The Patron Saints of Skid Row

In a 2015 article entitled “Skid Row Land Rush: Now It’s One of the Pricier Sections of L.A.,” KQED Public Media reporter Steven Cuevas asserts that measures taken by the Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles have had dual impacts, both helping and hurting the homeless. Cuevas’s article makes visible the cultural and economic stakes of poverty, suggesting that the Trust has spurred a land-grab that has lured not only the Skid Row population but also gentrifying and entrepreneurial young people. The Trust’s measures aim to allocate resources for affordable housing and remedy the homeless problem of Los Angeles. However, their housing complexes like New Genesis have turned the Skid Row district into a beacon for hobohemian practitioners because they reserve low-income housing while simultaneously “cater[ing] to the area’s more affluent newcomers” (Cuevas). These class-based tensions corroborate the dirty details of a decades-long practice of for-profit-not-for-people commercial development, what Cuevas remarks is a “shameful” practice that “stresses the system” (Cuevas). Regardless, “new denizens” of young professionals, families, and businesses are moving to downtown Los Angeles, lured by the class-based “edge” that Skid Row can provide (Cuevas).

Cuevas supports the claim of this cultural attraction by including with his report an image of an alleyway mural near the New Genesis complex. In the image, centered above a trash bin, are the celebrated likenesses of the “patron saints” of Skid Row: Tom Waits, Charles Bukowski and John Fante:

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(Cuevas 2015)

This image draws on the socioeconomic pressures of housing practices, offering Skid Row as both dire and dangerous while at the same time productive and romantic. The cultural successes of the ‘patron saints’ are mapped onto the revisionary potential of the blighted neighborhood. Their working-class credentials, represented through the creative realms of American literature and popular music, are grafted onto the promised experience for “new denizens” of Skid Row. The mural demonstrates an ongoing tension of class identity in American life, where poverty is rendered a creative enterprise marking it a valuable—as in profitable—inheritance.

This course explores literary and cultural figures like Waits, Fante and Bukowski, but also London, Kerouac, and Allison to examine how artists gain autonomy through the material conditions of exceptional poverty in twentieth century contexts of homelessness and dispossession. These figures find a home in homelessness, and an entrepreneurial opportunity within poverty.