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COLUMN ONE : Life in the Underbelly of L.A. : The city's warehouse district is rife with transients who pillage businesses on eerie nighttime raids. Once touted as an artists' haven, the concrete jungle spawns a bizarre subculture.


At night, thieves play hide-and-seek on the rooftops of Los Angeles' warehouse district, a hidden corner of the city where disparate worlds collide and Darwinian laws prevail.

Ill-bred wraiths, the burglars clamber from one building to the next in search of air vents, attic doors, any place they can break in. There are petty bonanzas to reap: stereos, shoes, tomatoes and oranges by the crate--anything they can sell for crack cocaine.

When alarms go off, they scatter like wharf rats, shimmying down drainpipes and disappearing through trash-strewn streets--gone before the police can get there.

"I ain't been caught yet," boasted Jonathan Rollie, who takes to the rooftops whenever he is short on crack or clothing. He is one among a legion of outcasts who inhabit this realm of cinder block and sheet metal, a bleak landscape hard by the concrete shore of the Los Angeles River.

Day and night, within the warehouse district's labyrinth of high walls and razor wire, rootless subcultures are thrown together, sometimes clashing, sometimes spinning off in strange and darkly symbiotic alliances.

Here, weary truckers from across the country disembark for a few hours before gearing up again--their rigs often plundered by transients who eke out a cave-like existence in the district's empty warehouses. Here, intravenous drug users inject themselves in alleys while prostitutes troll for lonely drivers. Here, walled off from persistent thieves and intimidating beggars, a dwindling artists colony holds on in paint-stained lofts once heralded as the vanguard of the city's artistic renaissance.

Not so long ago, the artists nearly succeeded in molding the district to their collective vision. But those dreams have gone the way of so many others here, withering away in a bleak nether world almost walking distance from the spires of downtown, yet so remote that it seems torn asunder from the rest of the city.

To enter this domain, to roam the streets of the warehouse district as it spins through its hyperkinetic 24-hour dance of trucks and human jetsam, is to undergo sensory bombardment--to be assaulted with the pungent odors of vegetables, urine, beer, sawdust and diesel fumes; to feel the shuddering gears of the city.

The asphalt trembles as hundreds of trucks prowl the streets hours before dawn. They bring in merchandise by the ton--toys, electronics, clothing and more, piling it to the ceilings of cavernous warehouses.

The warehouse district's steel-shuttered produce and wholesale storerooms and loading docks are conduits for commerce exceeding $3 billion a year, making it one of the leading distribution centers in the United States. Yet amid the vitality, the area writhes in a perpetual state of crisis.

Though many transients congregate around the Skid Row missions nearer downtown, taking advantage of soup kitchens and lodging, a rougher element has spilled over into the warehouse district by the thousands. In ungated lots and along empty walls, encampments spring up as fast they are torn down.

The street people mount a ceaseless assault on the district's bulging caches of produce and merchandise. Even steel shutters are not immune. Eventually, time and a crowbar find an opening. "A guy walking around has all night," as one police officer put it, "to pick, pry, poke and peel to get in."

Startling tales abound: The warehouse that lost $80,000 in goods in a single night . . . break-ins accomplished with blow torches, or by ramming stolen vehicles into loading dock doors . . . $20,000 rooftop air-conditioning systems laid waste for $200 in trade at nearby scrap-metal yards.

"If there's an empty building . . . one guy gets in and within a week there's nothing left," said Howard Klein, a land owner who found one of his structures gutted by intruders.

The area is a curio-scope of the surreal: The rusted loading dock of an old onion warehouse becomes the backdrop for an outdoor church service for the homeless; in a dark alley at 2 a.m., Northern California trucker Bobby Griffin sells 5,000 live chickens, a noisy cargo dispensed in wire cages to buyers from Chinatown and Los Angeles' Eastside.

Drab and gray as a charcoal rendering, the district has no official boundaries. Its borders can be divined only by those familiar with its demarcations--columns of trucks, mazes of warehouses and loading docks, yards stacked high with pallets. The area sprawls from San Pedro Street on the west to the Los Angeles River on the east. The Santa Monica Freeway forms the south flank and the northern edge is 1st Street, next to Little Tokyo.

The district's formless architecture has always been wedded to commerce. Southern Pacific Railroad opened the first depot in Los Angeles here in the late 1800s, near the river and open fields. The train yards begat vast brick storehouses as the burgeoning city became a terminus for goods pouring into the West.

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