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The Shame Of Skid Row
citizen of Detroit, U.S.A., has cost his city $18,500 since
1928, as a living discard. There are 400,000 like him on
human junk heaps called “skid row.” Some live
in your city, at
your expense, to the menace of your health – and conscience.
Sutherland and Ted Thieda, plain-clothes cops on the skid-row
detail of the First Precinct Detroit police, are known to
vagrants throughout the Midwest as “The Ragpickers.”
Their job is to keep depravity in their precinct from becoming
too assertively public. A tour of duty with them adds color
to a national embarrassment city council calls “The
Sutherland is a short roly-poly man in his fifties, with
a shock of curly white hair, a full, ruddy face and amiable
blue eyes behind steel-rimmed spectacles. He wears a brown
business suit on the job and is always chewing an unlit
cigar. Thieda, a tall, muscular man in his forties, is the
athlete of the pair. They work from a worn, unmarked city
car. Sutherland, as senior, does most of the talking.
one.” We were hardly five minutes out of headquarters,
cruising Michigan Avenue. We pulled over to the curb and
parked. A man was prone in an alley. Sutherland and I went
over to him. Thieda went to have a look up the street.
The unconscious man was around fifty, with sandy brown hair,
a blotchy red skin and a beard of many days. His face was
streaked with clotted blood from a gash on his forehead.
An unlabeled pint bottle containing a pinkish fluid lay
at his side. He wore work shoes without socks, soiled khaki
trousers and a soot-blackened shirt. A blended stench of
bodily excretions rose from him.
Sutherland said, “darn if it isn’t Danny. I’ll
tell you later about Danny…Come on, fella.”
He pointed to the man’s hands. “See the pink
stains between the fingers? Canned heat.”
Thieda returned.”Three more around the corner. Call
Sutherland nodded, and told me what he knew about Danny.
Since June 17, 1828, Danny had been arrested for drunkenness
and vagrancy 128 times. He’d spent 4020 days in the
Detroit House of Correction. In arrests, court appearances,
jail keep, medical and hospital care he had cost the community
$18,500. “You see what I mean?” Sutherland said.
In a few minutes the wagon came. Two uniformed policemen
from the wagon roused the four men, loaded them and drove
off – for Danny, it was the 129th time. We resumed
thing,” Sutherland said. “I’ve been on
this job twelve years, without anybody paying much attention.
And now just lately there’s been an awful lot of interest.”
That “awful lot of interest” goes for many other
cities. By sheer pressure of horror, civic embarrassment
and community expense, skid row has pushed itself to the
forefront among our major municipal problems. In the past
three years, mayor’s skid-row committees have been
formed in New York, Chicago, Detroit and half a dozen smaller
cities. Under the label “homeless man,” the
human derelict is now receiving scholarly attention, to
find out what made him homeless, and what can be done.
By the best estimates I can come up with, at least 400,000
men are leading a skid-row life. They cost taxpayers at
least $40,000,000 a year. If all were working, their tax
contributions would be at least $165,000,000, a year, so
the economic stakes are large. The humanitarian stakes are
larger. There are things a citizen cannot allow to pass
without protest and still retain his self-respect. These
things occur daily along skid-row. My tour with the Detroit
plain-clothes men revealed the kind of slum-within-slums
that shakes the claim to civilization of even the most civilized
It also revealed that men can come back from skid-row. Eddie
Rohan, a pleasant-faced fifty-four-year-old Irish-American
who lives in Detroit, is a case in point. Statistically
speaking, Eddie has returned from the dead. For a quarter
century he lived either on the Avenue or in the Detroit
House of Correction, a guest of the city because of drunkenness.
The normal end of the likes of Eddie used to be either the
Wayne County Hospital-for the insane-or the Wayne County
Morgue. He is one of the 250 exhibits cited to prove the
Motor City’s contention that skid row can be abolished.
