Why Skid Row is trying to get its own neighborhood council

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Amidst the rapid gentrification and redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles in recent years, there’s one neighborhood that’s barely changed: Skid Row. Fifty square blocks of downtown Los Angeles that have become notorious as ground zero of the city’s homelessness crisis.

But as rent prices soar in the increasingly chic neighborhoods bordering Skid Row, there’s been a renewed interest in the potentially valuable real estate it occupies. A planning study commissioned last year by the local business association looked at the “dramatic changes happening at the district’s doorstep”, where streets that used to look a lot like Skid Row are now filled with art galleries and expensive lofts.

The report’s authors consulted business owners, homeless service providers, and even low-income housing residents. But there was one notable group that wasn’t consulted – the homeless residents of Skid Row.

That’s par for the course, homeless advocates say; the homeless population of Skid Row is rarely – if ever – included in conversations about the future of their neighborhood. But now, Skid Row’s residents are launching a new effort to make sure they’ll be included.

The effort is led, in part, by Jeff Page, a long-time Skid Row resident who goes by General Jeff. Page is well-known as an an active and vocal presence in the community, and a critic of what he says in government inaction on the “severely inhumane” living conditions of Skid Row’s homeless population.

One sunny day this winter, Page set up shop in Gladys Park, at the heart of Skid Row. He stood behind a folding table piled high with papers, asking passersby to sign a petition. The petition was the final piece of an application that was years in the making: for Skid Row to form its own neighborhood council.

Neighborhood councils are governing boards that talk directly to the mayor and other city officials about local issues, like parks or development or crime. Right now, Skid Row is represented by the downtown neighborhood council – which Page has actually served on. But Page says Skid Row is too different from the rest of downtown to be represented by the same council. So he and other Skid Row residents are looking to break off and form their own.

Grayce Liu, general manager of Empower LA, the city agency that oversees neighborhood councils, agrees that Skid Row neighborhood council could help give residents a voice.

“A neighborhood council should be used to have a say in what the community’s going to look like, and grow and transform into,” she said. “One neighborhood council created a style guide and they told developers, when you come into our neighborhood to develop things, this is what we want it to look like.”

Neighborhood councils also receive a small amount of funding, about $40,000 annually, which Page says could help bolster local grassroots initiatives, but he also hopes a neighborhood council would give residents a say in what happens to their perennially neglected home.

“Skid Row’s surrounded, on all sides, north, south, east, and west, by multi-billion dollar projects,” Page said. “So it looks like this whole huge donut, with a whole lot of glaze, and right in the middle, is this empty lonely and abandoned donut hole which is Skid Row.”

Yuval Bar-Zemer runs a real estate development company in the nearby and rapidly-gentrifying Arts District, where he’s lived and worked for about fifteen years. He says if Skid Row wants its own neighborhood council, it should have one – even if he’s skeptical about how much of an impact it would really have. Bar-Zemer’s on a neighborhood council himself, and is well-versed in their limitations, he says.

“Let’s assume they’re successful, they’re going to realize very quickly the limit of how much change can be effected through this vehicle,” he said.

“But I think the mere attempt to get organized, to recruit people on the street and say, ‘hey, we deserve to be heard in a different way’ will benefit the people.”

Skid Row’s neighborhood council application has already passed the first hurdle – approval from city hall. The next hurdle is a referendum of “stakeholders” in the area, which is scheduled for the spring.

(Photo: Jeff Page stands in Gladys Park, by Carla Green)