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It's Checkout Time for One Old Hotel on L.A.'s Skid Row

Place that catered mostly to transients is being razed to make way for a park.

November 29, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Around the streets of downtown Los Angeles' skid row, the San Julian Hotel was known as "buck wild" -- as in anything goes. It was also dubbed "New Jack City," after the popular 1991 film in which a ruthless crime lord converts an entire apartment building into a drug lab.

City officials and community activists shed no tears when a demolition claw began tearing into the 25-room transient hotel late last week. The unassuming two-story wood and stucco structure, its interior partly charred by an April fire, is being leveled to make room for a children's park and playground.

The hotel, on San Julian Street between 5th and 6th streets, long embodied the social ills of an area notorious for its bustling assortment of seedy goings-on, said neighbors and officials.

But its former owners, who also lived there, portrayed a different reality. The hotel, they said, was never a crime magnet and provided needed shelter to people, such as parolees, who were rejected as tenants elsewhere.

"The San Julian has a bad reputation, because we were right in the middle of skid row," said Rick Patel, whose family owned the building for 22 years. "We were in the wrong place."

The site gained notoriety in 1999 when the city declared it and other nearby hotels public nuisances for allowing drugs sales, prostitution, public drunkenness and loitering to proliferate. Police surveillance reports, crime statistics and the declarations of residents provided the evidence.

Remarkably, that was the first such coordinated effort to crack down on businesses in the skid row area, officials said.

Daniel Green, the zoning administrator who made the decision and who is still monitoring the establishments, said this week that the disappearance of the San Julian would not resolve the drug problem on skid row. But "if there's one less temptation ... maybe there's a little less likelihood someone will get hooked," he added.

Los Angeles Police Capt. Jim Rubert said the hotel remained troubled until the end, despite orders to the owners to crack down on criminal activities. He said that perhaps its demolition would awaken a new spirit amid the squalor of skid row.

"Having a park instead of a drug-infested hotel is a positive change," said Rubert, of the LAPD's Central Division, which patrols skid row. "Hopefully, seeing youngsters being affected positively will lift the consciousness of some people."

Officials at the Union Rescue Mission next door said they had already noticed improvements since the hotel closed after the fire in April. The homeless shelter and recovery center, itself a fixture on skid row, bought the San Julian for $700,000 recently.

"The word on the street was that this was a major drug-dealing area," said Scott Johnson, the mission's security manager, of the hotel. "You'd see a lot of high-priced vehicles coming in and out of their parking lot, Escalades, [other] Cadillacs."

Mission officials said they will use the space to expand their facilities and add a much-needed play area after seeing a rising number of women and children using their emergency services.

On a tour of the hotel just before its demolition, Johnson pointed out vestiges of the tattered lives of its tenants -- scattered clothes strewn about the small rooms, an abandoned shoe in a corner, umbrellas, bags, blankets, a pair of crutches. Also visible were half a smoked marijuana cigarette and drug paraphernalia such as straws, glass plates, razor blades and tiny plastic reclosable pouches -- nickel and dime bags -- commonly used to hawk drugs on the street.

Upstairs, where the fire broke out, patches of blue sky could be seen through burned-out sections of the roof. A charred compact disc lay on the floor next to a yellow baby rattle, and sunlight illuminated a burned blue and silver necklace.

In one room Johnson found a metal lockbox with remnants of marijuana. In another were several driver's licenses, checkbooks and Social Security cards -- evidence, perhaps, of someone engaged in identity fraud, he guessed.

On a dresser in one room was a pornographic videotape, a Bible and a brown teddy bear. Some items previously found in the building, like remnants of black tar heroin, were turned over to police, Johnson said.

The hotel was a source of problems for at least 10 years, but complaints were often ignored because it was skid row, contends Zelenne Cardenas, program manager at the United Coalition East Prevention Project, an alcohol and drug prevention program based a few blocks from the hotel on 6th Street.

Bridget Wilson, women's chaplain at the Union Rescue Mission, recalled standing a few years ago on a deck at the mission that overlooked the San Julian when shots rang out. Two bullets from the hotel's windows pinged the deck, and she thought twice about going out there again, she said.

When the April fire broke out, Wilson helped clothe and comfort a woman who had jumped "buck naked" from a second-floor window to escape.

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