This view is not universally held, and a session at a big-city
magistrate’s bench helps explain why. I recently followed
a batch of a dozen derelicts from their pass-out points,
through the city jail, to the courtroom and sentence. Lined
up in an unsteady row at the bar of justice, they highlighted
the whole tragedy of skid row. Even the judge was moved.
He shook his head. “Why do they do it?”
Promise of Detroit’s Program
judge had cards on each man, listing previous terms served
on the same charge, drunkenness. Twenty-five to fifty terms
were not unusual; none had fewer than eight. He ruled,”Thirty
days for all.” Many, he knew, would be passed out
in some filthy alley within a few days after serving their
terms. That’s why so many experienced public officials
say, “Skid row is hopeless.”
Others are not so sure, and on economic grounds alone, their
cases deserve a hearing. It costs about $1000 a year to
keep a man in jail. Detroit’s Mayor’s Rehabilitation
Committee costs $25,000 a year. By spending a third of their
time in jail, the 250 men so far salvaged would have cost
Detroit $83,000. Their taxes return to the public coffers
$100,000 a year, putting the community $158,000ahead on
the twelve-month. Minneapolis, New York and Alameda County,
California, are among the metropolitan areas where tax-supported
rehabilitation programs are being tried. Detroit, in this
reporter’s view, is especially sparkling with new
slants on a scandal many generations old.
The most noxious of several skid-row areas in the Michigan
metropolis is a nineteen block section bounded by Cass,
Howard, Fifth and Jones streets. For five roaring blocks
this miunicipal cancer lies athwart Michigan Avenue, the
main stem from the Michigan Central Railroad Terminal to
the glittering downtown hotel district. Skid row spills
over for several blocks on each side of this main stem.
The adjacent areas are vacant lots, junk yards, tenements,
warehouses, abandoned factories and dwellings and the close-packed,
unpainted little houses of the very poor. This single neighborhood,
the beat of Sutherland and Thieda, produces 10,000 arrests
a year for drunkenness and associated offenses.
A day on skid row begins at seven A.A., when the bars open.
From six o’clock on, men are stirring in the flophouses
and alleys, crawling from under newspapers or lean-tos in
vacant lots and dumps, emerging from abandoned basements
and from beneath parked trailer trucks, to be on the Avenue
at the stroke. Once there, what happens depends upon a man’s
The man at the top of the social ladder sleeps in a flophouse
and drinks in a bar. Just below him in prestige is the man
who sleeps in a mission and drinks out of a bottle purchased
at a package-liquor store. Next in order are the men who
sleep in dark places and drink nonbeverage alcohol. Bay
rum, several brands of hair tonic and shaving lotion, vanilla
and lemon extracts, isopropyl rubbing alcohol – nineteen
cents a half pint – lacquer thinner and canned heat
are widely consumed. Canned heat is a solution of pink wax
in alcohol. The alcohol may be partially reclaimed by placing
the waxy paste in a cloth and squeezing – hence the
telltale pink stains between the fingers of those who favor
the “Pink Lady,” the drink which results from
mixing this with an equal part of water.
Promptly at seven o’clock each morning the elite begin
going into the bars. The rest remain outside, hoping for
a flush crony who’ll invite a man in for a drink,
or the owner of a bottle, possibly in his debt from yesterday,
who’ll give him a pull. Failing this, a man will turn
to his neighbor and say, “I have seven cents.”
The proper reply is “I have eleven,” or whatever
the amount may be. The chain continues until a sum is reached
which equals the price of one of the fluids previously mentioned.
With the drink aboard, a man is ready for his day’s
all panhandling could be stopped,” says William C.
Sterling, director of the Mayor’s Rehabilitation Committee
in Detroit, “the worst aspects of skid row would disappear.
Its foulest horrors are maintained by the thoughtlessly
given nickles, dimes and quarters of well-intentioned citizens.”
