of services."

In recent years, Spivak says that other cities in LA County have "stepped up" to offer their own low-income housing and homelessness support — namely Long Beach, Glendale, Pasadena and Santa Monica — but that other locales are still "very resistant."