Oral Histories

Interview of Jeff Dietrich

: Founding member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. Co-director of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen. Author of Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity and the Poor on Los Angeles' Skid Row.
Mitigating Poverty in the City of Angels: Interviews with Affordable Housing and Social Welfare Activists
Social Movements
Community Activism
Biographical Note:
: Founding member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. Co-director of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen. Author of Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity and the Poor on Los Angeles' Skid Row.
Collings, Jane
Dietrich, Jeff
Persons Present:
Dietrich, Collings, and Theresia de Vroom.
Place Conducted:
de Vroom's home in Santa Monica, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Jane Collings, interviewer and senior editor, Center for Oral History Research; B.A., Communications, Antioch College; M.A., Communications, University of Iowa; Ph.D., Critical Studies, UCLA.Collings prepared for the interview by reading Dietrich's book Broken and Shared, reviewing the history of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker organization and reviewing the history of Skid Row in Los Angeles.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Dietrich was then given an opportunity to review the transcript but made no corrections or additions.
7.5 hrs.
Interviewee Retained Copyright
Series Statement:
The series documents affordable housing activism in the Los Angeles area with particular attention to the work of community development corporations. Additional interviews document the work of social justice activists whose work concerns both the low income housing crisis in the city as well as the ways that income inequality impacts the daily life of the most vulnerable among us.
Family background—Family's early housing—A family tradition of attending the local Catholic school—Father's military service—The Newport News shipyard—Family's Southern Democrat affiliation—Segregation—More on family background—Brothers and sisters—Sister Susan—More on siblings—Siblings' affinity with Catholic Worker movement—Religious education growing up—The family move to California—Family benefits from the GI Bill—Family settles in Orange County—Mother's involvement in politics—Parents' concerns about Communism—Mother's campaign for Barry Goldwater—Father switches careers to real estate and investment—Parents become more socially liberal—Catholic schooling—A few mentions of Vatican II at school—An unwilling student at school—Love of reading—Dislike of Mater Dei High School—Attends college—Hi-jinks while at college—Growing sense of a looming draft—Participates in anti-war protest movement while at college —Family's attitudes toward the war—Antipathy toward church during college days—Efforts to stay out of the war—Refuses induction—Leaves the country and goes to Europe, stopping in Iceland first—Travels south to Morocco, staying in Denmark—An engaging stay in Avignon, France—Returns to the US—Picked up while hitch-hiking and ends up at a Peace Makers meeting—The Peace Makers—The anti-war activity of the Peace Makers—Encounters a Catholic Worker van serving breakfast to people getting out of jail—Drafted to be editor of Catholic Worker newspaper—A Chicanos por La Raza protest against the Church—The origins of the serving of meals on Skid Row—A first kitchen is closed down by the police and health department—St. Joseph's church offers to pay rent for cooking space—Opens "hippie kitchen" in 1971—A breakup of the group due to a breakdown of communication (1972).
Refuses induction into the military during Vietnam War—Travels to Europe—Returns to the US and hitchhikes across the country—Meets a group of Peace Makers going to a conference—Wally Nelson—Introduced to the Catholic Workers at the Peace Makers conference—Inspired by the work of Catholic Worker draft resisters—Stays with a friend back in the LA area—Meets group of Los Angeles Catholic Workers—Begins residency with Catholic Worker house in downtown LA—Wishes to serve the poor while refusing to serve in the military—Sense of vulnerability in status as draft resister—Avoids civil disobedience work due to draft status—The members of the Pasadena Catholic Worker house—Food distribution schedule—Opens the soup kitchen in January 1971—Community founded in opposition to the war and to the establishment Catholic Church—Works with farm worker organizers—Meets Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez—The focus on the work—Sense that society was falling apart—Importance of the long view of social change—The nature of the work at the soup kitchen—Dorothy Day's "communitarian" approach to the Catholic Worker project—Dorothy Day's history—The Catholic Worker response to WWII—The labor justice movement as an important force in the foundation of the Catholic Worker movement.
Landscape on Skid Row in 1970—Dietrich's drive to work on Skid Row—Importance of addressing root causes of poverty while working on Skid Row—Challenge of pursuing activism and running soup kitchen—Meets Dorothy Day—Performs boycott work with farm workers in Central California—Tradition of supporting economic justice efforts within Catholic Worker—Catholic Worker community at the time Dietrich joins—The Skid Row population in Los Angeles—Skid Row in the seventies—Sets up first kitchen—Plan to establish legal and medical clinic—David Harris comes to kitchen to speak against the Vietnam war—The blood strike—The value of a campaign is in the good fight and staying true to values—Schism within the Skid Row Catholic Worker community—Meets future wife, Sister Catherine Morris—Dorothy Day and Sister Catherine Morris arrested during farm worker strike—Marries Catherine Morris—Morris and Dietrich become involved in an alternative urban plan for Skid Row—Skid Row Development Corporation—A historic level of support among unions, the city, and nonprofits for Skid Row development work—Andy Robeson—Alice Callaghan—An influx of Latino families to Skid Row—Callaghan's work in the housing area—Callaghan establishes Skid Row Housing Trust—Callaghan's response to the changes to the charter that protected SRO Housing Corporation--Creative re-use in downtown real estate—The Grand Avenue Project—Efforts to "clean up" downtown—Police Chief William Bratton's Safer Cities Initiative—The Buy Bust Program—Courts protect right of homeless to sleep on street at night—Business Improvement Districts—Confiscation of shopping carts on streets by private security.
