The Containment Plan

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to overstate the vastness of the Skid Row neighborhood in LA. It spans roughly 50 blocks, which is about one-fifth of the entire downtown area of Los Angeles.

Carla Green:
In some ways, the streets of Skid Row are a bit like other parts of LA.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter, Carla Green.

Carla Green:
There are corner stores and street vendors selling everything from jewelry to loose cigarettes. There are old brick townhouses filled with low-income housing. There are parks where grown-ups gather to talk and children gather to play. But it’s also very clear when you’ve entered Skid Row. For one thing, there is the smell. The streets of Skid Row often stink of urine and other excrement baking under the hot Los Angeles sun. The gutters are lined with trash and the sidewalks are mostly, and on some blocks entirely, occupied by people’s makeshift homes. A dizzying array of tarps and tents stretch out for blocks and blocks. One structure jetting up against the next, and the next.

Roman Mars:
And there are lots of people on the street, many of them pushing special red shopping carts. The carts are handed out by a local advocacy group because the police used to arrest people for having what they believed were stolen shopping carts.

General Dogon:
And so all a person’s got to do is just be homeless and come here, you know, and they register you and give you a shopping cart, right. And people use it to push their property around and stuff like that in. The cops hate them…

Carla Green:
That’s General Dogon walking around Skid Row with me. He’s a community organizer and lifelong resident of the neighborhood who’s lived in both low income housing and on the streets here.

General Dogon:
I was born and raised on Skid Row. My parents met in the ’50s. They both got a job at Bullock’s Department Store on 7th and Broadway. They went to lunch, fell in love. I was born nine months later in General Hospital, and I’ve been downtown ever since.

Carla Green:
Walking through Skid Row, it’s not hard to see when you’ve reached the edge, the line that divides Skid Row from the rest of downtown. And if you stand right there, you’ll notice that you’re at the intersection of two radically different neighborhoods.

General Dogon:
So Main Street is the divider line. Main Street is the divider line between the haves and haves-not because you got homeless people that sleeping on one side of the street and the loft buildings on the other side of the street. And some of the homeless people lay down in they tent and they could look up and see the TV in the loft building. That’s the divider line for your ass.

Carla Green:
And in Los Angeles, that dividing line between haves and have-nots, between Skid Row and the rest of downtown, it wasn’t drawn by accident. It’s the result of a very specific plan to keep homeless people on one side and development on the other. It’s a plan that somewhat surprisingly was written and fought for by advocates of Skid Row’s resident population.

Roman Mars:
Back in the early 20th century, the railroad went through downtown Los Angeles right around where Skid Row is now. And like many other cities around the country, a neighborhood formed around the train tracks.

Carla Green:
“So first off, what do we have in front of us here?”

Bryan Eck:
“Okay, well the first thing…”

Carla Green:
Bryan Eck is a Los Angeles city planner.

Carla Green:
“Oh, this is beautiful.”

Bryan Eck:
“Yeah, it’s a map from 1909 and the reason I brought this out is this pictorial here of 1909 actually predates zoning.”

Carla Green:
Back when the area now known as Skid Row started to develop, Eck says there weren’t any zoning laws in LA to say what types of developments were allowed in different areas.

Bryan Eck:
And so what developed at the time, you kind of had the confluence of the rail and the Los Angeles produce and agricultural markets at the same point, which brought a large transient population in terms of the railroad workers and agricultural workers.

Gary Blasi:
I’ve gone through the archives of the LA Times. There’s mentions of Skid Row back 10 years ago around the turn of the century.

Carla Green:
Gary Blasi is a UCLA Emeritus professor who was a housing and homeless advocate in and around Skid Row back in the ’70s and ’80s.

Gary Blasi:
I grew up around the rail yards around downtown and people were referred to in the LA Times as, for example, bums.

Carla Green:
All the way up until the ’70s, most people in Skid Row lived in cheap apartments or single room occupancy hotels or SROs. There were homeless people, but fewer than there are now.

