choke chain

Skid row


A skid row or skid road is a run-down or dilapidated urban area with a large population of impoverished abusers of alcohol and, often, other drugs. In a related expression, someone who is down and out is said to be "on the skids". The term originally referred literally to a path along which loggers skidded logs; that literal meaning is now obsolete. Its current sense appears to have originated in the Pacific Northwest.

Informally, there is an identified skid-row neighborhood in almost every major North American city. Some examples are Pioneer Square, Seattle, Washington, Skid Row in Los Angeles, San Francisco's Tenderloin District, and the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. In recent years some historic North American skid rows, such as The Bowery in New York City, have lost their rundown character and have been gentrified.


The term 'skid road' dates back to the 19th century, when it referred to a corduroy road made of logs, used to skid or drag logs through woods and bog. The term was in common usage in the mid-1800s and, according to Walt Crowley, came to refer not just to the corduroy roads themselves, but to logging camps and mills all along the Pacific Coast. The source of the term as an urban-landscape reference is heavily debated, and is generally identified as originating in either Vancouver or Seattle.

Seattle's historic Skid Road district (now better known as Pioneer Square) centers on Yesler Way, widely believed to have originated as a "skid road" in the literal sense.

The 100-block of East Hastings Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, the heart of that city's "skid road" neighborhood, also lies on a historical skid road. In Seattle, logs were floated from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains across Lake Washington to the skid road up and over First Hill. The logs were then "skidded" by attaching a "choke" chain, or cable, to one end of the log. The log was then pulled by overhead cables, dragging or skidding the other end over the hill to the Seattle Waterfront, to a sawmill owned by Henry Yesler. However, Crowley questions whether the original geography of Seattle, with a sharp ravine near today's Fourth Avenue, would have allowed such a system. The Vancouver Skid Road was part of a complex of such roads in the dense forests surrounding the Hastings Mill and adjacent to the settlement of Granville, Burrard Inlet (Gastown).

Murray Morgan, in his 1951 book Skid Road, described how the loggers spent the summers in the mountains cutting down trees and how the winter snow and mud hampered operations. The out-of-work loggers would hang out on Skid Road hoping to find work and would often run out of money, sleep on the streets, and find themselves reduced to begging. This is where the connection between the operation of skidding logs and being poor and unemployed originated.

However, the term in its modern sense did not become popular until the early 20th century, when the Rev. Mark A. Matthews, popularized (and possibly originated) the current sense of the term "Skid Road" in his sermons. The Seattle-area Presbyterian minister and ardent prohibitionist regularly used the term in his sermons, and was explicit about his etymology: "Yesler Way was once a skid road down which logs were pushed to Henry Yesler's sawmill on the waterfront. Today it is a skid road down which human souls go sliding to hell!

"Skid row" is most likely a corruption coming from areas outside of the term's region of origin.


Vancouver, British Columbia started off as a sawmill settlement called "Granville," in the early 1870s. By the 1960s, "Skid Road" was commonly used to describe the more dilapidated areas in the city's Downtown Eastside, which is focused on the original "strip" along East Hastings Street due to a concentration of single room occupancy hotels (SROs) and associated bars in the area.

A portion of Vancouver's Skid Row, Gastown, has also been rejuvenated but is in a difficult coexistence with the nearby impoverished Downtown Eastside along East Hastings Street. Downtown Eastside is infamous for its open drug trade, drug-related deaths (Vancouver's Skid Row has the highest per capita heroin-related deaths in the entire North American continent), prostitution and the highest rate of HIV and AIDS infection in North America. The poorest urban area in Canada, it is wedged between Downtown, Chinatown and Gastown. These areas are frequented by tourists, and East Hastings Street is a major thoroughfare. These avenues of exposure make the Downtown Eastside a highly visible example of a skid row. The Downtown Eastside (sometimes abbreviated D.T.E.S.) is also home to Insite, the only legal intravenous drug safe injection site in Canada, part of a harm reduction policy aimed at helping the area's drug addicted residents.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles's Skid Row, in an area of downtown Los Angeles formally known as Central City East, is home to one of the largest stable populations of transient persons (homeless) in the United States. Informal population estimates range from 7,000 to 8,000. L.A.'s Skid Row is frequently called "the Nickel" because it is centered on Fifth Street. Most of the city's homeless and social-service providers (such as Volunteers of America, Frontline Foundation, Midnight Mission, Union Rescue Mission and Downtown Women's Center) are based in Skid Row. While downtown Los Angeles has experienced a recent revitalization, developers have mostly neglected Skid Row. In 2005, 2006 and 2007, several local hospitals and suburban law-enforcement agencies were accused by Los Angeles Police Department and other officials of transporting those homeless people in their care to Skid Row. According to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the official boundaries of Skid Row are Third and Seventh Streets to the north and south and Alameda and Main Streets to the east and west, respectively.

The name Skid Row is sufficiently official that fire engines and ambulances serving the neighborhood have historically had "Skid Row" emblazoned on their sides. On 1 June 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that fire officials plan to change the legend on the vehicles to read "Central City East". Many residents support the change, but it is opposed by firefighters and some residents who take pride in the sense that they live in a tough place.


From 1930 until around 1960, Chicago's Near West Side/West Loop neighborhood (downtown Chicago west to Ashland Ave.) was commonly referred to as Skid Row. West Washington and Madison were the main streets. Today, luxury town homes, lofts and condominiums have been built up. Television host Oprah Winfrey is often credited with the revitalization of the area, as her show is taped on Washington Street at Harpo Productions.

Musical usage

  • The term was memorialized in the song "Skid Row" from the musical Little Shop of Horrors. In the 1960 original motion picture The Little Shop of Horrors are featured cinematic shots of Fifth Street with many interior scenes filmed on soundstages.
  • "Skid Row" is the name of a country song performed by Merle Haggard.
  • Nirvana guitarist Kurt Cobain wanted to name the band "Skid Row" when they first started out, not knowing that there was already a heavy metal band called Skid Row from New Jersey at the time.

See also




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