Midafternoon usually finds the pan-handler back on the Avenue
with cash in his pocket. By this time the revelry in the
bars is in full swing. The elite are all at the tables,
stupefied or asleep. Now and then, one will rouse himself,
wait till his glass is filled, drain it and go to sleep
again. Others are drinking at the bar, playing the juke
The conversation has to do mostly with the character and
deeds of this or that jerk of recent or remote memory –
resentments on skid row are deep and abiding. Occasionally
the theme changes. Once I overheard a panel discussion on
the topic, “If a man was born in 1876, how old is
he now?” Estimates ranged from fifty-nine to eighty-six,
with each disputant defending his own arithmetic. If the
juke box is playing, somebody will get up from time to time
and make random flapping motions, smiling a nearly toothless
smile – falls take a widespread toll of front teeth.
The performer is dancing, cutting the rug. He doesn’t
last long; he has little energy. Even the fights of skid
row are mostly slapstick affairs of short duration; neither
contestant has the strength for a really damaging blow.
So the day wears on, drink and talk, wake and doze, until
a man reaches his objective – oblivion. This has to
be timed so he makes his flop before passing out –
to pass out on the street is to risk being run in. Skid
row starts going to bed at dusk. All through the early evening
you see men making their uncertain way back to the flophouses,
the abandoned shacks, the vacant lots. The shabby figures
fade into the weeds and disappear. In a 100-by-100-foot
lot near the Avenue there may be thirty men asleep, none
of then visible to the passer-by. In one place, long sections
of forty-eight-inch-diameter concrete sewer pipe were left
at the curb for a construction project. At ten o’clock
one night I found one or two sleeping men in each section
of pipe. By midnight it’s another day.
Money on skid row is for liquor; other things can be had
without payment or be gone without. How a man obtains his
drinking money depends upon how advanced he is in the mores
of the Avenue. If he’s relatively a beginner, he hits
the streets around Labor Day, after a summer with a railroad
construction gang or with the fruit pickers, his pay in
his pocket. He invests part of it in new finery, part in
advance rent at a flophouse, and part with a bartender,
against future needs. For weeks or months he fraternizes
on the street and in the bars. The day arrives when his
cash is gone and his deposits used up. His new suit, hat
and shoes are exchanged for “relievers” –
shirt, dungarees and sneakers. He begins patronizing the
package liquor stores, where a brand of wine can be had
for forty-nine cents a fifth. As money grows tighter, he’ll
resort to more economical beverages, through the lotions
down to rubbing alcohol and canned heat.
Food and shelter can be obtained for a while without cost.
There are several missions where a man can get a meal without
answering questions, being preached at, singing hymns or
working. At other places he can have board, work and indefinite
keep if he’ll “take a nose dive” –
profess a religious conviction. This, by skid row standards,
is contemptible, and only a small percentage ever do it.
Sooner or later, our man must decide whether to work or
beg for his drinking money. If he works, as many do before
the skid-row neurosis lays too firm a hold, he hedges his
employment about with qualifications. Employment must be
on a day or half-day basis and must yield a dollar an hour,
which must be paid promptly and without deductions. Work
teams of five men are often organized, with each man working
one day a week and contributing his earnings to the common
liquor kitty. Income is boosted by occasional sales of blood
to private-hospital blood banks at eight dollars a pint.
By this time our man is probably sleeping in the open, taking
his meals at missions, supplemented by traditional skid-row
At one point in our tour Sutherland asked me, “Did
you ever hear of mulligan stew? They had one over there
last night; let’s take a look.” In a vacant
lot was a fire-blackened five gallon tin. To make mulligan,
Sutherland explained, you start by bringing a tin of water
to a boil. Then you add wilted vegetables thrown out by
stores, old fish heads from the back of restaurants and
chicken entrails from the dressed fowl market.
Aggressive crime by derelict men is negligible, Sutherland
says. Too tired for crime, they’re more preyed upon
than preying. Once he pointed out a wiry, athletic young
man in his twenties, dressed in a natty polo shirt, suede
shoes and knife-edged slacks. “We’re pretty
sure that fellow’s a jack roller, only we haven’t
got the goods on him – yet.” A jack roller is
a man who specializes in beating and robbing drunks.