General Dogon:
What I saw when I was a kid was homelessness was just to winos.

Carla Green:
Again, General Dogon who was living in Skid Row in the ’70s.

General Dogon:
You had the occasional winos and the majority of them was white males and I remember they used to drink white port and all that kind of stuff.

Roman Mars:
Skid Row was not yet the sprawling tent city that it would go on to become, but it was still considered a rough neighborhood where people went to seek out drugs or drink all day and sleep on benches, and the homeless population was growing.

Carla Green:
As Skid Row grew, the greater downtown area of LA was also growing and developing and the developers didn’t like what was happening in Skid Row.

Gary Blasi:
For example, the Union Rescue Mission, it was on Main Street and there were lots of people there. It was full all the time. There were people lined up outside, a lot of activity there. There was essentially an open-air drug market around the corner of 5th and Main Street.

Carla Green:
And so a plan emerged in 1972, a plan drafted by a group of businesspeople and endorsed by many city officials to move Skid Row’s population out and developed the area for newer and more moneyed residents. It was known as the Silver Book Plan and it was essentially to raze Skid Row, kick everyone out, bulldoze buildings, and start fresh.

Roman Mars:
Of course, residents of Skid Row and their advocates didn’t like this new plan, and they began thinking about how to fight it.

Carla Green:
One of those people was Charles Elsesser, a young lawyer at the time who remembers coming across some research that showed that when you bulldoze a neighborhood like Skid Row, it just means more Skid Row like neighborhoods pop up elsewhere.

Charles Elsesser:
We weren’t quite sure whether it was true or not.

Carla Green:
Here is Elsesser admitting that true or not, the theory was useful.

Charles Elsesser:
It was a very, very useful theory for purposes of saying this is a mistake. That, that whole idea was a mistake.

Roman Mars:
The theory that Skid Row would just pop up somewhere else if residents were forced to move scared people who didn’t want Skid Row’s residents to end up in their neighborhood. Some of these scared people joined the Skid Row activists cause and the activists were happy to have them.

Charles Elsesser:
We really did, you know, come up with this idea that had some scholarly support, but also really, really helped the advocacy.

Carla Green:
And so armed with their one study, Elsesser and other activists came up with an idea to replace the Silver Book Plan, which again would bulldoze Skid Row, with another one. Here is Jeff Dietrich who helped write the new plan.

Jeff Dietrich:
We developed what’s called the Blue Book Plan.

Carla Green:
Jeff Dietrich and his wife Catherine Morris, have been long time advocates for the homeless. They run a well-known soup kitchen in Skid Row called ‘The Hippie Kitchen’.

Roman Mars:
The Blue Book Plan was this, to contain the spread of Skid Row.

Jeff Dietrich:
It’s basically, what’s called the ‘containment plan’.

Carla Green:
This new plan, we’ll call it the containment plan from here on out, proposed some pretty radical ideas including getting all the missions and the charities and other homeless services to physically move their offices, so they’d be within the newly drawn borders of Skid Row. Again, Gary Blasi.

Gary Blasi:
The deal was all the services that tend to attract homeless people will be concentrated to the East of Spring Street. And in exchange for that, the redevelopment agency will not only not bulldoze all of the SROs, but it will also fund a separate nonprofit called the SRO Housing.

Roman Mars:
The SRO Housing Trust would be charged with protecting and maintaining a whole slew of low-income housing in Skid Row.

Carla Green:
The activists spent several months writing and developing the containment plan, and they worked every angle trying to get the city to take it seriously.

Catherine Morris:
So someone knew someone in the city council.

Carla Green:
That’s Catherine Morris explaining that they got someone to distribute a draft of the plan to everyone on city council.

Catherine Morris:
And so, they agreed that while there was a lunch break that they would bring these in and put them at every place. So the people came back, the council people came back in, and sat down, and picked up the first thing on there and start paging through this. “Where did this come from?” “I don’t know where it came from.”

