History of Skid Row
Downtown train station, 5th and San Pedro streets, 1895.
By Donald Spivack
Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA)
September 15, 1998
CRA's role in the history and development of Skid Row Los Angeles. (It is interesting to be part of this project. I think it will be very exciting to assemble everybody's different perspectives on the development of what we call the "Central City East" area of downtown Los Angeles. Let me start with a brief history of the evolution of the area.)
The Central City East area of downtown Los Angeles is an area of approximately 50 city blocks. It is generally bounded by Third Street on the north, Alameda Street on the east, Seventh Street on the south and Main Street on the west. It is a portion of Greater Downtown, the roughly triangular area bounded by the Pasadena and Harbor Freeways on the west, the Los Angeles River on the north and east, and the Santa Monica Freeway on the south. This boundary includes downtown, with the city’s major high-rise buildings (Bunker Hill and the Financial District); the city’s historic core from both the Spanish era (Olvera Street and El Pueblo State Historic Park) and the American era (Broadway and Spring Streets); the ethnic communities of Chinatown and Little Tokyo; and the large concentration of industrial zones that comprise the garment, produce, seafood, flower and toy centers.
The Central City Area.
When the Spanish first founded Los Angeles1 in 1781, they sited it near a pre-existing Native American settlement (“Yang-na”) along the Los Angeles River a short distance northeast of the current El Pueblo Historic Park at Olvera Street. (The city center was relocated to Olvera Street in 1815 because of repeated flooding at the first site.) Los Angeles’ primary role was as an agricultural station to supply the nearby Spanish Missions. For many years, the area was predominantly agricultural, being on the flood plain of the Los Angeles River and thus fertile for the growing of crops, accessible to a steady water supply, flat enough to be easily built on, and easily accessible to surrounding ranches and to the Missions.
As the city grew south and west from Olvera Street, skirting the Elysian Hills (including what is now downtown’s Bunker Hill), the flood plain in the immediate downtown area -- generally the area east of Main Street -- remained agricultural until the railroads came into Southern California in the 1870’s2. That put the railroads on the edge of the emerging downtown, which was developing along Main and Spring Streets and Broadway generally south of First Street. With the coming of the railroads, a number of things happened. The area east of downtown began to evolve from its original agricultural (largely vineyard) nature into an industrial district. It was well-suited for that from the perspective that it was close to the river, now had railroad access, and was pretty much flat land so it was easy to develop with industrial uses -- which initially emerged from the agricultural base that was the city’s economic mainstay.
Even in the early days, a lot of the industrial activity in Los Angeles was seasonal, so there was historically a very large transient population that came to Los Angeles for work. Once the railroads were in place, that population arrived on the trains and was delivered directly into the city’s industrial zone. Much of the industry, even in the early days, was related to agriculture, the primary focus of what was going on in the settlement -- growing, packing and shipping agricultural products including livestock, fruits and vegetables. The railroads themselves, since Los Angeles was a railhead, also generated a transient population in the area made up of the engineers, brakemen and other personnel who operated and managed the trains. They would come in on the train, and they had a couple of days’ layover in the community.
Photo from the USC Digital Archive.