Though women are seen in the bars in the proportion of about
one to thirty, sex on skid row is pretty much a dead issue.
“They just don’t have the energy,” Sutherland
Death on skid row is often sudden, and always ugly. “Had
a bad one last winter,” Sutherland said. “Five
of them holed up one cold night in a junked trailer in an
auto graveyard. Had a stew, let the fire go out for the
night. Canned heat went up, I guess. Anyway, the trailer
blazed like a torch; all five burned to death.”
Casualties of skid row are taken to Detroit Receiving Hospital.
There are “wine sores” – foul smelling
skin eruptions brought on by prolonged deficiencies of diet.
There are broken bones and hideous head and eye wounds –
from falls and beatings by jack rollers. There are alcoholic
convulsions and delirium tremens. These are taken to the
psychopathic section and placed in the violent ward in restraint.
There is total physical exhaustion, and there is death.
Now and then, a derelict strays off and is lost. One old
man was found in an abandoned basement, indescribably filthy,
crawling with lice, and near death. He was bathed and put
to bed; shortly thereafter he died.
The Wayne County Morgue is the end of the line. Corpses
arriving there from the Avenue are nearly always John Doe
or Mary Roe, unidentified. The afternoon I visited the morgue
there was John Doe No.1, male, white, age 46, 5 feet, 8
inches, 180 pounds. Fell down the stairs of a Michigan Avenue
flophouse and broke his skull. John Doe No.2, age 51, died
of a broken neck “due to fall in alley.” Mary
Roe, female, white, 45, fell off the stool of an East Jefferson
Street bar at 9:30 P.M. and died of a fractured skull.
Such is the rhythm of life and death on skid row, Detroit,
and a hundred other cities. There are, in the crazy symphony
of the Avenue, other rhythms. Not all are willfully destructive
alcoholics, and not all are adverse to work. Old-age pensioners
and handicapped persons sometime drift there because it’s
the only place where they can live on what they have. But
the chronic alcoholic is the hard core of the problem. Such
men load our city jails and hospitals, turn city streets
into daytime nightmares. They misuse charity, exploit mercy,
degrade and finally destroy themselves.
What’s the matter with such men? Employment conditions
do not explain their despair – steady jobs were going
begging when I was in Detroit. And one can’t brush
away the problem by saying they’re “just alcoholics.”
Mr. Yvelin Gardner, director of the National Committee on
Alcoholism, says: “The problem of the typical alcoholic
is quite distinct from that of the skid row derelict. The
usual alcoholic has a home, job and family, and a desire
to maintain his community status. The homeless alcoholic
has little ambition and less hope; his rehabilitation presents
an entirely different equation.”
On skid row, the homeless man’s distress produces
profit. I have neither observed nor heard of any act of
a derelict that compares in degradation with the act, committed
daily by sober and “respectable” merchants,
of deliberately selling sick, addled and helpless men chemicals
that are poisoning them to slow death.
our cities come up with a really effective answer to skid
This is question Mayor Albert E. Cobo placed before a committee
of Detroit citizens in 1949, when a series of articles in
the Detroit Free Press exposed skid-row conditions. The
committee reported in the affirmative and recommended specific
steps. State laws governing the sale of liquor were to be
enforced. A state rehabilitation camp was to be established
for chronic alcoholics who failed to respond to therapy.
A section of skid row was to be condemned, and rebuilt as
an attractive municipal parking lot. A counseling and employment
service, staffed by men possessing a sympathetic grasp of
alcoholic problems, was to be set up in the heart of skid
So far, only the last of these proposals has materialized.
The counseling service has for two years occupied an unlabeled
store front at 339 W. Jefferson – and here I found
the first gleam of real hope in many weeks among the men
of skid row.
