Homeless & Poor Out Of Downtown - Urban Policy Goes Ballistic FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 16 Oct 1999 06:14:48 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  Date: 7 Oct 1999 13:50:49 -0000
From: "Common Courage Political Literacy Course"
[Information about this free email course appears at the bottom.]


While laws regulating environmental pollution are not as strong as many
would like, and enforcement is even weaker, city officials in many
metropolitan areas will spare no expense to regulate what they see as
unwanted refuse: the homeless and the poor. In "City of Quartz: Excavating
the Future in Los Angeles," Mike Davis offers a particularly harsh window
on efforts in that city:

This conscious 'hardening' of the city surface against the poor is
especially brazen in the Manichean treatment of downtown microcosms. In
his famous study of the 'social life of small urban spaces', William Whyte
makes the point that the quality of any urban environment can be measured,
first of all, by whether there are convenient, comfortable places for
pedestrians to sit. This maxim has been warmly taken to heart by designers
of the highly-corporate precincts of Bunker Hill and the emerging 'urban
village' of South Park. As part of the city's policy of subsidizing
white-collar residential colonization in Downtown, it has spent, or plans
to spend, tens of millions of dollars of diverted tax revenue on enticing,
'soft' environments in these areas. Planners envision an opulent complex
of squares, fountains, world-class public art, exotic shrubbery, and
avant-garde street furniture along a Hope Street pedestrian corridor. In
the propaganda of official boosters, nothing is taken as a better index of
Downtown's 'liveability' than the idyll of office workers and upscale
tourists lounging or napping in the terraced gardens of California Plaza,
the 'Spanish Steps' or Grand Hope Park.

In stark contrast, a few blocks away, the city is engaged in a merciless
struggle to make public facilities and spaces as 'unliveable' as possible
for the homeless and the poor. The persistence of thousands of street
people on the fringes of Bunker Hill and the Civic Center sours the image
of designer Downtown living and betrays the laboriously constructed
illusion of a Downtown 'renaissance'. City Hall then retaliates with its
own variant of low-intensity warfare.

Although city leaders periodically essay schemes for removing indigents en
masse--deporting them to a poor farm on the edge of the desert, confining
them to camps in the mountains, or, memorably, interning them on a
derelict ferry at the Harbor--such 'final solutions' have been blocked by
council members fearful of the displacement of the homeless into their
districts. Instead the city, self-consciously adopting the idiom of urban
cold war, promotes the 'containment' (official term) of the homeless in
Skid Row along Fifth Street east of the Broadway, systematically
transforming the neighborhood into an outdoor poorhouse. But this
containment strategy breeds its own vicious circle of contradiction. By
condensing the mass of the desperate and helpless together in such a small
space, and denying adequate housing, official policy has transformed Skid
Row into probably the most dangerous ten square blocks in the world--ruled
by a grisly succession of 'Slashers', 'Night Stalkers', and more ordinary
predators. Every night on Skid Row is Friday the 13th, and,
unsurprisingly, many of the homeless seek to escape the 'Nickle' during
the night at all costs, searching safer niches in other parts of Downtown.
The city in turn tightens the noose with increased police harassment and
indigenous design deterrents.

One of the most common, but mind-numbing, of these deterrents is the Rapid
Transit District's new barrel-shaped bus bench that offers a minimal
surface for uncomfortable sitting, while making sleeping utterly
impossible. Such 'bumproof' benches are being widely introduced on the
periphery of Skid Row. Another invention, worthy of the Grand Guignol, is
the aggressive deployment of outdoor sprinklers. Several years ago the
city opened a 'Skid Row Park' along lower Fifth Street, on a corner of
Hell. To ensure that the park was not used for sleeping--that is to say,
to guarantee that it was mainly utilized for drug dealing and
prostitution--the city installed an elaborate overhead sprinkling system
programmed to drench unsuspecting sleepers at random times during the
night. The system was immediately copied by some local businessmen in
order to drive the homeless away from adjacent public sidewalks. Meanwhile
restaurants and markets have responded to the homeless by building ornate
enclosures to protect their refuse. Although no one in Los Angeles has yet
proposed adding cyanide to the garbage, as happened in Phoenix a few years
back, one popular seafood restaurant has spent $12,000 to build the
ultimate bag-lady-proof trash cage: made of three-quarter inch steel rod
with alloy locks and vicious outturned spikes to safeguard priceless
moldering fish heads and stale french fries.

These facts come from Mike Davis's "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future
in Los Angeles." For more, click on

TOMORROW: Mike Davis on Malibu Burning: Time to Toast the Rich?

This is the free Political Literacy Course from Common Courage Press: A
backbone of facts to stand up to spineless power. Email 23, October 7
1999. Week 5: Corporations and the Environment: Do They Mix?

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