LOS ANGELES – Stephen Zeigler received a text message about the red-tailed hawk outside his building in the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles from a friend. They told him it had flown into the alley. “I found the hawk huddled behind a garbage dumpster. I could tell that he was injured and in need of help, so I called animal control.”
He called animal control, and word is the hawk got better and they released it back into the wild. “The wilds of Los Angeles,” he says. “From that time I accepted that hawk as the spirit animal and protector of the alley. He came to calm our anxieties and let us know he was looking out for us, and that we wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.”
Stephen lives in the building that makes up one side of this alley and acts as its unofficial curator. He came down after he saw me looking at the art in the alley and hollered to ask if I wanted to speak with someone about it. The building is one of the oldest in Los Angeles, he tells me. 1870. Bright colors travel down the alley, making up several murals of various types and styles.
They are Native murals that tell the story of the indigenous people of the United States, some of whom used to live rough in this alley during the 1970s. Stephen tells me that in Skid Row, the homeless who live in the area are often segregated by race. This alley was where the Native Americans used to live.
I met a young artist in Santa Clara Pueblo while I was in New Mexico. He’d told me about a place called Indian Alley – said I had to visit once I reached Los Angeles. There’s a sign posted on East 4th to indicate the alley’s presence behind a metal gate. Stephen tells me he made the sign. “Indian Alley,” it says, and in tiny letters underneath: “PROPERTY OF THE PEOPLE.”
We start with a wheatpaste that is almost the size of the door it’s posted on. “This is a piece that was a photograph that I found in the LA Times Archives. It was a photograph – I unfortunately don’t know the photographer’s name – but it was taken in 1987. It’s a photograph of some graffiti from that time that was etched on the door, where people would leave their tribal names, as well as different artwork.”
The names read: Apache, Navajo, Menominee.
These are the names of the tribes of the people who lived in this alley, as well as those who lived in the Mission nearby. Women and children on the third-floor bunks. Men on the second floor. Soup kitchen on the ground floor.
Nowadays, when indigenous people visit the alley, they sign their names with their tribes over the wheatpaste, adding to the history. “I always encourage them to add their names to it, to make it not only historical but very contemporary as well, as a reminder.”
“A lot of people from my [white] ethnic background have a tendency to have amnesia in regards to racial injustice that maybe their relatives have incurred, or have caused.”
He wants to keep the memory alive?
“These people are still here, and they’re still suffering racial intolerance.”
We step back and he explains the mural above us. He says they are four stages of women: the baby in the papoose, the young girl, the “white woman” (or changing woman) who is going through her coming-of-age ritual, and the elder, fashioned after the artist’s aunt, who is an indigenous rights activist in Arizona. She is part of a group currently occupying Oak Flats, sacred land for the San Carlos Apache tribe.
“It’s gotten very little media attention,” he says. “I run into a lot of, for lack of a better term, white people who will say ‘God, that was so long ago. Can’t they get over it?’ and I’m like, so long ago? It’s still happening. What do you mean so long ago?”
He compares the hazards of fracking on Native land to settlers giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans.
We move on to a mural of Toypurina, the Los Angeles Native who fought Spanish colonialism. Her punishment for leading an uprising was to convert to Catholicism, marry a white man and bear his children.
We move on to the mural of Robert Sundance. Legend says he was arrested more than 500 times for public intoxication. “He sobered up and became an activist,” Stephen says. Sundance sued the LAPD for their treatment of intoxicated people.
While people who painted the walls of the alley at first were both indigenous and non-indigenous people, Stephen decided that since no other part of the country was dedicated to Native art, that non-Native people would be excluded from painting the walls. “Along with all of this comes a lot of trauma, and history, and wrong doing, and racial injustice. And myself being a white person whose ancestors are guilty of a lot of that, it’s been a challenge at times.”
And, of course, the racism and poverty that is afflicted on Skid Row is still pervasive today. The 54-block neighborhood is on Google Maps. Rough sleeping is allowed on the sidewalks from 9pm to 6am. According to the census, the majority of people who live there are people of color – and many are Native Americans.
Stephen has lived in Skid Row for 11 years. He calls himself an anarchist. He has spent time in the neighborhood trying to improve things by picking up garbage in the streets or painting murals elsewhere, and that his efforts were supported by the homeless and cops alike.
Gentrification has slowly lapped at the edges of the neighborhood. He points my attention across the street. “That building was a warehouse that would catch on fire once a year. Prostitutes would turn tricks down that alley, in the doorway that’s now the entrance to a very hipster nightclub. And I would sit there, and look, and there was scaffolding up and down the building when they were redoing it, and I would watch, and it was like watching a slow-moving tsunami.”
He speaks about a business that opened on the bottom floor that went out of business recently. “All these people are like ‘Oh, the new downtown! It’s so nice now! and it’s like, Yeah, ain’t that nice. I still have people shooting heroin and smoking rock on my doorstep basically every day.”
“It’s kinda hard to have a nice kinda yuppie restaurant while some guy’s taking a shit on the sidewalk across the street.”
Stephen has an issue with gentrification, but it’s nuanced. While gentrification in places like Boyle Heights pushes out families, Skid Row is “sad”, with drunks, drug addicts and homeless everywhere.
But where will these people go if they’re pushed out?
“That’s a good question. But why are they here in the first place? Because the federal government, saw in all their wisdom, and the state government, to close the mental health facilities downtown, and to put all the social services in one area. So you’re on the streets and then you finally get a room, and you’re drug addicted and you go to some meetings and you get sober. And you walk out your door every day and there’s a dude selling crack right in front of your door, and there’s mentally ill people walking up and down the street. How are you supposed to maintain that sobriety?”
“This was intentional right? And this was by the powers that be. They called it a ‘containment zone’. The LAPD calls it ‘The Box.’ And the people who live there, ironically enough, call it ‘the reservation.'”
While he’s received some passive comments that indicate not all people are pleased, Stephen believes that the work on display in the alley does a small part to assuage the pains of the reality surrounding us on Skid Row.
“We’re a horribly divided country right now that doesn’t understand or even care to spend time to understand other people’s issues. Everybody is ‘me me me’. I would say capitalism is probably the biggest problem. The idea of capitalism as I was taught, and that a lot of people repeat, that you’re able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and create something if you want to? That’s great! But it’s not true.”
“You can’t rely on the powers that be, because their interests are not your interest. They don’t give a shit about you. They don’t give a shit about your mom. They don’t care about your kids. They don’t care about your fucking grandma. You don’t enter into it. So you cannot rely on them. You have to do.. we have to do what we can, on a local level, to build strong communities and end the divisiveness.”
“I’ve seen art bring people together in a powerful way. Is it stronger than bombs and police batons, and all the mechanisms of the capitalist hierarchy? Probably not.”