A community without walls: Skid Row’s tightly-knit nature sows conflict but reaps beauty

Under the shade of the bulbous ficus trees that root this quiet neighborhood block, Pastor Blue glides from the white cargo van to the gas burner with rhythmic ease,  crooning to the Luke Combs’ tunes that stand in place of hymns this evening.

“It’s a match made up in heaven, like good ‘ol boys and beer,” Blue sings as he prepares Saturday supper.

“And me, as long as you’re right here.”

On this stretch of Crocker Street in downtown Los Angeles — where a pop-up draped with international flags and filled with seating forms the “Sanctuary” — just about every evening feels like a backyard barbecue.

Blue cooks — hot dogs, sausages, oxtail with rice. Neighbors drop by and linger over beers and a passed blunt. Stories fill the warm, California air as the sun falls low over the city scape, its shards of golden light bouncing off the asphalt, the brick buildings, the lush, stately branches of Indian laurels that frame the sidewalks.

“Like God himself did the afro,” Blue pronounced one evening, sweeping his arm over the view. “Those trees …the skyline …the weather.

“You’ll see the beauty of California, if you can open your eyes past the tents and the cardboard and the trash.”

A man in a t-shirt and backwards cap boils hot dogs on a gas burner on a table set-up in front of sidewalk tents
Pastor Blue provides for the community, fixing hot dogs and other meals to share and deliver to neighbors.

We were in Skid Row: the United States’ most notorious concentration of homelessness and — I’ve learned, after a month and a half of reporting there — a place of dichotomy; a misunderstood community of two, equally impressing extremes that give the sensation of a block party or a gang turf; a good will organization or a crime syndicate; an activist summit or a crack house — and often several of those at once.

Here, entrepreneurship and altruism exist on the same blocks as debilitating drug addictions and untreated mental illness. Artistry and activism persist alongside violence and death. Innovation, function and health solutions contend with the reality of human waste in the streets and rats the size of house cats skittering by.

One minute, a visitor might find herself amazed by the genuine generosity and concern between neighbors — sharing precious resources and lifting each other up. The next, she might be dodging an loaded pistol, as happened one afternoon when a gang dispute erupted on the street.

“It can go from 1 to 1,000 here,” Blue said, another day. “Quick.”

• • •

A man in a blue hoodie and purple durag stands in front of homeless tents in downtown Los Angeles
Pastor Blue, originally from Atlanta, moved to Skid Row just under a year ago.
Man in a backwards cap crouches inside a sleeper van with graffiti on the sides.
Blue inside his sleeper cargo van, where he stores his portable kitchen.

I met Blue — peacekeeper, organizer and charmer with the charisma of an AME preacher — in mid April when I began coming to The Row to interview people for a new reporting project.

Blue introduced me to so many inspiring others: Stephanie, a former model who sews Covid masks, repairs zippers and acts as a vigilante against police brutality; CruShow, an accomplished activist and organizer who patiently walks with city officials through Skid Row to show them what doesn’t turn up in statistics; ShowsArt, the masterful muralist whose art is commissioned all over the city; and King Pharoah, an R&B singer and street chef, who whips up gourmet meals on the sidewalk.

A woman sits in a wheel chair inside a tarp-covered sidewalk structure that holds wooden crates and a small tent.
A woman who goes by Shorty, inside the tarp-covered structure where she lives.

One Saturday afternoon at the White House — the elaborate, two-room tent setup where Pharoah and Stephanie stay — Pharoah pried back the lid of a styrofoam cooler to expose two mammoth whole salmons, their silver speckled bodies weighted by ice.

“It’s my aim to give Beverly Hills service in Skid Row,” he said with a grin. “Four Seasons brunch? Yeah, we’re gonna do it here.”

The White House operates as part tailor shop, with Stephanie hemming, re-soling and making custom masks, and part pay-what-you-can restaurant and food bank, with Pharoah donating meals, dry food basics and his signature Caribbean Punch to anyone who doesn’t have the funds. It also acts as the home base to Stephanie’s “Cop Watch” crusade to film officers breaking the law and terrorizing the homeless, and essentially a community information center for those in need of pretty much anything.

A shirtless man wearing an argyle durag and puka shell head band serves punch from a glass dispenser on Skid Row.
King Pharoah, serving his signature Caribbean punch.
A man with colorful bandanas on his legs and a scarf around his wrist holds a cup of Caribbean punch.
Pharoah’s Caribbean punch is made with a guarded family recipe.
A shirtless man on a city sidewalk opens a styrofoam cooler to show two whole salmons.
Pharoah buys fresh seafood straight off the truck downtown.

“Skid Row is not what they say it is,” Stephanie said. “There is community. There are innovators, there are artists. 

“Before I came here, I’d pass through in a car and I’d hurry up and get through, roll up my windows and say I would never go back again. But now (living here), I think this is the best place in the whole wide world.”

• • •

In the last month and a half, I’ve seen that in spades — enough so that my first instinct was to write a gushingly positive story about Skid Row and all its cape-less heroes. 