Carla Green:
The containment plan was enough of a compromise that somehow, amazingly it won out. It wasn’t a legally binding agreement, but it went on to define the city’s approach to Skid Row for decades and it was a totally unique approach. Charles Elsesser said no one else was doing what they were doing and nobody really seems to have done it since. Elsesser says, he’s worked on lots of campaigns to save Skid Row like neighborhoods or housing projects since the ’70s, but Skid Row was the only time he’s used containment as a strategy.

Roman Mars:
The containment plan made various suggestions on how to keep Skid Row types within the new borders of the neighborhood. There is a section of the plan called ‘Inducements’ that reads…

Excerpt from “Inducements” section of the Containment Plan:
“With public restrooms, benches, and pleasant open spaces within the contained area of Skid Row, the residents might be inclined to confine their activities to the immediate area. That section would serve as a magnet to hold undesirable population elements in Skid Row, not against their will, but of their own accord.”

Carla Green:
And the plan talks about a buffer zone, which would create a border between Skid Row and the rest of downtown.

Excerpt from “Inducements” section of the Containment Plan:
Strong edges will act as buffers between Skid Row and the rest of Central City. When the Skid Row resident enters the buffer, the psychological comfort of the familiar Skid Row environment will be lost. He will feel foreign and will not be inclined to travel far from the area of containment.

Roman Mars:
After the containment policy was officially adopted in 1976, the city started to implement it, including many of the meticulous and uncomfortable suggestions of how exactly to contain Skid Row’s population like the buffer zone.

Gary Blasi:
I don’t remember how I know this, but I do remember learning of this that some graduate students from USC were hired basically to shadow people living in Skid Row and to keep track on a map of where they went. And so the question was how broad a buffer zone did you need? How far do people wander from Skid Row? And I think the determination was made that you need a buffer of about two blocks.

Roman Mars:
The city also began using unpleasant design, like annoying bright lights on Skid Row’s bordering streets to keep homeless people from wanting to expand their territory.

General Dogon:
Main Street always had the regular fancy lights, the regular, the old metal ones that bent down, and that was it.

Carla Green:
Again, General Dogon.

General Dogon:
And so when they start building the lofts on Main Street, they came, specifically and they put these big ass prison lights. I know the prison lights when I see one, all right. They’re about this big and they brown. You can go over there and look at them. And that was targeting people who like me, who come outside the SRO and smoke cigarettes hanging out in front of the building or just talk.

Carla Green:
And then there were the more aggressive measures. If you stayed within the borders of Skid Row, Gary Blasi says, the cops might not bother you but…

Gary Blasi:
Yeah, if you crossed over that border, then if you looked like you might belong on Skid Row, the cops were going to stop you.

Roman Mars:
The containment zone made some practical sense both for the city and the residents of Skid Row, but it’s also an uncomfortable dehumanizing idea.

General Dogon:
It’s a warehouse zone. A warehouse is what? Is where you store shit, right. And so, the idea was to push all of the seedy of Los Angeles – unfavorable citizens – right, in one general area.

Carla Green:
Elsesser, the lawyer who helped write the plan says, if the way it’s written sounds un-empathetic or even offensive, that’s because they weren’t trying to run a PR campaign. They weren’t trying to change politicians’ minds about Skid Row’s residents. They were desperately, frantically trying to save Skid Row from being paved over and containment was better than doing nothing. Here is Jeff Dietrich again who co-authored the plan.

Jeff Dietrich:
It’s spoken of rather derisively. Maybe we could’ve thought of a better name but it’s better than-

(male speaker):
The obliteration plan.

Jeff Dietrich:
Yeah right, exactly.

Carla Green:
In case you didn’t catch that, he was saying it’d be better than an obliteration plan.

Roman Mars:
For better or worse, over the course of just a few years, LA’s Skid Row became the place to go if you were homeless in Los Angeles. Some hospitals would even discharge patients there if they didn’t have a fixed address.