Efforts to approach Skid Row redevelopment in a socially conscious manner in the seventies—The urban studies work of Leonard Blumberg—The impact of Mayor Tom Bradley—Bradley's appointees in the areas of housing and redevelopment—Jim Wood—Support for the Central City Association—The Silver Book plan for downtown—More on efforts to approach Skid Row redevelopment in a socially conscious manner in the seventies—Shopping cart confiscation—Alice Callaghan—Dietrich and Alice Callaghan's access to reporters at the LA Times —The thinking of the Manhattan Institute underlies the Safer Cities Initiative —Think tanks' use of academics for releasing non-peer-reviewed articles—Close relationship between LA Times and Bill Bratton—Goals of the Safer Cities initiative—Dietrich's belief that the poor need to be visible—First hears of the upcoming Safer Cities Initiative in 2002—The program to distribute free shopping carts—The Catholic Worker position of not taking interest on money—Press coverage of the free shopping cart program—The cost of the shopping cart program—The shopping cart program as an instance of grace and generosity to the poor—The symbolism of the shopping carts—The usefulness of shopping carts for homeless people—The mechanism for distributing the shopping carts—The Porta-Potty campaign—Excellent contacts at the LA Times—Dietrich's contacts with LA Times change over time—The work of Otis and Buffy Chandler to improve the editorial direction of the LA Times—Charlie Woo's efforts to get rid of the homeless population in the Central City East area—The Porta-Potty campaign—Mayor Richard Riordan's support of the Porta-Potty effort—The film Lost Angels Documents Skid Row—LA Times columnist Steve Lopez's articles on Skid Row—Dietrich's suspicions that Manhattan Institute lobbyist had an impact on the LA Times editorial policy—The prominent placement of the Lopez articles in the LA Times—The removal of the Porta-Potties two days after a Lopez article critiquing them—Dietrich's sense that the Safer Cities Initiative's language of contempt for the poor cloaks the motivation to clear homeless people out of downtown—Dietrich's anger regarding Steve Lopez's writing on Skid Row.
Gary Squier—The closing of the King Eddy bar—The Silver Book plan for Skid Row—The adoption of the Blue Book by the City Council—A progressive view of downtown redevelopment in the seventies—Jim Bonar—The contrast with the current thinking of the city regarding the homeless population—Police Chief William Bratton—Some effort to move the homeless population to Lancaster—Heather Mac Donald's writing in the City Journal—The drug economy as the available work in South Central LA—The ideological position of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal—Los Angeles Catholic Worker (LACW)'s work to make the poor visible within "the common land"—More on Heather Mac Donald's work—The Broken Windows and Safer Cities philosophies—The use of Steve Lopez's LA Time writing by Safer Cities—The legal work of Gary Blasi on behalf of the homeless population—The effects of aggressive policing on the homeless population—The Occupy Movement's efforts to put issues before the public—More on Gary Squires—Response to Mac Donald's description of Skid Row residents' response to local police—Andrew Smith of the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Division—The issue of drug dealing on Skid Row—Officer Deon Joseph—Tendency of the poor to be aligned with authority figures—Tendency of unemployed and homeless to blame themselves for situation—More on the LACW's approach of keeping the poor visible—Dietrich's guiding principles.
Eli Broad's impact on Los Angeles—The impact of the Safer Cities Initiatives on Skid Row—The "containment policy" for Skid Row—The redevelopment of downtown since the nineties creates a challenge for homeless advocates—New policies at the Cardinal Manning Center reflect the Safer Cities Initiative goals—A disconnect between city policies and the concerns of people on the street—A change in racial composition of Skid Row in the eighties—City regulators that could potentially close down Skid Row housing—Economic pressures that impact policy on homelessness—The Villaraigosa administrator's positions on homeless issues—A downtown park used as a daily Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—The threat that parks used by the homeless in the Skid Row area could close—The mayoral candidacy of Wendy Greuel—Heather Mac Donald's writing in the City Journal—The inherent conservatism of people who live on the streets—Officer Deon Joseph's perspective on Skid Row—The Catholic Worker's imperative to feed people, regardless of whether they are in a rehab program or not—The social justice perspective of the Catholic Worker—The inequities of policing when it concerns people on Skid Row—The essence of running the soup kitchen is a "ministry of presence"—The process of serving food at the kitchen—The satisfaction of serving food at the kitchen—More on the process of serving food at the kitchen.
The city of LA's efforts to eradicate the Skid Row population for public health purposes—The editorial board at the LA Times—Dietrich's response to Feb 27, 2013 article in LA Times on issue of homeless belongings in street—Dietrich's civil disobedience and protest work—Arms Bazaar held annually in Anaheim—Sentenced to six months in prison—Interaction with other prisoners—Released early by a judge during a letter writing campaign on his behalf—A book of letters from jail—Judge Robert Sullivan—Successful movement to chase arms bazaar out of Wiesbaden, Germany—Protest work as an act of conscience—Protest efforts against the 2003 Gulf War—The Wednesday Morning Coalition—The serendipitous discovery of organizing and protest ideas—The values that inform the work of the kitchen—Experiences while incarcerated—Protests at Vandenberg Air Force Base—In prison during the September 11, 2001 attacks—The prisoner's responses to the attacks—More on protests at the Vandenberg base—The Pacific Life Community protest work—The formation of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker sister house—The way that funded nonprofits are constrained in ability to make purely ethical choices for action—A short period of expansion of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker into numerous areas such as a law clinic and medical clinic.