Urban pioneers become part of the city’s fabric

I’m trying not to think about the rats in the street, the men drinking from paper bags, the blood-soaked towel I saw on the sidewalk outside my daughter’s San Francisco apartment.

I’m determined to remember instead the community bookstore on the corner, the trendy restaurant across the street, the friendly folks behind the counter of the liquor store/delicatessen next door.

After years of watching with a reporter’s detachment the evolution of Los Angeles’ city center — from no-man’s land to hipster haven — it’s a bit unsettling to realize that my daughter has unwittingly joined a Bay Area wave of pioneers.

I helped moved her in last week, and came back nursing a mother’s fears. Her block is nice: a bicycle-friendly stretch of Market Street, a short walk from Hayes Valley’s upscale shops.


But head a few blocks in any direction and you pass men camped out on urine-soaked sidewalks and disheveled women panhandling.

It’s a community in the midst of a turnaround. Thanks to a tax break from the city, Twitter is moving its headquarters next year into an architectural landmark a few blocks from my daughter’s apartment. Rents will rise, and shuttered shops will be reborn to capture those techie dollars.

But in the meantime, it offers up a mix of comfort and danger, changing block to block, day to day, even hour to hour.

I shouldn’t be surprised by my mixed feelings. Any neighborhood in flux is bound to evoke competing opinions.


Our editorial page last month carried two fascinating —- and diametrically opposed — perspectives of life in downtown Los Angeles, written by residents of our local pioneer contingent.

It’s a lively, artsy neighborhood rich with cultural diversity and delicious food.

Or a dangerous “low-grade horror movie” marked by screaming sirens and “zombie-like” humans.

I needed a way to stabilize my own shifting images. So I went downtown on Saturday and spent the afternoon walking Main Street.

For years, it was the outer edge of L.A.'s overflowing skid row. Now its cheap hotels and drug treatment programs are outnumbered by upscale restaurants and art galleries.  

Three years ago, Kristen Trattner opened the Nickel Diner right beside the Sanborn, an apartment building run by the Skid Row Housing Trust.

She works hard to be neighborly, keeping prices affordable, giving free coffee in the morning to friends she’s made next door.

Unlike some nearby cafes, she doesn’t put tables out on the sidewalk. That would be too in-your-face to locals, she said. “That’s their stoop, their place to gather. They were here first, after all.”


She gets a lot of business from tourists and suburban visitors to downtown. Some like the novelty of an urban excursion: “There’s something really awesome about waiting outside 30-45 minutes in this sunny neighborhood with a dozen + cool looking folks,” wrote a woman from Buena Park, noting in her Yelp review the “polite nonthreatening homeless … and trendy pet shop across the street.”

But the diner has also suffered from its down-and-outer proximity: “We get reviewed on Yelp by people who never make it inside,” Trattner said. She thinks of those reviewers and realizes “I’m getting two stars because you thought that they were going to steal your car.”

They are the guys I pass as I leave her place: a tough-looking bunch leaning against the Sanborn, smoking cigarettes and arguing — about the proposed NFL stadium next to L.A. Live, the London riots, whether President Obama is wimping out “on that debt mess.”

I know it’s a mistake to reflexively think of street denizens as dangerous. That’s what business owners there must overcome.

Julie Swayze said that she worried when she opened Metropolis Books, a cozy, book-lover’s dream. It’s two doors down from a Skid Row Housing Trust construction project — a six-story apartment-and-retail complex — and next door to an art gallery.

She knew a Main Street shop would be a risk, and so far most of her customers come from nearby offices or lofts. “But a bookstore is for everyone,” she said.

“We’ve got people who have their belongings in a shopping cart, and they want to pick up a dictionary. They’re customers, just like everybody else. They buy history books, test prep materials....”

She doesn’t talk about “the homeless” in our conversation, but about people trying to rebuild their lives. “Dictionaries are our biggest sellers. That’s people investing in themselves.”


Investment is a term that came up a lot when I talked with people about what can make this neighborhood transition work.

“There’s a balance, and everybody has to invest in ensuring that the economic opportunities that come [with change] benefit all people,” said Molly Rysman, an advocate for the homeless with Skid Row Housing Trust.

“There’s a tension if you only see these high lofts and expensive shops and nothing positive that’s happening for you in your community,” she said.

Her group hosted a dinner at the Nickel Diner last week so that new loft dwellers and skid row residents could “sit across a table and actually talk to one another.”

“If you can understand what causes homelessness and what people are struggling with, that makes it more comfortable when you’re confronted with it on a daily basis,” Rysman said. “Which will happen if you live or work downtown.”

Or if you have to walk five blocks from the Muni stop in San Francisco every day to get to your Market Street apartment.

So what do I tell my daughter who, for all I know, already has buddied up to the people I fear?

The best advice came from Theresa Winkler, five years housed and sober, after countless years homeless on skid row. “When you see somebody on the streets, don’t walk over them, walk around them.

“They’re just people. Give them dignity.”

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