Room at the Bottom

When Eisenhower-era civic leaders drunk on urban renewal laid waste to the Gateway district, they forever altered the topography of this town's hard-luck hotels and shot-and-a-beer saloons.

Well, then these guys would get in the car. "Okay, yeah. Let's have a party. Where're we going?" "Have you got a car?" They'd start playing around. Well, these guys were older guys and half in the bag. This guy would punch them, and knock them out, and take their billfold. Then he'd get out of the car and look for the next one. This was the type of stuff that existed down there.

There were gambling places down there. There was some deals going, but that's something you didn't stick your nose into, because that was in buildings. Unless you got a call there, you had no reason to go around looking for trouble.

See what most people don't realize is that at that time, I was told, a mayor could make a million dollars a year if he let the city go a little bit. Gambling, prostitution--the kickbacks would be in that range. This is what the story was, but I can't tell you that this is a fact.

Wing Young Huie

The beat men kind of resented us going in on their calls. It was an unwritten law down there that the beat cops wanted to take care of their own problems. It's their territory and they wanted to handle it. They didn't want you to monkey around with it. They'd say, "We'll take care of it, you can go ahead and go," I think because they were getting something from the businesses. I have no way of proving anything. It's just hearsay as far as I'm concerned. But I'm sure that those places, like on the holidays, or Christmas, I'm sure they gave them something. What, I don't know. I never got anything from them. I never looked for anything. I was one of the fortunate guys. I was reasonably well-off shortly after I got on the police department because I made some good investments. I never played hanky-panky, because I didn't want no part of the problems.

These are odd stories, I know. But one guy was telling me, Marty, he walked the beat down there. He stood on the corner. There were these guys would come up to the beat officer every day and give him a quarter. Whether they thought they were going to get a break somewhere down the line I don't know, but it was just ridiculous.

See, Skid Row was made up of broken families. Guys that lost everything, had a bundle and tried to extend it and then instead of extending it they lost it. And then they were down to nothing and they couldn't recoup. They just went downhill from then on. Same with the women. Both male and female were down there. They just seemed to have lost everything in life that you and I would know or would want. They didn't have that.

They lived from day to day. If somebody had a buck they'd buy a bottle of wine. They'd pass it around 'til it was gone and then they'd try to find another buck and buy another bottle of wine. A lot of drunks and prostitution. Of course, you didn't even need prostitution. The women were willing. It was that type of existence.

There were a lot of good people down there, too. I didn't have any trouble with them. But I didn't rub elbows with them very often, I tell you.

Jim Wiggins (above left) worked at the neighborhood's Senate Bar and Cafe in 1954.

I was a counter guy, and I cooked a little bit. It was kind of a depressing place to work because there were so many bums down there. I had a wife and a child, and when I'd get some food left over I'd take it home to feed the family. It came in handy, making that kind of money. I made 58 bucks a week. I started out at 50 bucks a week, and then he gave me eight bucks on the side for showing up. I was a steady employee and he didn't know how to take it.

It was a living. But that was about all it was.

Some of the problems we had was chasing the guys down the street to get their money. There was a Salvation Army right around the corner from us. We used to say, "Don't try to sneak out on us. You want something free, go around the corner and get something free." You could buy a meal for a buck back then. You could get a prime-rib sandwich for 70 cents with a boiled potato and some gravy. For five bucks they'd get a meal ticket. That would help them get through the month.

The big shot down there was Big Mike. He was kind of the Mafia kind of boss. Everybody kind of respected Big Mike. Another one was the Salvation Army guy named Jimmy. He would help the drunks a lot. He ate there all the time. He'd go on a toot himself and he would disappear for a while. The drunks always took care of him when he was off on a toot. We used to have another character who would take orders for shirts or whatever you wanted him to steal for you. He was very well dressed, with a big coat. I didn't know he was stealing them at first. I'd get Arrow shirts for a buck and a half.

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