Urban Renaissance Meets the Middle Ages

They're yours for the taking: Luxury lofts in downtown Los Angeles, with rooftop pools, swanky cabanas, and views of Porta Potti brothels on skid row.

Evelyn, Eduardo and Thomas live within two blocks of each other, caught in the middle of this head-on collision between economic growth and social disintegration. One is on the street, one in recovery, one in a grandly appointed loft overlooking the place he calls Dante's Inferno.

"I wanted to be a part of the downtown renaissance," says Thomas Reid, an RN who moved out of West Hollywood and into his skid-row-adjacent apartment six weeks ago and was immediately "blown away" by the depth of despair at his doorstep. His windows offer "front-row seats to Skid Row Theater," with a soundtrack of screams and sirens.

The renaissance he's talking about has brought an influx of people like Reid, thousands of them. In his building, they're paying up to $6,000 a month, which buys them neighbors who sleep on the pavement in rags.

"I sit in my loft with the haves and look out at the have-nots — the bottom of the bottom — and I have to rationalize it," says Reid, whose conscience gets to him when he sips a glass of fine wine while watching someone on the street yell for help. "Am I pushing out the homeless?"

Evelyn, who lives two blocks away, is homeless, depending on your definition.

On San Julian Street one night, I notice her makeshift tent because she's given lots of attention to detail, making walls by stretching blankets between two carts. It's a far cry from Thomas Reid's urban contemporary furnishings, but Evelyn's got the lighting perfect and warm, just enough candlelight to let her read James Patterson's "Pop Goes the Weasel."

At night, before laying her head down and saying the rosary, she lays out cardboard, Styrofoam, sheets, blankets, and pillows with pillowcases.

"Even though I'm on the street, it makes me feel like I'm inside," she says of the place she calls her hookup.

When I ask the East Palo Alto native how long she's been here, she thinks about it a second.

"Ten years," she says.

Ten years in this one spot?

"I started out at the other end of the street," she says.

Evelyn, who says she's epileptic, is a different person when I see her later in the week. The sweet woman with the kind manner and cozy hookup is sprawled on her back, eyes rolling around in her head, zapped by the marijuana she confesses to or maybe the harder stuff she claims to be "backin' off of."

She's gone, not even clear-headed enough to weep as she did the other night, when she told me she's 48 and just not ready to move on. When she's 50, she says, she'll have it together. But not yet, 10 years and counting on San Julian Street.

You see some people out here who just caught a bad break or two, got priced out of the ridiculous real estate market and ended up in the land of soup lines and cardboard condos. But the majority are in a prison with higher walls, trapped by mental illness or devoured by drugs in a place where there isn't enough help for either.

Evelyn lives on the street where Nathaniel, my violinist friend, talks to himself.

It's the street where I watched paramedics pick up a young woman with needle tracks and only a few breaths left in her.

The stories are so depressing that, after days on skid row, I began looking for some glimmer of hope. I made arrangements to speak to someone in the recovery program at the Midnight Mission.


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