While Los Angeles is home to numerous art galleries and theater groups, few successfully merge theater, art and social activism like the Armory Center for the Arts’ intimate exhibit on the transformation of Skid Row.
“Do you want the cosmetic version or the real deal?” chronicles the efforts of the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) to alleviate poverty over the past three decades. A community organization and performance group comprised of homeless or formerly homeless individuals, the LAPD was established by artist-activist John Malpede in 1985. It aims to provide marginalized individuals with a space to exercise their creativity while highlighting issues of social injustice.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is a new installation of art and performance work entitled “What Fuels Development?” which explores issues of displacement and gentrification in the Skid Row community. The theatrical piece is based on an actual event in which Skid Row residents organized to appeal the not-for-profit Skid Row Housing Trust’s attempt to open an alcohol-serving restaurant in one of the trust’s buildings. The restaurant was particularly controversial because it was on the ground floor of a residential hotel housing formerly homeless people. Armory Gallery Director and Chief Curator Irene Tsatsos explained that while the restaurant could be a source of revenue for the housing trust, the presence of alcohol contradicted the organization’s mission of substance abuse rehabilitation. Much of the performance piece script is taken from the transcript of a meeting between the housing trust residents and the Downtown LA Neighborhood Council.
“It’s important to remember that this is a recovery community in which current and former addicts live,” Tsatsos said. “An alcoholic establishment would have been a form of temptation for many.”
“Do you?” features a timeline made up of historic material including photographs, texts and artwork from LAPD’s archives. Through intricate tapestries, portraits, film and an interactive timeline and map of the neighborhood, the exhibition chronicles the history of Skid Row and illustrates the geography of the neighborhood, a 54-block area in downtown Los Angeles. The area became a congregating location for the homeless rail riders, transient workers and runaways when the railroad first came to LA in the 1870s. Much of the rail work included transportation of agricultural goods and thus was seasonal. The intermittent nature of the work meant crews were “laid over” between jobs, staying in the area while they waited months for renewed employment. As a result, hotels and bars were opened in the early 20th century to serve the railway workers.
In 1975, a Redevelopment Plan was adopted by the Los Angeles City Council which included a “Policy of Containment.” This policy concentrated social service agencies in the downtown LA area with the intent to make social services more accessible for those who needed them most.
Since then, Skid Row has seen efforts to revitalize the community with the help of local missions and public works projects. Parks have been cleaned-up, nonprofit-owned single room occupancy (SRO) housing projects have moved into the area and many service facilities have been renovated or relocated.
Moreover, service providers recognize a greater need to heal Skid Row residents rather than simply provide meals and places to sleep. The exhibit highlights the work of community activists and business leaders of LA’s downtown community like the Skid Row Housing Trust, that helped address the needs of Skid Row residents by providing them with affordable long-term housing.
“What Fuels Development?” set the audience in the center of the gallery, where actors surrounded them from every side. As the show began, the audience was invited to wait at a hostess station in order to be seated, as if at a restaurant. Once seated, audience members were given menus. One side listed the cast and information about the production; the other, menu items like “gentri-fried chicken” and “DLANC flank” steak, each priced at $12. At various points during the show, the seating area spun like a lazy Susan to give the audience a different perspective of the events. Adrian Excel, who played Yvonne Israel, explained that the performance was designed to be interactive with the audience and illustrate the power struggle between those with social capital — the council members — and those without — Skid Row residents.
“We wanted to make people feel like they were there at the council meeting,” Excel said.
Excel has worked and performed with the LAPD intermittently since 2010, inspired by the residents he met on the streets of Skid Row. Though he never lived in Skid Row, Excel, a former drug dealer, did business in the area and is familiar with the issues Skid Row residents face.
“I was making a good living selling drugs, but as I got to know the people I was selling to, I decided to stop,” Excel said. “The people and the community I met and who we represent in the show aren’t just bums or junkies or transients. They have their own story and struggles that people see in the wrong way.”
Excel’s fellow cast member Kevin Michael Key emphasized that Skid Row is especially stigmatized because of the public nature of the resident’s lives. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, 44,359 people are homeless in LA County, 31,018 of them living without shelter. The highest concentration of LA’s homeless population lives in the downtown census tracts, which includes Skid Row.
“Skid row has a great divide between the haves and the have-nots,” Key said. “[People] want to stereotype and categorize the people who live in the poor part of Skid Row as it not being a community and that everyone who lives there is on drugs or has mental health issues and don’t give a s–t about anything [except] getting high and committing crimes, and it’s not true. Skid Row is like any other community except that our faults are out in public.”
Key maintained that many of the issues Skid Row residents face are shared by other communities “that have the veneer of respectability.” Much of the LAPD’s success comes from harnessing Skid Row residents’ perspectives and narratives to remind the public that many of the struggles they face are universal.
But even with the support and successes of the LAPD and its members, the future of Skid Row remains uncertain. In addition to other pressing issues in the community, many residents are still concerned about the three alcohol-serving establishments that remain in the neighborhood. But Key is hopeful that the Skid Row community will continue to organize and grow in a way that meets the needs of its residents. Ultimately, Key believes, Skid Row is a viable community and those who are most impacted by neighborhood development should be a part of the development process.
“Skid Row as we know it will continue to shrink, but I don’t think we are going to be overrun by hordes of gentrification because the people are learning to organize and speak our truths to the powers that be,” Key said.