Nobody on the corner of 4th and Towne remembers exactly when the first garden appeared – only that it was swiftly followed by another, and then another. But everyone agrees it was in the last year.
The gardens planted along the sides of a building at the corner of 4th and Towne are tidy, filled with native plants; some of the more elaborate ones have a line of tall, arching palm trees draped with lights. They take up about half the sidewalk. And homeless advocates who don’t like the gardens say the gardens are designed to take up space. That’s the point.
While the gardens look like something you might find in the Art’s District, or maybe Santa Monica, they’re right in the middle of Skid Row.
“The most visible difference is one side of the street has tents, one side doesn’t,” said Steve Diaz, an organizer with Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), a Skid Row-based homeless advocacy group.
The venue across the street – decked out with its own garden and an artful mess of vines crawling up its walls – is a hip new wedding and party space called Valentine. It’s owned by a man named Miguel Nelson, whose company is also involved in another new venture on that block – a combination gallery-craft beer and wine café.
According to city documents, Nelson has coordinated the installation of sidewalk gardens like these across Skid Row, by obtaining landscaping permits for over a dozen addresses in what he and other business owners have dubbed the North Sea.
North Sea refers to about six square blocks of Skid Row that have traditionally been – and, still for the most part are – populated with seafood companies. Large delivery trucks rumble down the narrow streets there; a pungent smell of fish often hangs in the air.
But business owners like Nelson have a vision for the North Sea, starting with these gardens.
Despite multiple requests for comment, Nelson declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.
The gardens represent an example of gentrification playing out in real time. Individual blocks are transformed, sometimes, seemingly overnight, from industrial storefronts lined with homeless encampments to ritzy venues with lush vegetation outside.
There’s intense pressure on Skid Row, where the monied interests of downtown and the Arts District are pushing in from all sides. And nowhere is the sidewalk more important than in Skid Row, said Hayk Makhmuryan, who’s a member of the Skid Row Design Collective and works in the neighborhood.
“It’s someone’s living room; it’s someone’s bedroom,” he said. “Taking away any [sidewalk] real estate is a problem.”
Other Skid Row business owners who’ve signed onto the landscaping effort were, like Nelson, unwilling to record an interview for this story. But some spoke of the difficulties of operating a business in Skid Row.
Jim Merry, one of the owners of C Marx Seafood – said the gardens are “the only way we could get a clean environment for our neighborhood”. And North Sea DTLA, whose website was created in April of last year, said the gardens were part of a “self-funded, beautification program” for the area.
Many Skid Row residents say they’d love to beautify the neighborhood, but not by pushing people out. Janice Ross, who’s lived in a tent in Skid Row for the past three and a half years, says the gardens look nice – she won’t deny that.
“But – they have displaced a lot of people,” Ross said.
With the gardens, there’s not enough space left to pitch a tent, so homeless residents have had to move elsewhere, sometimes onto less-trafficked, more dangerous streets.
According to Steve Diaz, the first sign of change is usually a chain link fence.
In the past year, fences have popped up all over Skid Row, sometimes blocking off part of the sidewalk for months, with no garden that follows.
“I feel very sure that [the fences are] part of the gentrification process,” said Ross, who used to live next to one of these fences. “To exasperate the people that are there, to the point where there’s nowhere left to move. In this area that’s called Skid Row.”
Skid Row is not the only place where fences have started to appear.
At a small encampment in South Central, just south of the 10 freeway, a chain link fence blocks off about half the sidewalk. Behind it is a long row of planters. The fence is one of about a half-dozen like it on nearby streets. Jenny, who lives in the encampment and didn’t want to give her last name, said that when the fence first appeared, its purpose was clear.
“I think their intention was for us to move,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s fair, because it’s not even their street, you know? It’s the street.”
The chain link fences are sometimes erected under temporary 30-, 60-, or 90-day permits, but the city says it has no mechanism to check whether those fences are up past the expiration date. It relies on complaints to check out temporary fences and issue a violation.
“This is far greater than the fence. This is far greater than a garden,” LACAN’s Steve Diaz said. “You’re basically privatizing public space. And you’re setting an example for more people to basically go rogue, and privatized public space without even getting obtaining the legal paperwork to even try to do it the correct way.”
Homeless residents have since told KCRW that some of the chain link fences have come down. But many remain up.
In some cases, the fences have become part of the landscape of the encampments they seem designed to fend off – people hang their laundry to dry off the posts; push them back, so there’s enough room to pitch a tent and still allow pedestrians to walk by; make do with the space that’s left.