Monday, 12 July 2010

The Social Ecology of Bunker Hill

Today, Sunday, I was up with the lawn sprinklers and the house-maids, that is even before the joggers, in this rather pleasant part of LA in which I am staying ...... 

I find it rather sweet the way these palms all lean towards the south!

I set off on a journey of ecological exploration, and found a sad story of social exclusion and control.

I drove through almost empty streets on my first visit to down-town LA, not three miles distant.  I was very glad for the lack of cars when I encountered the many-layered complexities of the town centre, with all its fly-overs and underpasses and god-knows-what to confuse the new-comer.

Fortunately Third Street took me directly to my destination, Bunker Hill, where I had heard that there is a small park so steep that only goats can do the landscaping, as a small flock from San Diego did this week.

Here are a couple of them, getting down to work, with Price Waterhouse Cooper in the background.

LaMaCod.  Downloaded from Flickr under Creative Commons license

It's the third year at this gig for the weed-whacking goats, but sad to say, it may be their last.  It seems that the park is another example of the ecological depredation I have been mulling in connection with Newport Beach (a couple of posts back), which is why I came to take a look.

Check out the goat story.  it's really quite cute.  It seems that they saved the taxpayer $3000 over more conventional weed-control methods (i.e. in labour costs), and also, as one homeless person who lives in the neighbourhood said, they make everyone more friendly.....

For me the kicker was the last sentence of the goat story, tossed off lightly and without comment, where surely comment is due: the area will soon be developed.

No matter what small amount of social benefit is provided by this little patch, it will soon be crushed by the great god Mammon.  However, I found the situation to be much worse than even I had expected.

Angel Knoll, as the little park is called, occupies an escarpment which has for a long time marked (as they often do) a social as well as a physical boundary: in this case between an historically elite area of LA and the more poverty-stricken miasmas of the flatlands below. 

And this is still apparently the case, but in a new and desperate way.

At the top of the hill and to its west, once a residential area, are now to be found such entities as the luxurious, palm-fronted Omni Hotel, the super-shiny Price Waterhouse Cooper, shown in the above photo and on the right below, the striking and lovely Walt Disney Music Center, and others of similar stripe, many grouped around a pleasant water park.

Omni Hotel

 Walt Disney Music Center

However, if you look the other way, towards the east, while no longer exactly impoverished, the area is markedly less up-scale. 

LaMaCod.  Downloaded from Flickr under Creative Commons license

It is here, among these buildings right in the heart of LA, that many, many (tens of thousands), homeless people live.

Strangely enough, this clear socio-geographical distinction is echoed in the park itself, which is divided in two.  The upper part, the elite westerly part, is watered, green, planted with shady trees and provided with benches.

The lower, easterly part, seen here now neatly nibbled by the goats, is the part closest to the homeless people, and is completely free of any amenity (except free wi-fi, but that's a joke, surely). The luxurious trees you can see in this photo are in the upper, more westerly part of the park.

The two are divided by a fence, and a further fence surrounds the whole, forbidding and exclusionary, especially in the more desirable portion.

The single gate to the park is hidden away at the upper-most  corner of the park: convenient for the office workers above to have their lunch in, less so for the homeless people living in the streets below. 

It is approached from below by a rather forbidding flight of concrete steps, almost hidden beside the little railway for the tourists (originally built to help servants move from their homes in the flatlands to the elegant workplaces above).

Try going up that with a shopping cart, I thought.

You can't see the gate very easily from the top either, but it's there, underneath the California Plaza building, if you can spot it beyond the staircase, behind the palm tree.

But to get back to my story.

I drove down the flank of the escarpment on which Knoll Park lies, moving from west to east, past the pleasant and then the arid sections of the park.  It was around seven o'clock this morning when I turned right onto Hill Street, which runs along the base of the escarpment, and past famous Pershing Square.

The whole street and its environs were astir, totally astir, with people waking up, packing their belongings, yawning, stretching, pushing their shopping carts, stowing blankets in rucksacks.  There was a marked busyness and purpose about all this activity, particularly startling compared to the stillness of the streets I had just left.

Most shockingly I saw a person asleep in a wheelchair, in a door-way with a blanket pulled up over his head.  I can hardly imagine living on the streets at all, let a alone in a wheelchair.  And sleeping in a wheelchair every night?  Crikey, that's all I can say to that. I don't mean to be facetious, but words completely fail me here.

