Los Angeles is a place where anyone can be a celebrity—and I mean anyone. It’s also a city that boasts one of the largest homeless populations in the world (50,000 and rising). It was only a matter of time, then, that a homeless person became a celebrity.
Meet John Wesley Jermyn (aka “The Crazy Robertson”)—a streetperson who has lived on Robertson Blvd in L.A. for twenty some years. Like many vagrants in the City of Angels, Jermyn comes from a successful background (he was a star baseball player in high school and college, and was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1969). Unlike most vagrants, however, Jermyn has a clothing line named after him.
Kitson, a trendy boutique in the uber-popular Robertson shopping corridor, has recently launched "The Crazy Robertson" brand of T-shirts and sweatshirts. The line includes a $98 hoodie with Jermyn’s likeness on the back and the words “No Money, No Problems.” The twenty-something trio that launched the label made a deal that offers 5% of the line’s net profits to Jermyn, though so far he has refused to accept much cash, preferring to be paid in food, liquor and paper for his art projects.
In the meantime, Beverly Hills hipsters are snatching up the Crazy Robertson shirts—the latest fad in the increasingly odd and self-conscious “gauche/trash” trend in L.A. fashion.
Nary an indie-rock concert today that does not have dozens of rich kids dressed in Olsen twin derelict, “ashcan” homeless style. A few weeks ago I was at a Joanna Newsom concert (a freakfolk harpist/singer-songwriter) and there was loads of this boho, straggly-haired unkemptness. I even saw one guy with a stick hoisted over his shoulder with a cloth sack hanging off the end of it, railroad bum style. I felt like I was in a Jack Kerouac novel.
Homelessness is probably not trendy or cool if you are a homeless person, but it is increasingly chic for many wealthy and hip folks in Los Angeles. Look no further than L.A.’s infamous “Skid Row.” At 50 square blocks, this bastion of third-world poverty is the largest encampment of homelessness in the nation. But it is also—increasingly—the hottest site of high-end real estate development in downtown Los Angeles. Literally across the street from the homeless tent camps are newly renovated loft spaces that sell for $1000-2000/month. In efforts to (perhaps) get in touch with their unpretentious earthiness, many yuppies are moving into the gentrified shantytown. Oscar-nominated “it” actor Ryan Gosling lives in a loft on Skid Row. “You can't filter yourself from reality there,” Gosling remarked in a Guardian interview.
As bizarre as this all is, it does make some sense. People long to be “homeless-friendly”—especially rich, socially conscious, guilty white folks. And since riding public transportation, working at a soup kitchen or volunteering at a city mission is out of the question for much of the leisure class, moving in next door is the next best option! Spending hundreds of dollars on designer homeless clothes sends a message of solidarity, right?
Well, maybe, but solidarity does nothing to alleviate real world problems. The gentrification of Skid Row may “clean up” downtown L.A., but where will all the homeless people go? I wonder if Ryan Gosling realizes that the “reality” he is paying top dollar to live within will be directly impacted by his being there? Do the patrons of Kitson realize that the $98 they spend on a “Crazy Robertson” sweatshirt could buy ten sweatshirts for people on the streets?
Probably not, but that’s because “derelict chic” is a trend. And trends have little concern for consequences.