Woody At 100: Why Skid Row Still Matters

  July 14 Fundraiser For Cause Guthrie Held Dear

Woody Guthrie passed many a night on Skid Row when he arrived in 1937 in Los Angeles. Seventy-five years later, life on Skid Row hasn’t gotten much easier. But a recent street cleaning campaign that swept up homeless people’s essential belongings has caused some residents to fight back. They are demanding a semblance of dignity for life on the streets. A fundraising concert for Skid Row art and activism will be held in Echo Park (another Woody haunt) on his 100th birthday, July 14 from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. at the Echo Bar, 1822 W. Sunset Boulevard in downtown Echo Park. Suggested price: $10. The event is co-hosted by The Trailer Trash Project and Occupy Fights Foreclosures.

 Woody Guthrie was one tens of thousands of Dust Bowl refugees who came to California in 1937, hungry, dirty, and desperate for work. Skid Row was one of the first places he landed. He played for spare change on the streets, in bars and restaurants around Fifth and Main, penning songs like “Skid Row Blues” and “Fifth Street” that reflect his evolving views on the societal injustice. Seventy-five years later, Fifth and Main has been renamed “Woody Guthrie Square.” The corner – known due to gentrification as the Beverly Hills of Skid Row – would be unrecognizable to Woody today. But all he would have to do is walk a few blocks and feel right at home. Skid Row is the end of the line for a growing number of people forced to live on the streets. But things may be changing. As plans for a new football stadium threatens the viability of Skid Row, residents are fighting back.

Lessons From the PastThere were no welcome mats laid out for Woody or any of the other Okies, Arkies and Texans who poured into Los Angeles during the Great Depression. The Los Angeles Police Department even set up check points in Needles and other outposts to turn back indigent Okies. (Woody’s song “Do Re Mi” reflects that event.) So great was the fear that the “minimally white” newcomers would spread disease and generally weaken the fabric of society that editorials called for them to be euthanized

As he traveled the back roads and the city streets around Los Angeles, Woody saw signs reading: “No Okies, Mexicans or Dogs Allowed In Store,” At a movie theatre: “Negroes and Okies Upstairs.” Above a public urinal: “Okie Drinking Fountain.” He witnessed people of Mexican descent who were living in Los Angeles being uprooted from their homes and sent to Mexico. He began to understand that other groups of marginalized people – of Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, African and Filipino descent-were facing similar discrimination, and had been for a very long time. Gradually, Woody began to call all unwanted people “my people.”

Skid Row Today: A Historical ContinuumHamid Khan, of Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) sees the current street cleaning campaign on Skid Row as a continuum of the country’s long history of forced relocation and displacement of unwanted people. He links plans for a downtown football stadium to what he believes is a stepped-up effort to eliminate poor people from Skid Row and surrounding areas. Khan criticizes politicians who embrace the Safer Cities Initiative and other campaigns that demean unwanted groups, making it socially acceptable to get rid of them. “They say we need to clean out the homeless so people can come downtown, feel safe and enjoy themselves,” he said. “Skid Row has become a laboratory for establishing policies and codes that demonize people who are not wanted.” For similar campaigns, he points to freeway projects built through downtown neighborhoods, permission denied for mosques and the demolitions of public housing projects in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Photo credit: Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times

Fighting BackWhere there is oppression, there is often resistance. Khan says, these days, residents on Skid Row are fighting back, reclaiming their right to occupy space on the streets and challenging the notion that profit trumps people. As with the Great Depression, hard times are upon us, and the conditions on Skid Row speak volumes about how we systematically discriminate against marginalized groups. While the once-secure middle class shrinks, the ranks of the homeless grow. Many of us are one paycheck – or a foreclosure notice – away from our own version of Woody’s “Hard Times.” But down-on-your-luck tunes were not good enough for Woody – or “his people”. He told us that, when we work together, “A Better World’s A-Coming.”

For more on the event, contact: Lydia Breen, Co-founder, The Trailer Trash Project thetrailertrashproject@gmail.com


“A Better World’s A-Coming” Fundraiser for Skid Row Art and Activism A Tribute To Woody Guthrie on His 100th Birthday With Olmeca and Special Guests, Suggested Price: $10 Saturday July 14, 6p.m. – 9 p.m. Echo Bar 1822 W. Sunset Ave. Echo Park, L.A. 90026 Hosted by The Trailer Trash Project and Occupy Fights Foreclosures.*

*The Trailer Trash Project operates out of a vintage trailer to bring free concerts, plays and exhibits to local Los Angeles neighborhoods. We collaborate with a multicultural, multidisciplinary group of artists with a common interest in using art to support the work of grassroots community organizations. The Trailer Trash Project is a project of the Pasadena Arts Council’s  EMERGE Fiscal Sponsorship Program.

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Occupy Fights Foreclosures, affiliated with OccupyLA, stands up against the nationwide foreclosure crisis. We support, educate and empower homeowners at risk to save their homes from fraudulent foreclosures.

Fundraiser for Skid Row Art and Activism, 6 pm – 9 pm July 14 Echo bar 1822 W. Sunset Boulevard, downtown Echo Park, 90026. Hosted by The Trailer Trash Project and Occupy Fights Foreclosures.


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