“Skid Row” — History of the Terminology

homelessness, skid row

Have you ever wondered where the term “skid row” comes from?  Or, have you ever wondered if you are using the term in a grammatically salient manner?  Lately, I have been questioning the origins of the term and its correct grammatical usage.  In order to learn more, I consulted the excellent book From Nazareth to Skid Row: The Real Reality of Skid Row: Systemic and and Homiletic Insights, by Rev. Jeffrey R. Thomas, PhD.

Below is an excerpt from the book that gives some insights into the intricacies of this terminology.  This excerpt (from Chapter 1) shows how grammar and language are influenced by class, society, and power.

“The term Skid Row originated in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1900s as a result of transient work that included logging.  As trees were cut, timber slid or skidded from the tops of mountains to the foothills below.  There, transient workers, then known as hobos, were employed to load the timber.  Subsequently, the area became known as Skid Row.  This term was gradually accepted across America to refer to communities of transient and homeless populations.  Thus, Skid Row became a pejorative term.  Consequently, using the phrase ‘on Skid Row’, as is commonly stated, should be considered a ‘double negative’.  The terms ‘on’ and ‘Skid Row’ socially, not grammatically, negate each other in the following way.  No one lives ‘on’ Beverly Hills, they live ‘in’ Beverly Hills. No one lives ‘on’ Brentwood.  They live ‘in’ Brentwood.  In these cases, reference is being made to specific communities.  In the same way, when referring to Skid Row as a community, individuals live ‘in’ Skid Row.  Moreover, if reference to Skid Row is not being made as a community but as a negative social condition, the term refers to derogatory social pathology.  In this way, the term Skid Row is a negative term.  Accordingly, “on Skid Row” is inappropriate terminology.  Thus, respecting the dignity and humanity of individuals residing in the community demands that reference be made as ‘in Skid Row'”.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Los Angeles’s Skid Row community, watch this oral history video.