“On the frontline of a social hygiene campaign”
Written by Aaron Cantu
Last week I was talking to someone, a recent Kansas transplant in Los Angeles, who told me he’d never heard the term “gentrification” before moving to a big city. It made me think of when I heard the word for the first time, as a freshman college kid in Boston who’d grown up in a sprawling border town 2,000 miles away.
Yet it’s becoming harder to claim ignorance. Gentrification is the defining urban social phenomena of our time, a cliché in the large metropolises where it began forty years ago, but now spreading to formerly sleepy towns like Midland, Texas. The reconfiguration of cities in favor of newer, wealthier residents and tourists has even become an international phenomenon. Meanwhile, poorer people already living in neighborhoods targeted for “development” are pushed out, their presence superfluous to plans drafted by business-backed politicians. The whole process is a lesson in who, and what, our system values most.
The underpinnings of broadening gentrification and its relationship to homelessness are complex, and I partially account for them in an upcoming article for Al Jazeera America. But I first wanted to share some of the images of human street sweeping I’ve taken over the last week. There’s something about watching a space being cleared for richer people that helps you understand the social score on a visceral level.
Downtown Los Angeles is the West Coast’s answer to New York City’s thirty-year “revitalization.” As one developer and local plutocrat told GQ’s Brett Martin, “Downtown [Los Angeles] is like Brooklyn, but that’s going to change. This is going to be Manhattan.” I’ll refrain from unpacking the racial implications of that statement for now and keep the focus on Los Angeles, where the changes are huge, rapid, and seemingly inexorable.
But unlike New York City, downtown Los Angeles has Skid Row, a fifty block concentration of ~5,000 roofless people trying to survive in a city that will not—but could—house everybody. Skid Row was the city’s dumping ground for humanity’s dregs for decades, a de-facto home to the homeless, former mental patients, older inebriates, and later parolees, addicts, and anyone else needing to hide out for a while. Crime and violence were allowed to fester for generations. But recently, developers saw an opportunity to reclaim the area for wealthier patrons and renters, and that’s when the social hygiene campaign began.
Security personnel throw away materials discarded on the street.
Police and private “safety” forces representing the city’s “business improvement districts”—cells of political power composed of of the wealthiest businesses in certain zones—show up with increasing frequency to hassle the homeless away from their camping grounds and trash any perceived debris lying around. By law, neither the LAPD nor private security (who wear different color shirts for different areas) can forcibly move people from the sidewalk. Similarly, neither can throw away the possessions of sidewalk dwellers. Those rules were put into place by federal courts refuting parts of the city’s aggressive, decade-long crackdown on the homeless.
Yet the reality of the practice is more complicated. On this particular morning, police used the disobedience of one woman living on the block to justify herding over one hundred people to another part of town. Apparently, the woman was ticketed but refused to sign her citation notice. Now everybody had to move. One officer told me that people were being asked to relocate as a “courtesy,” but it’s hard to deny a request from a band of armed lawmen loitering around you.
While neither the police nor security can legally throw anybody’s stuff away, the “red shirts” were throwing away trash bags full of stuff. When I asked one of them why, they told me they were throwing away things that nobody wanted. The police told me the same thing.
Eric Ares, an activist from the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) gave me his estimation of the situation: Because people couldn’t carry all of their stuff away with them, police and security offered to “help” them throw it away before courteously standing around until people moved. Definitely clever, but legal?
Regardless, it’s hard not to see all of it as an elaborate, meaningless dance of decorum between the cops, activists, and private security forces. The city isspending billions “Manhattanizing” the area, stuffing it with lofts, high-end Italian bakeries, and “urban oases for pets and their people.” Anybody standing in the way won’t be mowed down or beaten into submission. They’ll just be moved.
Albert Jones, a sidewalk sleeper on the Row, tells me that he and everybody else living on the street is well aware of the score.
“It’s fucking illegal [to make us all move]. But of course we gotta move, downtown’s changing,” he told me. The most absurd thing about the whole thing, he said, was the senseless migration. “They said we can’t be here but we can be there, there, there. It makes no fucking sense.”
It’s not supposed to make sense, and when the victims are people like Albert—people without money and therefore without representation—it doesn’t have to. The truth is that if developers have their way, there will be nowhere to go, and the roofless will spend their days stumbling through the city like Moses in the desert.
But does the city have enough shelter to house everyone? And does everyone even want to be housed? Complicated questions to be addressed soon enough.
Footnote: I don’t know what the people being handcuffed in the photos were arrested for. It could have been for something serious. More than likely, it was for a low-level crime like loitering or disorderly conduct. But it’s at least worth noting that the only time I’ve seen people arrested has been in Skid Row. Arresting people for low-level crimes is a style of policing called “broken-windows,” which was pioneered 25 years ago in areas of New York City that have now completely gentrified.