But that story wouldn’t do justice to the nature of their triumphs, achieved in a setting where most of us would fail. Roses grown through cracks in the concrete, their very presence an affront to the gardener and the hose.

A woman with a sign stands on top of a car with the words painted "fuck the police" as two men lean on the trunk in downtown Los Angeles.
JoJo, Stephanie and Pharoah, representing the fight against police brutality.
A black woman with a shaved head and freckles smiles.
Stephanie has lived in Skid Row since 2013 after police officers broke her leg while arresting her son.

Like everywhere, in Skid Row there are givers and takers, donors and thieves, peacekeepers and troublemakers, productive members of society and scammers. Theft is the lifeblood of an alternative market where one can sell or buy just about anything, including a fully functioning cell phone for about $20 or a bike for $5.

Last week alone, I witnessed residents giving away food and money, raising funds for firemen wounded in a recent downtown LA blaze and working to organize tents and clothes for those who had nothing. In that same time frame, Skid Row absorbed six deaths — one suicide and five murders motivated by gang politics, disputes over a dog and the theft of a just-cashed stimulus check.

“The heat and the summer,” Pharoah said. “It brings out the demons.”

A memorial for one of the fallen — a man called Mardawg — was held on Saturday, with mourners gathering in the street to weep and offer candles. The same evening I was at Blue’s, marveling at the work of SK, a young muralist, as he stitched together block letters on a tarp with spray paint — when some 15 consecutive gun shots rang out a few blocks over.

A man in a Kobe Bryant tank top walks in front of a makeshift memorial on a sidewalk in front of homeless tents.
Skid Row mourned three deaths last week alone.

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For people in Skid Row, these are the two worlds: the one they love and the one they loathe.

“It’s heaven or hell,” Blue said. “Poverty, I think breeds darkness. Because when you’re lacking and you want, you’re going to do what it takes to get.

“But there’s a tribal thing going on. The community kind of takes care of the community, we’re able to work together. I came here and I fell in love. I’ve been here ever since.”

As a pastor and someone with more resources than most, Blue is called upon perhaps as much as anyone in the community. In the evenings, his Crocker Street turf transforms into a promenade for asks: Money. Cigarettes. Food. Weed. Water. Help. Prayer. Protection. “Preacher!” someone will call as they arrive, the pain of overwhelming need in their eyes. Blue holds the weight of it all.

In this center of gravity, friction and hostility between converging forces are dropped on his doorstep, regularly.

In those moments, Blue — normally full of smiles and hospitality — will halt the music, his unflinching voice breaking the chaos. His prayers might sound common for churchgoers, except for their uncommon context and urgency.

This is not some time-worn mantra or arm-distance aspiration. It’s a burning appeal to heal this very moment, to diffuse these immediately encircling battles. For Crocker Street — right here, right now — to be seen.

“Lord,” he’ll plead. “Bring peace to these streets.”

Part of Skid Row’s inherent tumult can be owed to simple proximity: imagine any community, and then quadruple the number of houses on every block and dismantle the structures. Here, unlocked doors take on a new meaning. Domestic alternations play out on the streets. A person’s best days and their worst, aren’t hidden by walls. People know their neighbors, intimately and because of that, Skid Row feels more connected than most communities too: shades of small-town America woven between skyscrapers in a city of four million. 

A man with his hands on his head walks down the tent-covered sidewalks of Skid Row.
Skid Row encompasses some 50 square blocks, but has many pockets containing micro communities.

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That closeness brings a certain roughness that you don’t see in neighborhoods where people are separated by distinct experiences, lack of reliance on each other, cars, yards and walls. Because Skid Row is cut off from the typical safeguards and systems, the community necessarily holds itself accountable. If you wrong someone, you’ll probably be punished, many told me. If you scam, that reputation will impact your ability to walk freely and even eat. Unlike most neighborhoods, no one can hide.

“The cops don’t care, they don’t come,” Pharoah said, referring to the conflict, theft and violence that occurs in Skid Row. “So we believe in policing ourselves.”

But that closeness also lends itself to a unity rarely seen anywhere in America — a population that cares for its own via coalition, kindness and grassroots pay-what-you-can businesses run by people sleeping in tents themselves. The community organizes and holds its own Thanksgiving street fests, fashion shows, and for a while, movie nights until police destroyed the projector screen. Opposing gang members find a way to co-exist (“You can’t be fighting with your neighbors every day,” Pharoah explained).

 

Three men play basketball in an inner-city park with murals in the background.
Pharoah and two others play basketball at Gladys Park in Skid Row.
A paper chessboard sitting atop a park table, surrounded by week canisters and takeout containers
Chess is popular at Gladys Park.

Not everyone gets the chance or finds the will to see this light. Some of the hardest stretches in Skid Row offer a glimpse of rock bottom — crowds of the possessionless sitting on filth-covered pavement, who find themselves on the outside of even this incredibly tolerant community. Drug addiction sees its worst days in Skid Row, and the hyper presence of untreated mental illness is a testament to the city government’s gross failure.

Still, in most areas, there’s a rare collective sense of responsibility and duty at play, leading to some admirable operations and goodwill efforts that repudiate the futility of the large organizations that surround them.

