This term for a run-down area of a town where the unemployed, vagrants, alcoholics, tend to congregate is American in origin. It comes from an older term, skid road, referring to a logging road paved with tree trunks, or skids. From the 1880 New York Adirondack Survey:
Advised that lumbermen had cut “skid roads” on which logs were drawn..., I changed the route.
The transition from the surface material of a road to a run-down neighborhood can be seen in this December 1925 use in American Speech:
When the logger of to-day speaks of the ‘skid-road’ he means the place where loggers gather when they are in town.
And the familiar skid row appears a few years after this. From Godfrey Irwin’s 1931 American Tramp and Underworld Slang:
Skid row, the district where workers congregate when in town or away from their job.
And from Albin Jay Pollock’s 1935 The Underworld Speaks:
Skid row, district in a city where tramps (bums) congregate.
It is often claimed that the original skid row was in Seattle. The available evidence, however, does not support this claim. As we see above, the earliest known use of skid road is from the Adirondack region of New York.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton