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Chavez Ravine Revisited

May 12, 2009 |  8:00 am


May 9, 1959, Chavez Ravein Photograph by George R. Fry Jr. / Los Angeles Times


May 8, 1959: Councilman Edward R. Roybal meets with the Arechiga family at Curtis Street and Malvina Avenue, where they camped out in their fight against being evicted from Chavez Ravine.


Sept. 18, 1959, Chavez Ravine
Photograph by Harry Chase / Los Angeles Times

Sept. 16, 1959: Groundbreaking for Dodger Stadium.

Eric Avila is an associate professor of Chicano studies, history and urban planning at UCLA. His book, "Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight," deals in part with the Dodgers’ decision to move to Los Angeles and the construction of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. He answered questions about the Dodgers and Chavez Ravine in an e-mail interview with Keith Thursby.


Aug. 9, 1950, Chavez Ravine 1. How did you start studying Chavez Ravine and the Dodgers' move?

I realized that Dodger Stadium was another component of this new suburban culture that was taking shape in L.A. during the postwar period. Along with shopping malls, television, theme parks, movies, Dodger Stadium emerged as one of the new cultural institutions that defined the identity of Los Angeles during the 1950s. Thus, I saw the need to include it in my book.


2. There's a wonderful passage in your book from a former Chavez Ravine resident describing life there before many of the residents were moved out for a housing project that never happened: "There were dances in the churchyard. Pageants held in the streets. Weddings in which the whole community joyously participated." Reading The Times' coverage in 1958-59 provides no idea what the community was like at that point. Can you describe life for the remaining residents. How many people were still fighting the Dodgers' planned move?

Jan. 9, 1952, Chavez Ravine

Photograph by Hackley / Los Angeles Mirror-News

Jan. 9, 1952: Homes being cleared from Chavez Ravine.

 

It's not surprising to me that the Times didn't cover the conditions of community life in the Chavez Ravine during the 1950s, except to emphasize that the ravine was a worthless piece of land -- a "junkyard," I think it called that neighborhood -- in need of redevelopment. But it's important to remember that by the time the Dodgers had agreed to move to Los Angeles, most of the residents of the ravine had already moved out, based on an earlier promise from the city that public housing was going to be built in the area. I can only speculate on their disappointment when they learned that the project was canceled, fueled by the later discovery that the city was going to subsidize O'Malley's bid to build a stadium on the site.  And that was the crux of the opposition to the "Sweetheart deal" between O'Malley and City Hall: that the city reneged on its promise to build housing for poor people because government-subsidized housing was "socialistic," then turned around and subsidized (Walter) O'Malley's bid to build a stadium in the area (I spell out the terms of that deal in my book).  Many Angelenos saw that as pure hypocrisy (and it very much reminds me of current accusations of "socialism" in the U.S.).


3. How would you describe the role of The Times?

April 14, 1959 The Los Angeles Times wholeheartedly endorsed the plan to build a stadium in Chavez Ravine, and mocked the plight of the Arechiga family as staged theatrics. Over and over again, the LAT emphasized the imperative to build Dodger Stadium in the ravine -- this was after it denounced public housing as a "socialist scheme" -- and it played upon local fears that if the public did not approve the construction of Dodger Stadium, that the Dodgers would pack up and go back to New York. Basically, The Times initially played upon local Cold War anxieties to defeat the proposal to build public housing in the ravine, and then became the biggest cheerleader for bringing the Dodgers to Chavez Ravine.


4. The campaign for the stadium included the passage of Proposition B, which approved the Dodgers' deal with the city. How did the city leaders approach that campaign and what did you think of the tactics that were used?

The city and The Times used scare tactics to the effect of "if you don't vote for Proposition B, then the Dodgers will leave L.A. and find another city more willing to accommodate their interests." No evidence of this, of course, but that's how The Times advocated its side of the controversy. What many people don't realize is that Proposition B passed by a narrow margin: Many people did not approve of the deal between the city and the Dodgers, as they felt that the city was giving away too much to bring the Dodgers to L.A. In other words, the Dodgers arrived amidst a great deal of controversy and by no means was there any kind of consensus about their arrival in Southern California.


5. You linked the building of Dodger Stadium to the development of high culture in neighboring Bunker Hill. Can you explain the connection?

May 23, 1960, Chavez Ravine As far as I can tell, the Times -- historically a major proprietor of downtown real estate and business -- was invested in boosting the centrality of downtown, especially in light of the rapid suburbanization that was occurring in the larger urban region.  Thus, both the Music Center and the stadium were central to downtown revitalization -- one would attract wealthy elites and the other would attract middle and working class consumers.  It was all about their geographic proximity to the downtown core.


6. We're approaching the anniversary of the Arechiga family evictions. What were the longer-term implications of those evictions, which many people outside Los Angeles saw on television?

The long-term reverberations of the evictions left a residue of bitterness among many local Mexican Americans, who remember a much longer history of displacement and dispossession in California and the U.S. West.  For many of these people, the televised spectacle of this Mexican family being forcibly evicted from their homes resonated within a larger historical context of the American conquest of Mexico and the subordination of Mexican Americans within a new political, economic and racial order.


7. How did the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles fit in the cultural changes happening in the region in the late '50s and early '60s?

This essentially is what my book is about, so I can't recite the entire argument for you here, but basically, Dodger Stadium was another component of a new suburban culture that took shape in Southern California that catered to white middle class suburban consumers who sought safe, convenient and controlled cultural experiences that were removed from the historic diversity and perceived dangers of the city.  Disneyland, shopping malls, freeways were all part of this new suburban culture.  True, Dodger Stadium was in the heart of the city, but it was a self-contained island of sports entertainment (defined at the time as "wholesome family entertainment"), lodged upon a hilltop ravine, insulated by a massive parking lot and easily accessed by the new freeways.

May 2, 1964, Chavez Ravine
Photograph by Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times

May 2, 1964: A large crowd packs into Dodger Stadium for a Sunday afternoon game. It looks like every parking spot is taken.

8. Let's talk about another scenario. What do you think the Dodgers would have done if they were somehow not able to play in Chavez Ravine? What might have become of the area and the people still living there? And would the Dodgers playing somewhere other than Chavez Ravine been better for the region in the long run?

Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight Before Walter O'Malley announced his decision to move his team to L.A., he quietly purchased some 11 acres of land in South-Central L.A. which included, I believe, an old baseball diamond known as Wrigley Field.  Initially, there was some speculation that O'Malley would build his stadium there.  And in fact, the African American community--loyal fans of Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers -- expressed its great hope that the Dodgers would settle somewhere in the vicinity of South-Central L.A.  The city, however, boosted by the cheerleading of the L.A. Times, proposed what was essentially a gift of the Chavez Ravine (since it had already been cleared initially for a defunct public housing project) to O'Malley, which O'Malley accepted in exchange for the 11 acres in South-Central, much to the chagrin of the black community.  The huge irony of course is that now there is some talk about moving the Dodgers out of the ravine somewhere closer to downtown to build one those retro ballparks that are in fashion now, which likely could have been Wrigley Field in South-Central LA. All the makings were there, but instead the city and The Times opted for the Chavez Ravine.  As for the community that occupied the ravine prior to its clearance for public housing, I suppose it may very well have become gentrified in the way that Echo Park has become in recent years.  Imagine a craftsman home in the heart of Elysian Park!

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