Callaghan's intimate understanding of the municipal code stems from time she's spent in jail. Over the years, she has gained some notoriety by getting arrested for acts of conscience--protesting the Vietnam War, the treatment of farm workers, the government's policy of deporting illegal Latino immigrants. In 1987, when the city's Department of Public Works was scooping homeless people off the sidewalks with skip-loaders, she was arrested for blocking a driveway. To protest the 1989 police sweeps of Skid Row, she held a sit-in outside the mayor's office--"we get good coverage there," she says, smiling.
But on this day, she's on her good behavior. When the mayor takes the microphone beneath helium balloons, Bradley marvels at the hotel's renewal. "I used to work this area as a police officer," he remembers, "and I cannot believe it could have been done." Then, Wycoff announces ARCO's intention to contribute $1 million this year to the California Equity Fund, earmarked for Skid Row housing (for which ARCO will receive a state and federal tax credit). Callaghan stands off to the side, her arms folded and mouth shut for a change.
The crush of business and government leaders at the hotel is more evidence that Alice Callaghan's moment has arrived. After a decade of working as a housing activist, a time when commercial and industrial developers sought to disperse the Skid Row population, Callaghan has watched her agenda of saving and developing low-income housing become the city's agenda. Recently, she has seen major victories: the City Council imposed a five-year moratorium on demolition of SRO hotels on Skid Row, the toughest ordinance of its kind in the nation, and the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, after years of delays and promises, renewed its commitment to buy and refurbish 15 SROs. The CRA also recently announced that Callaghan's Skid Row Housing Trust would receive more than $7.6 million to not only renovate four hotels but to also build a new one, the first in decades.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 15, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 7 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
In "The Savior of Skid Row" (Nov. 10), Alice Callaghan's role in the Prentice Hotel project was misstated. Chrysalis and the Los Angeles Community Design Center were the project developers. Callaghan helped provide seed money in the form of a predevelopment loan.
"More than anyone," says Mike Bodakin, the mayor's housing coordinator, "she's demonstrated that with a clear focus and a clear goal, you can get things done in this city." Says Councilman Mike Woo, whom Callaghan tapped to sponsor the demolition moratorium: "Alice has set a real national precedent. For many cities, it's too late--they lost their SROs and will never get them back. In this case, we're fortunate that Alice is here to sound the trumpet and let us know we still have time to take this constructive action in our city." "Alice has turned into quite the developer," adds CRA chairman Jim Wood, whom Callaghan has frequently criticized in the past.
While her critics--and there are many--denounce her abrasive style and controlling manner, her supporters prefer to think of her as the Mother Teresa of Skid Row. Callaghan bristles at such comparisons, not because she doesn't measure up but because she's disgusted with Teresa of Calcutta: "I find it unforgivable she's never addressed the systemic problems of poverty," she says. "She talked about Ronald Reagan as a good Christian--the very person who's destroyed programs for poor people. I cannot imagine what her theology is. I just can't."
But there is more at stake here than the recognition of a sharp-tongued do-gooder slaying the dragons of poverty. During the past decade, Los Angeles has become the capital of homelessness in the United States, with estimates hovering between 100,000 and 160,000. Although Skid Row may be considered an enclave of the homeless, with a population of about 11,000, including the largest concentration of mentally ill residents in the county, Callaghan prefers to think of it as an "endangered low-income residential community." At least 75% of that community suffers from mental disorders or drug and alcohol abuse, sometimes both. On any given night, 8,000 men and women live in the SROs, and 2,000 spend the night in the emergency beds and chairs provided by half a dozen missions and shelters; 1,000 people sleep on the sidewalks and in back alleys.
At the same time, Skid Row--or Central City East, as the 326 acres on the east side of downtown are called--remains the last undeveloped chunk of downtown real estate. As Little Tokyo commercial interests encroach on the area, determining how the fish-processing, toy-manufacturing and cold-storage industries can coexist with the low-income residents is a political hot potato. Many have begun to wonder how these two pieces of a schizophrenic puzzle will fit together. Alice Callaghan may well be part of the answer.