Skid Row

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

Is it “skid row” or “skid road,” and what’s the proper usage?

The expression “skid row” is the common term in modern usage, but it’s thought to derive from an earlier term associated with the logging industry.

In Washington State and other centers of the lumber industry, loggers built roads out of logs and then skidded newly cut logs down these “skid roads.” As time went on, saloons and brothels sprang up along the skid roads and the term took on the meaning, “a district abounding in vicious characters and the practice of vice.”

When the expression migrated to urban environments, road became row, perhaps in imitation of established streets with names like Park Row and Tryon Row.

During the economically terrible years of the 1930s, the term skid row was applied to city districts where the unemployed congregated: the Bowery in New York City, the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, and areas along West Madison Street in Chicago.

New construction and gentrification have altered the old city conformations. Except in Los Angeles, the term “skid row” is usually used to mean “any run-down area of a town where the unemployed, vagrants, alcoholics, drug dealers, etc., tend to congregate” or “the lowest possible social and economic state of existence.”

Alone among large US cities, Los Angeles still has a geographical skid row called by that name:

The city maintains more than 1,400 bins on Skid Row to store belongings seized during street cleanups or voluntarily stowed by homeless people. —LA Times

They rarely think of Skid Row, a 54-block area on the downtown’s outskirts that has the highest concentration of homeless people in the country. —The Daily Beast

Skid Row’s homeless are estimated to make up 10% of LA’s downtown population. —The Guardian

Skid Row is an area of downtown Los Angeles. As of the 2000 census, the population of the district was 17,740. —Wikipedia

Skid row evokes a state of penniless, homeless, uncared-for destitution:

Joe Roberts, known as the Skid Row CEO, went from living under a bridge in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 1989 to becoming a Canadian millionaire before he turned 35.

Now it [a rundown lighthouse] had the look of a dowager who, through no fault of her own, had somehow found herself on skid row. 

Most [jail occupants] are addicts, skid-row winos, homeless people, or a mixture of all three.

The Street with No Name is a 1948 black-and-white film noir. The movie, shot in a semi-documentary style, takes place in the Skid Row section of fictional “Central City.”

This film [Dementia], with no dialogue at all, follows a psychotic young woman’s nightmarish experiences through one skid-row night.

Another expression with the word skid is “to be on the skids”: to be in a state of decline. The idiom is often seen in the media in reference to some celebrity’s marriage:

Randy Jackson’s marriage on the skids. 

Kardashian is said to be beside herself with loneliness and boredom, resorting to food binges to cope with a marriage on the skids.

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1 Response to “Skid Row”

  • Nathan Walters

    “Skid Road” was a term coined in Seattle (which was and is an urban environment). Elliot Bay, the part of Puget Sound that is Seattle’s waterfront, was the perfect natural harbor for the fledgling city and the reason the city founders put Seattle where they did. Unfortunately, the land above Elliot Bay was choked with thick timber that covered the steep hills surrounding the city, and the passes of these hills were blocked by large, cold, disconnected lakes.

    The early Seattleites had to clear these hills so that they could expand from what is now the downtown core. After the trees on the hillsides were cut, they were rolled by men down what is now Yesler Way, a thoroughfare formerly called “Mill Street,” until they reached Yesler’s Mill. After passing through the mill, timber not marked for export would be hauled up Mill Street by oxen to build houses on the plats that the loggers had cleared. Mill Street, before it had a name, was simply “the skid road.”

    Mill Street, now Yesler way, marked the north-south boundary of properties owned by two city founders, Carson Dobbs Boren, and Doc Maynard, both of whom donated the strip between their holdings to Henry Yesler so that he could move timber to his steam mill (the only one in the northwest), which was vital to Seattle’s early economy. At the industrial center of the city, Yesler Way organically became the northern boundary of Seattle’s original tenderloin district and the southern boundary of its more respectable downtown.

    Other than in Seattle, “skid road” has never meant a road along which logs were transported. Seattle’s loggers and other denizens congregated to drink and whore to the south of the skid road. When the term spread to other communities, the usage that went with it was the latter. Skid roads was for the indigent, the destitute, the drunks, and the johns. The the original skid road, Seattle’s Skid Road, was the only skid road notable for carrying timber.

    Granted, I am a native of Seattle who (formally) learned the majority of his state and municipal history at the University of Washington in conjunction with books written by historians from my home state. That said, the Oxford English Dictionary, which is not affiliated with the state of Washington or the city of Seattle, happens to agree with me on the both the history and the usage of “skid road.”

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