Indian Alley in Los Angeles’s Skid Row has played a sad, even tragic, role in the lives of many Natives who relocated there in the 1950s and ‘60s. But the area’s reputation as the seedy underbelly of the city has gone on far longer than that. After more than 125 years, the area now known as Indian Alley is finally experiencing a shift, starting at 118 Winston Street, where murals by well-known Native artists call out for remembrance, healing, and strength.
Built in 1887, 118 Winston Street is a slice-of-pie shaped building that first gained notoriety as a hotel for day laborers who remained in LA after the completion of the railroad. It was known as a place of alcohol, violence, robberies, break-ins and prostitution, and became a brothel in 1906.
In the 1930s, the building became a haven for communists and labor movements and eventually was taken over by a nun who ran a mission house there. By the 1940s, the building had been at least partially condemned, but a movement to demolish it was averted.
With the Relocation Act, LA’s Native population swelled from 12,000 in 1960 to 25,000 in 1966. Tribal members from as far away as Oklahoma flooded the city, with many ending up homeless, alone, and too often intoxicated in Indian Alley.
Finally, in June 1974, a young lady named Baba Cooper, remembered in old newspaper clippings as being Sioux, wanted to do something for the people living in the dangerous conditions of Skid Row. In the tawdry building at 118 Winston Street, so well-known for its dark and violent history, she set up shop and called it the United American Indian Involvement.
UAII was a place where beds, showers, and restrooms were provided. It was a safe place for Natives to get off the street. “This was where people able to maintain their sobriety could sleep. It didn’t matter what condition you were in, you were welcome,” David Rambeau, current executive director of UAII, said.
After Baba left, Marion Zucco took over the program, Rambeau said. “Marion did an excellent job, the program followed a social model: if you had a problem with alcohol or drugs you would go into the program. If you did really well and maintained sobriety, the program would hire you, and even some without an education did a good job.”
Rambeau remembered his own healing process. “I stayed there three months, and with the help of those women, I sobered up. In June 1981, I started working here.” After Marion became sick Rambeau took over the center. “We started having more Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and we were trying to modify behavior; to get people to be sober more than drunk. If they can change that behavior, they are on the right road to sobriety, and we kept working from there.” Today the center performs a wide variety of health care services throughout the county.
“It was the first federally funded rescue mission for the Native population; a drop-in center for health service, accommodations for the homeless, there was free food… and it was incredibly dangerous,” Steven Zeigler, owner of These Days Gallery at 118 Winston Street and Indian Alley, said.
“It was a pretty bleak place then, as most of Skid Row is and was,” Zeigler recalls. “From what I have heard, the alley was known as Apache Alley, Blood Alley, and Heroin Alley but Indian Alley is what it was most commonly called. Many dark and sad things happened there. Many deaths—killings, overdoses, beatings. There is still a very restless spirit there and that is why the art has been going up. It is an attempt to bring some joy, love, and positivity to a place that knew very little of it,” Zeigler said. Today, Indian Alley is awash with paintings by Native artists. Their paintings represent the past, present, and bright expectations of the future.
Filmmaker Pamela Peters is in the process of orchestrating a new documentary about the alley, and she said there was more to it than the misery. “It was also a central point were people came together and were able to find their relatives after relocation. It was, in a sense, a portal to the Native community. Today, Native artists are bringing in a larger view. Now, when people come to LA, they want to go to the alley and see the artwork of painters Steven Paul Judd and Votan, people want to see his huge mural. It was the first mural he had ever done.”
Peters said this new artful image is almost a branding, a stamp of Native existence in LA. “It’s like a memorial to all the people who have gone through Indian Alley, like the landmarks for battles. People remember Wounded Knee with the ride, and living in the city, we go to the alley, the place of lost families and friends. The alley and artwork are a modern contemporary showcase of our existence, and it is also a place to remember and never forget. The artwork in the alley is healing.”
Today, Indian Alley is attracting attention, but Rambeau said, “People want to see the good, but you can’t glorify the misery. What went on there; how do you bring that type of situation into a positive light?” Pausing for a second he said, “We had someone, Apache, who came out of Skid Row and now sings at powwows. That’s where you see the living part of it, that’s where you see it rising from the ashes.”
Spencer Battiest, a Seminole actor, said, “I can’t imagine how they felt in the 1950s. We burned some sage as we walked down the street. It was quiet. We were aware of those who walked before us, their struggles, needing a blanket or something to eat. There are now murals dedicated to that alley—it’s an important part of history. It’s a moving experience to be there.”