What Los Angeles’s Skid Row Taught Me About Cities

Even among urban despair, there’s a “real order that is struggling to exist and to be served”

The title of my last Making of a Millionaire article on Medium makes me cringe:

Even the title of the publication I love writing for so much gives me pause — Making of a Millionaire.

As I wrote in the above-mentioned article:

Typically, when you hear somebody say, “I work two jobs,” you feel badly for the person. You assume they’re in some form of financial dire straits, or at least would be if they didn’t work two jobs.

And again, we’re never going to get away from privilege entering this equation. Even if you’re not super-rich or affluent, you’re probably privileged.

Chances are — given the demographics of the Medium audience and consumers of personal finance/money content in general — you are among the privileged class in that you have relatively flexible and/or comfortable work and make good money doing it. Or you’re well on your way there. You can see a bright future that permits this type of planning.

It sometimes makes me cringe to write articles from this perspective; however I’d be at a personal and professional standstill if I didn’t based merely on principle.

Because the reality is — no, we can’t all participate in an early retirement boom.

More broadly speaking, we don’t all glean the same benefits from this new economy that provides financial flexibility like I have never seen or experienced in my life. Flexibility in that you can structure your life in a more semi-retired way because of the work you do and the way you allocate your cash flow.

At the same time, we risk making assumptions when we take on this mindset.

As I have written in previous articles, there’s something to be said for everything from underground economies to people who run “ma and pa shops” such as small, local restaurants and corner stores, particularly in our great cities.

Quite often, we’re standing alongside the millionaire next door and never would have guessed it.

That said, the focus of my writing — somewhat ironically — is that a million dollars doesn’t matter. In fact, I argue the opposite. Many of us — maybe even most of us — can do a lot with comparatively very little.

As I focus on writing about money, I’m often drawn to a previous life. One that’s pretty much the polar opposite of the subject matter I now concern myself with on a daily basis.

Between 2006 and 2010, I spent considerable time in Los Angeles’s Skid Row. Between 2006 and 2008, I spent most days there.

Needless to say, in Skid Row, most people simply don’t have the luxury of “worrying” about or even casually considering what size emergency fund to have or how they can structure an early retirement. Things like this that might keep you and I up at night or fantasizing by day.

I wanted to change things up today and share some of my Skid Row experience with you.

I love cities and, interestingly, the time I spent in Skid Row made me love and understand them even more.

I was a PhD student looking at policing amid gentrification in Skid Row. East of Downtown Los Angeles, Skid Row concentrates more homeless individuals and families than any other neighborhood in America.

Prior to my research, I probably would not have called Skid Row a “neighborhood.” However, after spending hundreds of hours there, I’ll take it a step further and say — based, at least, on the experience I had more than a decade ago, it was a community. I’m not quite sure how I would characterize it today because I have not spent much time there since. I only pass through infrequently. My guess — the same community structure still exists.

Lots happened in Skid Row when I was there.

Of course, I wrote about it.

I never completed my research or finished my PhD, so I took the field notes I compiled for my dissertation and turned them into a short book you can still purchase on Amazon.

I mainly engaged in participant observation, blending into the scene and talking to as many people as possible while befriending a few. Sadly, one guy I became friends with and even tried to help died a few years after my stint in Skid Row.

The experiences I had in Skid Row taught me a lot about cities. They reaffirmed my favorite characterization of the urban inner city via Jane Jacobs in her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.

This is exactly what was happening when I was in Skid Row and, for all intents and purposes, has continued to happen since. It happens in “bad” neighborhoods, earmarked for gentrification, around the world. It’s this type of urban planning approach that actually hurts neighborhoods while displacing people. It contributes to keeping people down and, in the most extreme cases, killing them.

However, gentrification isn’t always bad. It’s the typical way we tend to execute it that is.

As I wrote roughly ten years ago, playing off of some solid European research on the same topic:

…many U.S. cities, namely Los Angeles, and their inhabitants perceive “gentrification… not [only] as a ‘class war’ … but as the only conceivable way to improve conditions in the neighbourhood…

Much of what I was experiencing in Skid Row flew in the face of just about all I had seen, read, and heard. Skid Row is a true community, showcasing simultaneously two distinct sides of urban America. While some can justifiably call Skid Row a “scary,” sometimes depressing place, it is also a place where people know one another’s name. Dare I say it is a convivial place, where people spend time interacting socially and helping each other out.

My plan for my dissertation was to bring this point out employing an activist research approach. I wanted the dissertation to do something. Idealistic as it might sound I began brainstorming ways to incorporate a community service aspect into my thesis. If Skid Row has some good qualities, as I will detail throughout this book, buried in nothing but negative media and political accounts, why not build on the positive to improve the neighborhood as opposed to gentrify it? I envisioned my study opening doors and offering ideas as to how this could be done.

We can see the most compelling evidence of “real order” in Skid Row in the distinction between the corners of 5th and San Julian and 6th and San Julian, at least when I was hanging in the neighborhood.

At 5th, there was a park — San Julian Park.

I regularly played dominoes in this park with a mix of housed and unhoused, primarily African American men. At first, it felt weird being one of the few, and sometimes the only white guy in the mix. However, most everyone made me feel instantly comfortable, even figuratively holding my hand when I displayed less than competent domino-playing skills.

At 6th, it was just a random Skid Row street corner, crossed by San Julian.

What I discovered was the only drug sold and used openly at 5th and San Julian was weed. Up the street at 6th, you could score the hard stuff, particularly crack and heroin.

This was not a coincidence.

The people who spent time in the park at 5th and San Julian policed it better than the LAPD ever could. The keepers of the park permitted nothing more than weed use and dealing. If you came to 5th and San Julian, and especially into San Julian Park, looking for or trying to sell something more than cannabis, they swiftly sent you to 6th and San Julian.

However, unlike the LAPD, the community members who made this their business executed their form of policing — self-policing — without drama or violence. In fact, this social organization became clear to everyone. If you were unaware, one of the park’s leaders politely let you know the deal.

It’s this type of “order” I wish the City of Los Angeles would have seen and attempted to leverage to make the neighborhood a better place for everyone, be it the residents who had fallen on hard times or the more affluent newcomers.

Because I also discovered that not everyone in Skid Row was opposed to gentrification. My findings echoed the great work of Columbia University professor, Lance Freeman, who found that some residents in gentrifying neighborhoods appreciate the changes, as they often bring increased and enhanced services and amenities to once under-served districts.

I decided to look back on my old work the other day for two reasons.

One, I took a walk with a friend in two neighborhoods adjacent to Skid Row — Little Tokyo and The Arts District — so I got to see the outskirts of the neighborhood. It’s still not pretty, at least not to the eye.

Two, I experience conflict at times, having abandoned academia, particularly the social sciences, to pursue and ultimately stick with a career writing about money. While you can make connections between the two, they’re opposite at their core.

I can only assume it’s tough for most of us to not experience this type of conflict, especially if you live in a big city such as Los Angeles. My suburban friends have the psychological luxury of out of sight, out of mind, which is certainly part of the reason why some people choose to live in suburbia.

It’s even more frustrating because I started studying this stuff in 2002 and, sadly, little, if anything, has changed.

I write about doing life and personal finance, focusing on the psychology of our relationships with other people and money. I’m anti-guru, pro-empowerment.

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