General Dogon:
If you’re out in South Central, around about, there is very few service providers that give 24-hour assets. There is no place out in South Central or community where homeless people can go to and every day get three meals, and be able to go take a shower and be able to go use the bathroom, and stuff like that, so all the services is concentrated in one area. So out in South Central, if you homeless, it draws you to Skid Row.

Roman Mars:
LA was funneling all of its homeless people to Skid Row and in the 1980s the homeless population of Los Angeles began to explode. Crack was decimating black communities across the city, and many of these newly addicted people were going to Skid Row.

Ronald Reagan:
“Today, there is a new epidemic, smokeable cocaine, otherwise known-”

Dan Rather:
“As crack, the super-addictive and deadly cocaine concentrate. The crack problem has become a crack crisis and it’s spreading nationwide.”

Ronald Reagan:
“It is an exclusively destructive and often lethal substance, which is crushing its users.”

Roman Mars:
In the midst of the crack epidemic and the escalating war on drugs, Reagan aggressively cut back the welfare system, which drastically shrank the space between poverty and homelessness.

Carla Green:
Skid row wasn’t mostly white male alcoholics anymore. For one thing, it became overwhelmingly black. You started seeing families in the streets, people who might have otherwise taken a room in single occupancy hotels just couldn’t afford them anymore.

General Dogon:
You couldn’t live two, three days in a motel in LA with three, with $200, so people like, well hell, I might as well just keep my $200 and get a tent. You know what I’m saying? I mean, you just crash up and save my money to eat on.

Carla Green:
Gary Blasi was a young advocate at the Legal Aid Foundation at the time. And he remembers that Skid Row was so crowded, it felt unsafe.

Gary Blasi:
It went from, you would see a few people on a block to you would see a hundred people on a block. Meaning, that basically people were shoulder to shoulder and so the density was just… I mean, it was a completely insane place.

Carla Green:
Blasi remembers that for Christmas of 1984 in an effort to get folks some shelter, he and some other advocates set up two big tents with a bunch of cots on an empty patch of land just opposite city hall.

Gary Blasi:
And pretty soon there were 800 people sleeping on cots in those tents.

Roman Mars:
In the last couple of decades, conditions on Skid Row have changed a bit. There are fewer homeless people. They are no longer sleeping shoulder to shoulder on the street. But Skid Row has endured as a place for homeless people to live and find services even as other Skid Row style neighborhoods around the country were eaten up by gentrification, and their residents were scattered around their respective cities.

Carla Green:
And over the years, the sense of community in Skid Row has only gotten stronger. The neighborhoods become not just a hub for social services, but for activism around poverty and homelessness.

General Dogon:
We always seen it as community, right. I get more, “Hey, how you doing brother? What’s up? Hey, how you doing, General Dogon,” when I walk on this side of Skid Row, then I do when I walk on the yuppified side. They walk past you like they don’t even see you. Some of them, a lot of them I know, you know, they still don’t wave. We don’t have no animosity or nothing. This is a community down here. We worked to make this a community.

Roman Mars:
Apart from the containment plan, there is another major reason why Skid Row has not been taken over by new apartment buildings and that’s zoning. Aside from the single-room occupancy hotels and a bit of other low-income housing that was grandfathered in, most of Skid Row is zoned industrial rather than commercial or residential.

Carla Green:
Again, city planner, Bryan Eck.

Bryan Eck:
in the eastern half of Skid Row where it is zoned industrial, that has precluded the expansion or the ability to create new housing there.

Roman Mars:
But all of that could soon change. Los Angeles is currently undertaking a total re-haul of its zoning code starting with downtown and a lot of Skid Row that was formally zoned industrial will probably be rezoned as mixed-use. There are a lot of vacant buildings in Skid Row, and the city would like to make some of that real estate available for housing.

Carla Green:
Many residents of Skid Row would love to have new housing. They’ve been asking for it for years.

Bryan Eck:
Having more housing has been something that they have expressed as something that’s critical for the neighborhood, having grocery stores with healthy and accessible and cheap food.

