A Safe Haven, by Matt Warren
Anyone familiar with Season 3 of HBO’s The Wire will be familiar with “Hamsterdam.” The brainchild of rogue police commander Bunny Colvin, Hamsterdam was an isolated patch of inner-city Baltimore where drugs and vice were tacitly legalized—allowing petty criminals to operate freely within a designated area in the hopes of keeping crime out of other neighborhoods. The goal was not to eliminate crime, but to contain it. And for a little while on the show, it works. Eventually though, political pressures converge on Hamsterdam. The experiment is destroyed. It’s no surprise why I was reminded of the Hamsterdam story arc while watching Lost Angels—the new documentary about L.A.’s Skid Row. It’s a clear case of Life imitating Art imitating Life.
Subtitled Skid Row is My Home, director Thomas Q. Napper’s film suggests that a Hamsterdam-like situation has been in effect in downtown Los Angeles for decades. Between 3,000 and 5,000 homeless, often mentally ill and/or addicted individuals call the compact area from Main to Alameda between 3rd & 7th streets home. For years, the city’s approach to the area has been relatively hands-off, allowing this makeshift community of down-and-out Angelinos to eek out a meager existence; if not wholly functionally, then at least independently. But gentrification and the city’s well-intentioned-but-arguably-misguided (and New York-aping) “Broken Windows” minor-crime crackdown have now combined to threaten Skid Row’s future.
Narrated by Catherine Keener in her best hushed, concerned-Hollywood-liberal voice, Lost Angels attempts to do many things with its brief, under 90-minute runtime. It attempts to provide a truncated history of Skid Row, from its early 20th century beginnings as a largely danger-free place for drunks to congregate to the terrifying, crack-assisted transformation the area undertook in ‘80s, to today. It attempts to advocate on behalf various Skid Row-based recovery and social justice programs, such as The Midnight Mission and something called LAMP. It attempts to provide a sympathetic portrait of at least half-a-dozen residents of Skid Row—from transsexual heroin addicts, to cat-obsessed bag ladies, to reformed criminals. And it attempts to throw a spotlight on the hostile external forces amassing to undo the community.
Personally, the story I’m most interested in is that last one: how economic forces work to first create places like Skid Row, then displace them once the downtrodden have done the dirty work of lowering property values enough for the profitable business of “urban renewal” to take place. It’s not so much that L.A. is trying to sweep Skid Row under the rug—it’s that L.A. is trying to sweep Skid Row under a different part of the rug. Wisely, Lost Angels is conflicted over the idea of Skid Row. On one hand, it’s an incredible civic failure that a place like this is allowed to exist in 21st century America. On the other, it’s clear that this is a legitimate community, providing support to people who literally have no place else to go.
The filmmakers’ goals are obviously more political than cinematic. Ultimately Lost Angels is more effective as an educational tool than as a movie. Its natural environment seems to be the classroom, not the multiplex. Perhaps Napper & Co. should have narrowed their focus to one specific aspect of Skid Row, or viewed Skid Row through the lens of one specific story or character. Or maybe the filmmakers made the exact film they wanted to and I should just shut the fuck up. Hard to say. But Lost Angels is a valuable piece of reference material, if not exactly an enduring work of art.
For a much more focused, narrative-driven documentary about L.A.’s Skid Row, I recommend the titular 2007 doc Skid Row, which I reviewed for Battleship Pretension here.