Martha Brown Hicks, the founding president of Skid Row Development Corp., which was established to promote economic boot-strapping on downtown Los Angeles' meanest streets, has died. She was 68.
Hicks, also a former city airports and library commissioner, died May 7 in her Los Angeles home, current corporation President William Hill announced. He did not disclose the cause of death.
The daughter of a St. Louis preacher and teacher, Hicks seemed an anomaly on skid row with her designer suits, managerial style and doubts about statistical estimates of the numbers of homeless people.
But within 10 years after the Community Redevelopment Agency tapped her to head its new corporation in 1978, she had set up Transition House, a 130-bed shelter to help the homeless become employable, and started several small businesses to create jobs for them.
She also ran the San Julian Emergency Shelter and built and renovated commercial buildings for light industrial and administrative uses.
In 1985, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted her a special merit award for her work with Transition House.
Despite criticism of her flamboyant style, Hicks was appreciated as a top-notch fund-raiser who was dedicated to improving life downtown for the homeless and for businesses.
"Martha is a tireless, energetic, fashionable fund-raiser who is loved by the business community," architect Chris Martin told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 1994. "If you put dollars into Martha, the consequence is an improved environment downtown."
Even when homeless men stared at Hicks, precisely because of her sleek appearance, she refused to "dress down" to please her critics.
"I grew up poor," she told The Times during a stroll through skid row in 1988. "You have a street sense and a confidence. These people don't bother you."
Hicks told The Times she had modeled herself on a black attorney named Mary Bush Wilson who had addressed her St. Louis high school. Impressed by Wilson's career-day presentation, Hicks decided: "I wanted to be successful, professional. I wanted to be slim and svelte. I wanted to have prematurely gray hair and two last names. And I did."
After completing Hubbard Business College and St. Louis University, Hicks came to Los Angeles in 1956 and got a job as a secretary in the Planning Department of the city of Compton. Later she earned an urban planning certificate from UC Irvine and moved up to the position of assistant city manager of Compton.
In 1974, Hicks was hired by the city of Santa Monica as director of its grants and community services programs. Four years later, the Community Redevelopment Agency came calling.
Always well-connected in the business and political community, Hicks befriended Richard Riordan many years ago after persuading him to contribute $20,000 to the Skid Row Development Corp. She volunteered to work in his campaign and, after he became mayor, Riordan named her in 1994 to the powerful Los Angeles Airport Commission.
Hicks, who retired from the development corporation in 1996, was named by Riordan the following year as a commissioner on the board of the Los Angeles Public Library.
She is survived by three children, Pamela, Angela and Michael; two sisters, Willis Marie Shepard and Rosalie Jackson; one brother, Dewitt Kilgore; and one granddaughter.