A man with long dreads wearing a blue LA Dodgers hat and an orange vest sits against a graffiti-marked brick wall.
CruShow, one of Skid Row’s relentless activists and organizers.

“You can’t build anything or try to do anything in any community if you’re not from the community,” CruShow said. “Working in the community means nothing. Visiting the community means nothing. You have to be from whatever you’re trying to build. Because you know what it takes to build it.”

Like many people, when I first arrived in Skid Row, I saw it as a gaping wound in America’s myriad of broken systems and systematic societal failures.

Should Skid Row even exist in one of the richest cities in the richest country in the world?

I thought I knew the answer to that, resoundingly, going in.

But in the month and half, and roughly 50 hours since, my thinking has changed.

Skid Row deserves our attention because of the pressing human rights issues that characterize life there. But Skid Row is not just about homelessness or crime or pain. It’s a breathing, functioning community, with its own rhythms, power structures, rules and etiquette, function and disfunction. A place that has its problems — and transcendence — just like every community does, albeit more transparent due to the lack of housing.

“You think that everybody is fighting in Skid Row?” Stephanie scoffed. “No, people are fighting in buildings. Take the roof off of that sucker and see what’s really happening inside.”

A woman in a flowery tank-top dress uses a white sewing machine inside a spacious white tent on the sidewalk.
Stephanie sews and mends for the community from within her elaborate tent.

In that way, Skid Row has managed to uncover something real. Conflicts arise and are dealt with. Needs are identified and addressed. Somehow people still manage to get along, and cut to the core of what’s important.

Perhaps that’s why those who “make it out” often come back — I met four such individuals who regularly drive back from the suburbs to socialize, to bring water bottles and food.

A man who calls himself Hollywood, who has lived on and off in Skid Row since 1979, told me recently that he’s among the older residents with underlying conditions who has been approved for long-term housing; a new life.

But when I asked if the sun was setting on his Skid Row era, he furrowed his brow and shook his head.

“No,” he said, emphatically. “I want to come back and help others. That’s what we do here.”

A week later, he was in his new, temporary space: a high-rise hotel on Figueroa, that overlooks the Staples Center and normally costs $600 a night. Part of the housing agreement requires him to return home each night by 7 p.m.

But on one Wednesday, as he hopped on his bike at 6:40, a fracas broke out on Crocker Street, where he normally lives. Dropping the bike, he leapt to Blue’s aid, helping to break up the conflict and forming, with his brother RePete, an arm-clasping prayer circle to block out the noise and ground themselves.

By the time Hollywood could leave again, 16 minutes had passed. He arrived at the hotel at 7:03 and was turned away.

It was a sacrifice made to lift up his brothers and help keep peace and order in a community that desperately needs such acts. But all the hotel workers knew was that he was three minutes late.

A shirtless man with an argyle cap and holding a bottle of hot sauce, waves his arms in explanation in front of a series of sidewalk tents.
Hollywood has lived in Skid Row on and off since 1979.
A man with dreads and a backwards cap spray paints block letters on a tarp hung from a metal fence.
SK, spray painting a sign for a community area Blue is arranging on his block.

When I first started going to Skid Row,  I’d return to my friend’s Santa Monica apartment at the end of each day, and feel the expected surge of gratitude.

But now I feel something else, too.

I think about Skid Rowdians’ capacity to co-exist, survive and empower each other through really hard situations. I think about this need-response society, and the transparency that encompasses every encounter. Theirs is a value system that might be counter-intuitive to what the majority of Americans believe matters. It’s also more fundamentally human.

It’s complicated to think about.

I don’t want my fellow Americans to be sleeping in shoddy structures, to be lacking protections and reasonable access to hygiene. I don’t want them to be exposed to violence, to hunger, to cat-sized rats, to have no real sense of safety or security.

But I also don’t want to tell people what their community should look like, or demand that they conform to our version of normal. Because frankly, our version of normal isn’t that pretty either.

A world where Skid Row doesn’t exist would likely mean that we live in an America in which there is greater equality, better human rights and more empathy. It also would mean the erasure of something that has its own power and meaning.

Last Saturday, I asked Pharoah if given the chance in an alternate universe, he would abolish Skid Row, and all the difficulties that come with it.

“No,” he said firmly, before I’d even finished the question.

“Don’t tear down this neighborhood. Out of the struggle comes beauty …and there is something bubbling beneath the surface. It’s an undercurrent.”

•••

A man wearing a flower crown sits in a folder chair that overlooks a series of street tents draped with flags

On a Saturday evening at Blue’s, a resident who calls himself Boston surveyed the bulbous ficus trees, the skyline, the golden light bouncing off the asphalt.

In this quiet patch of Crocker Street in the midst of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, the beauty of California was all around. Its conflict, too — a match made in heaven as Luke Combs says, even if its hell some days.

“There’s something here,” Boston said looking off in the distance. “There’s soul.” He pulled at his red USC cap, shielding his eyes from the sinking sun.

“It’d be a shame to see them bulldoze this place,” he said, “and put in a Starbucks.”

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