by Therese Ritchie 2009


Between May 8–August 6 2007 I was the Australia Council for the Arts, Australian Artist in Resident at 18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica Los Angeles California.

I made a lot of pictures during those three months and the ones I have selected are from the time I spent on Skid Row, which is in the downtown area of Los Angeles. On a method level, the style is much the same as I have used in my Darwin-based work. I chose a site—in this case riding the 720 metro bus route from Santa Monica to ‘down town Los Angeles’ and Skid Row—and the art I have resourced is 19th century American landscapes and in particular the Luminist movement of 1850–1900.

After seeing my work, Clayton Campbell the director of 18th Street suggested I introduce myself to John Malpede and Henriette Brouwers. John and Henriette were renting one of the live-in studios at 18th Street and were also the directors of Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD).

I did my introduction by way of offering my support as a designer or photographer for John and Henriette’s latest project Glimpses of Utopia. Glimpses of Utopia was and still is an ongoing series of events focussing on the revitalization and development of downtown Los Angeles including Skid Row. I also decided to be a participant in the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s Summer Workshop ChangeXchange held at the Church of the Nazarene in Skid Row.

The workshop was a three-week training opportunity, or challenge, involving performance work, which isn’t my thing and never got any easier, but I did play with some amazing people who were living on Skid Row, as well as some pretty gutsy young women from Austria and Denmark.

I don’t know what it is like now, but when I was there two years ago, there were thousands of people—families, grandmothers, pets—living on the streets in trolleys and cardboard boxes. Part of my time at the workshop was spent attending community meetings between police, business owners and members of Skid Row as well as working for Los Angeles Community Action Network as a photographer of police activity in Skid Row.

Los Angeles Police Department is based in the centre of Skid Row and were policing the area as part of a new social policy generated by real estate markets. The process of ticketing and sometimes arresting people for sitting, standing, jaywalking, throwing cigarette butts on the ground, prostitution or drug use was a means to ‘stamp out crime’ and generally keep people moving from street to street. Many people on Skid Row had wads of tickets for simple things like crossing the road outside the white lines. These tickets meant going to court and paying fines—neither of which they could oblige—and most people living on Skid Row knew they were doomed to go to jail at some time.

Huge buildings, empty jewels of potential, loomed over this street life. No longer available as affordable accommodation they had become the focus of developers who wished to create a new lifestyle for downtown LA, part of which involved offering lofts for artists—what artist could afford one?—among other things, but definitely didn’t involve indigents being visible. So it seemed the best place for poor people was prison (I did hear talk of sending them to the internment camps used for Japanese Americans during World War 11).

Life was (and still is I imagine) indescribably difficult for people on Skid Row and to be part of an intelligent use of ‘contemporary art’ through a project that continues to vitalize people who have otherwise been abandoned and build sustainable networks between opposing views via public discourse and performance was more than uplifting.

I cannot say enough good stuff about 18th Street, the staff and people I met, and my time working with Los Angeles Poverty Department and the residents of Skid Row, I wish the very, very best for all of them.

Therese 2009