Nobody enters the committee’s head-quarters unless
he wants to. There’s noting to eat, no place to sleep,
and nobody gets anything free except advice. Yet in the
two years since it opened, 1670 men have sought it out.
It has shown, on a pilot scale, that men can be returned
in quantity from the half death of skid row.
After talking with some of the men who drop in at 339, the
judge’s question – “Why do they do it?”
– doesn’t seem to pose such a mystery. Indeed,
it is claimed by Bill Sterling, director at 339, that you
can’t make any progress until you answer it –
until you find out what’s eating away at the heart
of each individual man. Take the case of Eddie Rohan. It
took weeks to find out what was really bothering Eddie.
But once it was talked through and settled, Eddie straightened
out, apparently for good. Eddie is nearly two years sober
now, and doesn’t mind yarning about his skid-row days.
It explains a lot about Eddie and about skid row.
Eddie was born in a small Ohio city in 1898, the youngest
of three sons of a stern father who worked in a brickyard.
Life at home was not happy. “The old man always seemed
to go out of his way to make it clear he didn’t have
no damn use for me.” His brother took the father’s
cue. The oldest brother “beat up on” the next
youngest, they both beat up on Eddie, and the father beat
up on them all. The only solace was Eddie’s mother,
who favored him when she could. Her presence in the home
made life endurable.
When Eddie was fourteen his mother died of pneumonia, and
for a while Eddie didn’t care whether he lived or
not. The old man “got more cantankerous than ever;
you just couldn’t live with him.” After two
more years, none of the boys even tried. Jim, the oldest,
finished high school and was staked to a law-school education
by an uncle. Today he’s a district judge in the old
hometown. A year later, Art, the middle one, went to work
in a steel plant in Youngstown. That left Eddie, by then
a sophomore in high school, alone with his father. In 1914,
when Eddie was sixteen, he joined the Army, with his father’s
For the first time in his short life Eddie was “something
like happy.” He joined a cavalry unit, got on well
with the men, loved the animals and within a year was promoted
to corporal. By late 1916 it was beginning to look as if
America might become a belligerent in World War I. Eddie
was filled with dreams of glory in the service of his country.
One night in the winter of 1916-17, Eddie went on a party.
His unit was then stationed in a New England state. It was
a fairly wild party, held in a hotel of dim repute locally
on a night when the local police raided it. Because women
were present, the court was able to give Eddie the maximum
sentence – two years in the penitentiary. Eddie was
He couldn’t believe it at first. “How could
they give a guy two years for doin’ what everybody
else does?” Surely the Army would do something, the
Army understood these things. But the Army washed its hands
of the matter. His uncle, the big lawyer back home? The
uncle wrote that Eddie had got himself into this; Eddie
could get himself out. Eddie went to the state penitentiary
for two years of hard labor.
Hard labor, in the down-East penitentiary of those days,
meant polishing marble table tops ten hours a day, six days
a week. You worked with a paste made of acid and pumice,
rubbing it on the marble with a piece of carpet. The acid
got under your fingernails and burned. If you complained,
you got a week in solitary. Two years.
Meanwhile, America had begun and ended a war. Eddie’s
unit was back from France, covered with glory, medals and
promotions. Hardly anybody even remembered Eddy. “The
first thing I did when I got out was give that warden a
piece of my mind. Then I got out of the state. Then I got
drunk.” In the course of the spree, Eddie made his
way back to his home town.
He asked his father for a bed and a place to clean up, and
was thrown out of the house. His uncle gave him a bed until
he slept it off, then bought him a suit, gave him ten dollars
and ordered him to leave town. “We’ve got a
good name in this town so far; we don’t want it jeopardized.”
They didn’t have a good name with Eddie. To put as
much distance between himself and Ohio as he could, he rode
freight trains to California.