In addition, many showed signs of other disabilities: mental illness, and all the exhaustions and despairs of addiction.  How many are disabled in some way I thought.  I wonder what services they have access to.  It turns out that a major, perhaps the only, service that comes to them actually favours the rich.

Not all appeared to be long-term denizens of this zone: I saw one tall young man, neater than many of the others, praying with his palms up-turned, who had a suit, protected by plastic wrapping, swinging desperately on a hanger at the back of his ruck-sack.

In the space of 2-3 short blocks I think I saw upwards of 200 people, of which perhaps a quarter were women, busily engaged in packing up the evidence of their existence.  I parked and walked around, moving through the community as if in a different dimension, which of course I am.

Soon I saw the reason for all this activity - two agents with the words "neighborhood security" emblazoned on the back of their shirts, smartly uniformed in purple, lightly armed and equipped with very nice bicycles and various other accoutrements of authority, were waking people up and making them move on.  How callous they seemed, how insolently they stood and watched a man getting dressed on his bench.

By eight o'clock the streets were quiet again, ready for the tourists.  Many of the former sleepers in fact looked very much like tourists themselves, with back-packs, wheelie-bags and not much else, anonymously and ironically blending with the affluence surrounding them.

Life in this part of the world is strikingly luxurious for many, but extremes of poverty are so close to the surface, and unemployment growing so rapidly, that one wonders how it can all be contained.

Three things come to mind:-
  • Ideology: The American Dream, a ruthless two-edged sword replacing any notions of collective entitlement with exclusion and desperation, is nevertheless a powerful opiate; 
  • Intoxication: And then of course the real opiates, the cheap narcotics with which LA is awash greatly assist; and 
  • Force: let's not forget the critical element of control (not to mention fear and loathing), AKA in this case "neighborhood security".
Shortly afterwards I sat outside a very nice coffee-house on the edge of this neighbourhood,  just west of Pershing Square (drafting this blog as a matter of fact), and a young woman passed out at the table next to me.  A family with teenage children waiting for the lights to change nudged each other and laughed.

One of those two purple-clad bozos on bicycles turned up and shook her awake. She roused herself and walked unsteadily away, muttering abuses at him and us.

Not long after that, as I still sat there, two young men occupied the same table, apparently in the aftermath of a one night stand.  When the one that was dressed in flowing black priest-like robes walked away, the other, who had a huge suitcase with him containing only a sleeping bag and a few bits and pieces of electrical equipment (I know because he opened it up right in front of me), went into an emotional melt-down, weeping, pacing up and down the sidewalk and shouting at all around. It appeared he had not been paid.

The management called the authorities, and the very same cyclist arrived back again and took the young man away.  About half an hour later the poor fellow returned, without his suitcase, opened the door of the coffee house and shouted that everyone should boycott the place.

It was a totally ineffective act of defiance.  By that time there had been an almost complete turnover in the clientele, and no-one except the staff and I knew what he was talking about, and the staff just laughed, along with everyone else. Laughed rather nervously I thought: perhaps because they may be only a low-paid "job" away from the streets themselves.

What an important function these drugs fulfill: further disempowering vulnerable people where there should be solid programmes and services to remove poverty and joblessness, but which cannot be provided because, despite all the wealth around, the tax base is just way too small relative to the need.  The costs of those two cyclists tasked with keeping street people as much as possible out of the eyes of everyone else is negligible compared to what should be in place. A total travesty of an equal, free and decent society is revealed.

Well as I know that the USA is the most unequal of any OECD country, I was shocked to be confronted by the reality.  This was without doubt the most unabashed, in your face, front and centre poverty and oppression that I have seen in any major western city: utterly shameful in a city so rich, so engulfed in conspicuous consumption.

The only difference between this and a third world city (of which I have visited over 100, according to a FaceBook widget) was that there were apparently no children: in this at least LA holds back from absolute barbarism, but that is not much to say for the richest city in the eighth largest economy in the world (California).

And yet social struggle around Bunker Hill seemed very muted, very puny, very subdued to me, at least on that particular Sunday morning, although heaven knows, day-to-day living on the street must certainly be enough of a struggle for the extremely deprived. But where is the broad movement that understands this situation, that can advance their interests?  What has happened to the upswelling of hopes that put Obama in power?

