Touring Skid Row, a place most go out of their way to avoid

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At the “gateway” of Skid Row, Rev. Andy of the Union Rescue Mission details the landscape

Professor Paul Rood of Biola University is writing a biography of Lyman Stewart, the Union Oil exec who founded the Union Rescue Mission over a century ago

Just blocks from the trendy gleam of downtown Los Angeles, Skid Row is a place most people go out of their way to avoid. I recently spent a few hours on the streets there with a dozen or so other curious people, immersed in its history.

A tiny street called Azusa on the edge of Skid Row played an important role in its development
A tiny street called Azusa on the edge of Skid Row played an important role in its history.

Each year, self-described “street historian” Richard Schave of Esotouric takes whoever is interested on a free tour to show them the deep roots of homelessness, as well as philanthropy, in our city.

We started in the late afternoon by boarding a bus on San Pedro Street, the heart of Skid Row, and made our way to the location of the Mission’s 1st and 2nd homes, over through Little Tokyo, and back on foot by dusk to our launching point for a historic film screening.

A music industry executive named Suzanne, who lives in Pasadena, said when a friend asked her to come along, she initially said no, and then changed her mind:  “I think I felt safe because of the number of people in the group. I like doing things that take me out of my comfort zone.”

There’s no denying the presence of Skid Row, which formed over a hundred years ago back when the city’s population was centered near Bunker Hill. Central to Skid Row’s development was a man named Lyman Stewart–the deeply religious founder of Union Oil Company and, in 1891, the Union Rescue Mission.

At first, the poor were served from tents, where religious revivals were held each night. Then the operation moved to a structure on North Main Street, before City Hall was built on the land there. It wasn’t till the 90s that Union and other social service groups who help the poor opened their doors a bit further south on San Pedro Street.

Rev. Andy of the mission said the number of people on the streets now is proportionately higher than during the Depression. As the sun set, homeless people started to hoist up tents for makeshift shelter, as Rev. Andy described his harrowing experiences of sleeping outside–the violence, the drugs.

Then, we all trekked to the roof of the Union Mission to watch a 1949 film called “Of  Scrap and Steel,” which paints a portrait of the despair on the streets below so many decades ago. The skylight cityscape of Los Angeles seemed too beautiful to believe, given that just below us were so many people who have so little.

A man named Chris from Orange County told me he came along because he’s always curious about LA history. He said he had no idea how bad the situation was. “I came from an impeccably middle class background,” he said.  “We didn’t see homeless people in tents.  You know they’re there, but ‘not in my backyard’ is happening.”

At the “gateway” of Skid Row, Rev. Andy of the Union Rescue Mission details the landscape
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Atop the Union Rescue Mission, we watch a 1949 film about Skid Row, flanked by a priceless LA skyline
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The second site of the Union Rescue Mission is now a parking lot next to the decommissioned St. Vibiana’s