The mental twist common to the men of skid row was now set
in Eddie’s mind. He had lost faith in the good will
of men. Except for this tragic quirk, he might have taken
steady work and established himself. But a steady job brought
to mind unrelieved drudgery on hard stone; responsibility
meant an unmerciful Yankee jurist, a father who “had
no damn use” for him, and a stuffed-shirt uncle. At
twenty-one Eddie felt permanently frustrated, and knew the
nervous tension such a state of mind induces. Drinking relieved
this tension. He gravitated to skid row, where potables
were cheap, and where the companionship of the despairing
could always be found.
The first twelve years weren’t too bad, Eddie recalls.
He picked fruit in the California valleys, worked in the
Washington lumber camps, was a gandy-dancer – the
section hand who used to tamp stone between the ties with
his feet – on a dozen railroads, returning to skid
row after each spell of work. Eddie’s last eight years
on skid row were more rugged. He always hankered to get
back to Ohio, and every couple of years would head that
way. He’d get as far as Detroit, then lose heart.
Finally, Detroit became headquarters. He stopped working
and lived by panhandling. “My drinkin’ seemed
to go out of control.” The rubbing alcohol and canned
heat he once spurned became the basis of his diet. He’d
made jails before, but never as now – in and out,
in and out, until it totaled sixty-seven terms in the Detroit
House of Correction alone.
Eddie’s case has elements common to almost all the
skid-row case histories which have been taken. There’s
the early loss of a beloved parent. A study in New Haven
revealed that 49 per cent of homeless men lost one or both
parents by death alone before they were twenty, to say nothing
of loss of parent by divorce, separation and desertion.
There’s the shattering reversal of fortune in early-adult
or late-adolescent experience. And there’s the set
disbelief in the kindness and decency of man.
During his sixty-seventh term in the House of Correction
Eddie heard about the city’s new experiment at 339
W. Jefferson. He decided, “God knows why,” to
drop in there when he got out.
Eddie didn’t know it, but the men in charge at 339
were still pretty much at sea. Their first step had been
to interview 250 homeless men on the Avenue. Eighty per
cent showed good prospects for rehabilitation. Three quarters
were between forty and fifty-nine, with an increasing percentage
of younger men, veterans of World War II. Three quarters
had eight grades or more of education, a better-than-average
IQ – there was one Ph.D.-and had been regularly employed
within the past five years.
None was happy with his lot, and nearly half had specific
suggestions for their own reclamation. They wanted clinical
help, stricter regulation of flophouses and bars, and, of
all things, chance to work their way out of their difficulties.
This willingness to work was a new note in skid-row literature.
My own belief is that it was induced by the usually sympathetic
attitude of the Detroit interviewers. In any event, the
voice of skid row was at last heard in its own behalf. It
turned out to be a voice full of agonized awareness of its
own misery, with a note of hope for better days.
Local members of Alcoholics Anonymous were consulted, and
literature of the Yale School of Alcohol Studies was examined.
Only about 5 per cent of AA’s have ever been on skid
row. Still, stories like Eddie’s had been heard before
in AA, so there was assurance that recovery was possible.
But AA success, even an AA beginning required hope and initiative,
which were so lacking along skid row. Could there be some
sort of boost over the hump from the Avenue to the AA group?
The committee decided it would be worth the city’s
effort to help these men find sober friends, jobs, medical
treatment and advice. The city council voted funds, and
339 West Jefferson was opened.
Aware of the contempt of the drinking man for the teetotaler,
the committee recruited men, as counselors, who’d
had personal knowledge of alcoholism. Two of the staff’s
four men had themselves experience, and recovered from,
serious drinking problems. The staff consisted of an administrative
officer, an employment counselor, a personal counselor and
a clinical psychologist. There were, besides the small offices,
a place to sit down and wait, a few magazines and a bathroom
where a man could borrow soap and a razor. Clients began
to appear, tentatively at first, then in a steady stream.
All sorts of men arrived, in all stages of disrepair, and
a special program had to be devised for each individual.
There was Fred C., who went out one evening two years ago
to get a jar of olives and a quart of milk, and didn’t
come back. Fred is a thirty-year-old veteran with a wife,
two children and a car. Until the night of the olives, he
worked on an assembly line in one of the automobile plants.