Roman Mars:
The city is basically saying in order to give you housing, we have to rezone. But Skid Row residents want new housing in their neighborhood to be affordable and that isn’t something that can be dealt with through zoning. Zoning can say whether an area is industrial or residential or mixed, but it can’t say if housing will be affordable. That would have to be done legislatively.

Carla Green:
Some Skid Row residents believe political leaders could find a way to build affordable housing in the neighborhood, but instead, they’ll use the rezoning process as an excuse to open up the real estate market and get them out, like Craig R. He didn’t want to give me his last name, but he’s a longtime resident of Skid Row and he says zoning is just a tool.

Craig R.:
The tool they want to use to get rid of the homeless people and create this new gentrification program is zoning. They’re planning on making billions of dollars by pushing us out, squeezing us out, or kicking us out – meaning us, the poor people, the disadvantaged people, the homeless and plus the residents of the neighborhood.

Roman Mars:
Even without zoning changes, Skid Row is getting smaller. Containment was never a legally binding agreement and the city seems to be increasingly less guided by it. There is a whole neighborhood actually that juts up against Skid Row that used to essentially be a part of it. It’s a new hip neighborhood filled with art galleries and chic cafes. It’s called ‘The Arts District’.

Carla Green:
And as the areas around Skid Row have continued to gentrify taking bites out of the edges of the neighborhood, Skid Row itself has changed, including General Dogon says, the police presence.

General Dogon:
In 2006, the city launched what they called a ‘Safer Cities Initiative’, which brought 110 extra police to Skid Row, so that containment zone is being broken up, busted up by the police. The police come in swinging billy clubs, and people spread out. And so that’s why you got the tents all by the freeway all over here because people say, (beep). You know what I’m saying? I’d rather be over here on 43rd Street in my tent and be able to chill out. Rather than being on St. Julian Street against the wall being jacked up three or four times a day.

Roman Mars:
Back in 1976 when Elsesser and Morris and other activists came up with the containment plan, they included a map that laid out exactly what the borders of Skid Row would be. They were trying to make a deal, a kind of compromise. We’ll stay over here, just don’t try to push us out with new development and we’ll stay contained.

Protest Audio:
“Everybody that’s signed up for housing is still on the street.”
“That’s right.”
“Not here.”
“Today, tomorrow.”

Carla Green:
Just a couple of weeks ago, Skid Row residents and activists were out on the street fighting for those same borders, the ones from the 1976 containment plan, but with a different attitude. They’re not trying to contain Skid Row. They’re trying to contain development or at least the luxury housing development that’s currently being considered right at the edge of Skid Row. It’s a 33 story high rise apartment building. It just needs approval from the local councilmen to move forward. There are about two dozen people at the protest, including General Dogon.”This is ours. Don’t build here,” they’re saying or else-

Protest Audio:
“We’ll be back. We’ll be back. We’ll be back. We’ll be back. We’ll be back. We’ll be back.”

Credits

Production

Reporter Carla Green spoke with activist and former Skid Row resident General Dogon; Los Angeles city planner Bryan Eck; lawyer and activist Charles Elsesser; Blue Book Plan co-author Jeff Dietrich; activist Catherine Morris; and Skid Row resident Craig R.

Special thanks to John Malpede and Henriette Brouwers from the Los Angeles Poverty Department. Thanks as well to Linus Shentu and everyone at the Los Angeles Community Action Network.

Music

Original Music by Sean Real

  1. Ken

    Love the show. One of my very favorites. Sadly I’d fail a coin check. Bad timing there.

    In this show, Nate said that you can’t lower housing costs with rezoning, only with legislation. It’s probably true that rezoning a part of Skid Row wouldn’t improve housing costs. It might even raise housing costs by increasing desirability and speeding ongoing gentrification. But a comprehensive, city-wide rezoning to favor higher-density residential housing might do the trick. https://www.buildzoom.com/blog/paying-for-dirt-where-have-home-values-detached-from-construction-costs Anyway, legislation would be good too.

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