I know there are committed and principled organisations representing the interests of the poor and deprived, but why is it so hard for them to gain traction, to gain political weight and momentum in this country so committed, in fine words, to "equality" and "democracy"?  Here I do not mean to sound naive: I am being rhetorical. It is a history of vicious attacks, supplemented by a suffocating ideology and attrition, about which I need to know more.

Without the solid foundation of a political movement behind him, Obama's progressive politics have just shrivelled away in the heat.  Perhaps "evaporated" would be a better term:  "shriveled" implies at least a prior state of solid substance. Compare this, for example, with Lula, by no means a revolutionary, who has made similar compromises with the world financial barons, but has nevertheless maintained in Brazil, with the active support (and let's be clear, pressure) of his constituency, a much more vigorous social contract, while at the same time getting out of recession rather quickly (relative to UK and US, that is).  At least inequality is declining in Brazil.

I got back into my car and drove westwards to another escarpment, this time dividing the merely wealthy from the incredibly super-rich (and incredibly under-taxed).  The fabled slopes of Beverley Hills float like an Avalon above the coastal plane of Santa Monica.  Here, at a bend in Sunset Boulevard is a cinema, where I went to see a film, South of the Border, to see what it could tell me about the limitations of social struggle in Amerika.

Not much as it turned out, being sadly more focused on individual leaders (and on Oliver Stone himself) than on the movements behind them.

More is to be found elsewhere, for example in What is living and what is dead about social democracy.  This is a paper by Tony Judt, in the NY Review of Books, which explores the dissonance in US thinking between being basically fairly liberal and wanting a decent society for all, but definitely not wanting taxes for oneself, and why the latter wins out.  Says it better than I ever could.

And the same political dissonance, er ... confusion, has been found in UK, on which the ConDem's will soon be building their terrifying edifices of disempowerment. It's pretty bad there already, with rough sleepers and disabled people, among other populations, seriously under-served and neglected.  How will we resist a similar fate before all the assaults on our welfare state that are in the pipeline?

To this question, of course, there is only one answer: organize. The question is, will the rate of organization outpace the accelerating efforts of the government to demonize the disempowered, in the ways that have been so very effective in the US.

Update: January 26 2011

Six months later, listening to Southern California national public radio KPCC in sunny Newport Beach, I hear a programme entitled Homelessness in Los Angeles: The Safer City Initiative.  Turns out that I was in Zip Code 90014, the actual, original Skid Row.  More accurately, I was on its outermost edge.

According to this excellent programme, the city fathers have been trying to address homelessness  (AKA pander to voters) with a heavy police presence, sending rough sleepers off to jail etc. etc.  and have thwarterd the efforts of more principled people trying to provide services to the vulnerable and desperate people living there.

It seems that the two-man "Neighborhood Security" team I had seen were were part of a much bigger planned programme of heavy handed policing.  It has not been a success, according to the programme.  No surprises there.

However, it is clear that there is at least a debate, in some circles, about the best way to solve homelessness: but its also clear the public is just not with this issue.

Update July 9 2011

In light of this debate its at least somewhat interesting the Will&Kate have chosen to visit 90014.  Its in line with his work on homelessness in UK, and perhaps will give the debate a broader airing than is usually possible, as summarised, for example this LA Times piece:  Royal Visit - making the most of Will and Kate's Skid Row photo-op.


  1. I enjoyed this piece, which reminded me of my own pedestrian adventures in downtown LA in 1991. I was shocked to see the numbers of people living in cardboard boxes in the streets. Naively, it was the last thing that I expected to find in the heart of affluent California. I suppose that it was a good way to learn about ghetto style American living where the rich and poor live in fear of each other in rigorously enforced zones. After tramping about the hard streets of downtown you should go to Marina del Ray and buy yourself a 20 oz margharita.

  2. Dear Sarah Louise

    Your piece evokes a strong sense of modern feudal times, with the dollar and its well-rewarded servants in the fortified castle on the top of the hill and the disposable serfs sleeping in doorways and wheel-chairs, kept out of sight as much as possible. The apparent continuing passivity of those against whom injustices of all kinds are being done in NA returns on a large question mark when thinking about this situation, especially in light of the developments in the Middle East. And in these modern feudal times, the serfs of the machine seem to include most of what used to be the middle class and working people,with a tiny number of over-rich lords and their ladies using the machineries of state, church and global economy to impoverish the planet and the rest of us. Remember the line from a Ry Cooder song - Everything that makes you rich makes them poor. Thanks for your thoughtful blog and sensibility. Trish