Locals call it "The Nickel"--5th Street, Skid Row's major thoroughfare. On a recent Saturday morning, shabbily dressed men crowded the litter-strewn sidewalks. Many were drinking from bottles hidden in crumpled brown paper bags. Drug dealers and their clients flashed rolls of bills and exchanged merchandise, evidently unconcerned by a police station just across the street.
The motorcycle cop who pulled up to the stop light at 5th and Wall streets looked startled when he noticed the small group of neatly dressed people standing on the corner in the midst of the Nickel's bustle and noise. The policeman smiled broadly at them. "Are you folks from around here?" he asked in a hearty, solicitous tone. They shook their heads. "Just be careful, now. This is a bad part of town."
"Yeah, dangerous, dangerous," a passer-by murmured.
When the light changed and the policeman sped off, the group crossed the street roaring with laughter. They felt they knew, better than the policeman imagined, what this "part of town" was all about. They had just spent two hours on an educational walking tour of Skid Row, guided by John Dillon, executive director of the Chrysalis Center, a multi-service self-help organization for Skid Row residents.
'Past the Facade'
Dillon began giving his weekend walking seminars to "help people see past the facade" that he believes is created by the media and by people's own fears.
Tours are offered once a month to show as much as possible of life on Skid Row: the various social service agencies and missions, the welfare hotels, the neighborhood landmarks, the streets and, most important, the people who inhabit the 50-square-block area of Los Angeles that he calls "the outdoor asylum." The tours are open to anyone who is interested in learning about the area; no donations are requested.
Impressions from touring on foot are considerably different from those gleaned through the securely rolled up windows of a moving car. Pots of bright geraniums decorate the second-floor windows of residential hotels. Men wait patiently in long lines for meals served on paper plates; the discarded plates in the gutters always seem to have beans on them. The scents of urine and vomit waft occasionally through the air. Up close, some of the men biding their time on the streets are neatly dressed and seemingly educated; some have books tucked under their arms. Dillon is greeted with a smile as he walks by: "Hey John, my man." "Hey, my favorite winos," he kids in reply.
"When I first started working on Skid Row three years ago, I had never seen poor people in my life," admitted Dillon, a sunny, well-scrubbed 24-year-old who is a former member of the Jesuit volunteer corps, an organization of lay people working in community service agencies. "Walking from Hill Street to Wall Street is like going into the valley of death at 6 o'clock in the morning. I used to put Old Spice on my upper lip because I couldn't stand the smells. But when I really got to know the population, I found they were a nice group. I started informally walking people around the neighborhood, mostly people supporting the Chrysalis Center, to let them know what was going on."
Jerry and Ginny Broms of Thousand Oaks joined the Saturday tour to gain a more complete understanding of the neighborhood and then spent the rest of the day doing volunteer work for the center. "When you read about these things it pulls at you," said Ginny. "It's easy to write a check every once in a while, but I wanted to contribute more. I've been blessed and I want to share a little."
Denise McMaster, a member of the Claretian lay missionaries volunteer program, took the tour to become familiar with the area--she's looking for an agency where she can do full-time volunteer work. Also participating was Matt Sullivan of Santa Monica, a real estate investment broker and member of the Chrysalis board of directors.
It's a crash course in the politics of poverty. Beginning at the Chrysalis Center on 5th Street, groups stop at many of the social-service organizations that serve the Skid Row population. Dillon gives his frank and outspoken opinion of each one, and seems to be an expert on the maze of multi-initialed government welfare programs that affect area residents. He also delights in myth busting. "Most people's perception is that the Skid Row population is all older, and that they are winos or mentally ill," he said. "But much of the population is under 40, they're unemployed, and some crisis or series of crises has put them here temporarily."