Suggested Use of Language – LA’s Skid Row Neighborhood

This post, first created in March of 2016, has since been edited a number of times. For years it was pinned at the top of “Community Artivism, a creative perspective from LA’s Skid Row neighborhood,” the precursor to doodles without borders.

The below guide was first created at the height of Skid Row Design Collective’s active work, and was framed as a beginning of a conversation around the “intersection of arts, social justice, and community improvement without displacement,” focusing on the role of arts, cultural, and social spaces in this conversation. I have since been introduced to a variety of analysis and resources, from Community Cultural Benefits Principles Toolkit out of Detroit, to the work of Migrants in Culture; and this conversation is as relevant today as it was then!

Suggested Use of Language Guide
Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood
(started March 2016 and evolving)

Skid Row neighborhood?
Skid Row is a working class, low-income, predominantly black and also incredibly diverse community.  Skid Row is a deeply under-resourced residential neighborhood in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles.

Skid Row residents live, resist, connect, organize, celebrate and support each other, despite experiencing first-hand and witnessing daily the most overt manifestations of racial, social, health and economic inequalities and oppressions in our society. Skid Row is at the forefront of local, country-wide and global dehumanizing neoliberal policies that deliberately deepen inequality as it relates to housing, healthcare, and a dignified human life.

But Skid Row is not unique, it is exposed to the same racial capitalism that manufactures civic disenfranchisement, criminalization of poverty, and economic oppression affecting more than 150 million people in United States (from rent-burdened tenants living in fear of displacement, to people living on the street in daily fear for their lives in every major city of the country).

Skid Row neighborhood–as countless neighborhoods worldwide, undeterred by systemic oppression–is a bastion for defending humanity and mutual aid as a method of survival. Every day residents stand together, stand up for each other, show solidarity, empathy, and love.

Regionally and globally, working class, anti-racist, social justice struggles already align and stand shoulder to shoulder with Skid Row. Our common struggle must be to be able to support each other as we collectively gain and defend universal protections of human rights, of all basic human needs.

  1. Referring to Skid Row neighborhood.
    – Always capitalize Skid Row
    – Preferably refer to Skid Row as “Skid Row neighborhood” or “Skid Row community,” to offset the erasure of Skid Row as a neighborhood in the mainstream.  “Skid Row” and “In Skid Row” is also OK. “On Skid Row” is not acceptable, as it reflects how you related to a place and a neighborhood (you dont say “on Los Angeles”, you say “in Los Angeles”).

    Skid Row is a predominantly black neighborhood and a community of color, while also being very diverse. Skid Row is also–along with Los Angeles, and the rest of the American continent–Native land that has been settled and colonized; specifically Native Tongva and Chumash land ( Skid Row is a residential, working class, low and extremely low income neighborhood. Whenever participating in anything in Skid Row, understand how your participation relates to equity, distribution of resources, decolonizing culture, heritage, race, land, and economic equity.
    Questions to ask:
    – who is in the leadership?
    – whose culture and cultural history is being recognized?
    – who locally is benefitting socially, economically, culturally?
    – whose social norms are being followed?
  2. Homelessness.
    Skid Row neighborhood is almost always defined as it relates to homelessness. While a 40-50% of residents are unhoused, and that is a staggering proportion of people daily experiencing the extreme end of the violence of housing precarity, centering housing status (and a deeply socially stigmatized status at that) to define a person is a form of dehumanization. See “Referring to Skid Row Neighborhood” section for a fuller definition of Skid Row residents and Skid Row neighborhood. All people who live in the Skid Row neighborhood, both housed and unhoused, are community residents.
  3. On collaboration with the Skid Row neighborhood

    a) ONLY describe your work as “community” project, if you are actually partnering with neighborhood residents and centering neighborhood voices in a significant way (see “Whose Neighborhood?” section), AND if you can answer how your work is aligned with community improvement without displacement.
    b) If you decide your work is community work, use “strengthening community” or “partner with community” (never “building” or “creating” community), to center existing community initiatives, legacy, and history.
    COLLABORATION: Whenever considering a project that involves Skid Row, seek approval from community entities that center Skid Row residents, active community participants, and grassroots initiatives, before getting started (as a starting point: (a) Skid Row Community Improvement Coalition, (b) LACAN). Many social services organizations and governmental agencies are involved in Skid Row, but they rarely represent the residential perspective.
    WORDS OF COLLABORATION: sometimes “help” or “serve” are the right words, but see if “collaborate”, “contribute”, “partner” are a better fit. Words that underscore the importance of equal standing and equal voice.

    WITH: Prepositions can make a difference. Can you make a commitment to stop doing things for Skid Row, and start doing things WITH Skid Row neighborhood?

Note to photographers: Look beyond the surface.
Apply the above perspective on language to your pictures. Do not sensationalize. Ask questions. Is you photograph exploiting vulnerability or a stereotype? Is it poverty porn? Is it racist? Is it objectifying and dehumanizing?
Can you capture the creativity, solidarity, and community in the Skid Row neighborhood?
How will you use the photo? Did you get individual and community approval?

Content by Hayk Makhmuryan in collaboration with Skid Row neighborhood residents and supporters,
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license