Fred’s expenditures for liquor and his sprees set
him at odds with his wife. After going for the olives, he
took up residence on skid row. Six months later he was in
bad shape, and he knew it. He heard about 339, and one hot
day, staggered in to see about it. The committee can draw
on the services of other agencies as needed. Fred was shaky,
incoherent, dirty and many weeks unshaved. Before anything
more was attempted, he was sent to the Receiving Hospital
for five days of rest and vitamins.
Eddie Rohan, whose prognosis, on the basis of his record,
was most unfavorable, turned out to be one of the committee’s
pleasant surprises. He’s one of the ten-in-one who
get the idea immediately and progress toward firm recovery
without a relapse.
The first step, with Eddy, was to let him get some resentments
off his chest. The counselor, who had himself wielded a
mean bottle in his day, agreed that Eddie’s father
was no ideal parent and the prison sentence had been cruelly
unjust. Still, he said, it was no reason for destroying
oneself. Other men had survived worse deals and were now
sober, working and happy. Perhaps Eddy would like to met
some of them. He went to AA and found congenial friends.
For a couple of weeks he took temporary jobs, dishwashing.
Then he got a permanent job in a hotel, which he still holds.
The pattern of Fred’s recovery is less smooth –
and more typical. In the beginning, Fred called twice a
week at 339 for conferences, began attending AA meetings
and got a job in a factory. His wife came down to talk about
reconciliation. In six months debts were paid off and Fred
was back with his family. He took a night job as a waiter,
in addition to his factory job. The counselors at 339 suggested
that he ease up; one job was enough. But Fred drove on.
One night dead tired, he took another drink – then
another, and another. He lost both jobs and his family,
and stayed drunk on skid row two months. He returned to
339, asking if he might try again. "I wasn't really
listening to AA the first time. This time I know I’ll
make good.” He’s been back on the job four months
now, the debts are paid off again, and his wife is pondering.
Of the committee’s 1670 clients, about 250 are, like
Eddie, very probably in the clear. Another 500 are, like
Fred, still troubled by relapses. The committee has bright
hopes for their recovery. “The thing we watch for,”
Bill Sterling told me, “is the significant change
in attitude. When hostility and resentment begin to make
way for a little humility and trust, a man’s chances
sharply improve.” Of the remainder, 520 never came
back, and 400 the committee does not think it can help at
The influx of new men off the Avenue has affected nearby
AA groups. The average alcoholic is of foreman, white-collar
or executive status, still possessing home, job and friends.
The down-and-outer does not always assimilate readily. It’s
not a matter of snobbery, but of community of interest.
AA friendships thrive best, its members say, on shared problems.
Bill Sterling regards it as inevitable, as traffic from
the Avenue increases that an all-skid-row AA group will
Such is the battle of skid row as waged in one city, Detroit.
Similar warfare, usually with smaller gains, is in progress
in every sizable population center. Skid row wears many
faces. In the crossroads village it’s the shack under
the bridge, over by the town dump. In the country seat,
it’s the half block of blind pigs somewhere between
the courthouse and the depot. In Chicago it’s West
Madison Street; in San Francisco it’s Howard; in New
York it’s the Bowery; in Kansas City it’s Main;
in Houston it’s Congress. I chose Detroit for a close-up,
not because its skid row is the worst, but because it’s
about the big-town average. No official of any city of comparable
size could honestly say, “But it isn’t that
It’s that bad or worse. The grim, hopeless shuttle,
filthy alley to jail and back again, is the course of a
huge ghost army of men. What will be done? It rests with
the cities. Certain minimum steps seem imperative. Sober
men are deliberately selling poison to, sick and stupefied
fellow citizens. I like to think that there are a few things
Americans just won’t stand for, and that poisoning
for profit must be one of them.
Saturday Evening Post, December 20, 1952)