Out at Home: Chavez Ravine’s Shadowed Past and Public Housing in the McCarthy Era

Out at Home: Chavez Ravine’s Shadowed Past and Public Housing in the McCarthy Era

I. Introduction:

“When people are forced to move from a familiar neighbourhood, they lose, most obviously, the habitual physical setting of their lives.  To the planners who move them, this setting has an unambiguous meaning.  It is a slum—dirty, dilapidated, overcrowded and dangerous to health.  The signs of dirt and decay can be powerfully persuasive” (Peter Marris in Loss and Change).

“It was a wonderland to grow up in. Playing on the hill near the Police Academy, making kites out of newspapers, homemade carts that we would go down in. Leaving it hurt, but you get over it. You’ve got to take care of your family, you’ve got to move forward. But the memories are still very vivid, and I still feel the emotional hurt at my age. I wish I had a dollar for every dream I had about that place since I moved” (Gene Cabral, former resident of Chavez Ravine).

Chavez Ravine—the once-vibrant 185-acre Los Angeles community subdivided in 1912 and home to a diverse population of 3,764—while a wonderland to many, was a bane to urban planners, designated as a slum and cleared for public housing in 1950.  The modest goal was to transform an under-serviced, deteriorating part of Los Angeles into a fully revamped and restored residential area with affordable housing available to thousands.  However, the 1950s’ McCarthy political era of communist witch hunts and anti-liberal reform would change the course of history dramatically.  Chavez Ravine would lay vacant for nearly a decade, as the three communities of the Ravine—La Loma, Palo Verde, and Bishop—would never again be populated, becoming instead the site of a world-class Baseball stadium.  What events directly preceded the mass-evictions of Chavez Ravine and what was the city’s rationale for using eminent domain here?  How did Dodger Stadium replace public housing as the designated land use of Chavez Ravine and how did this reflect Los Angeles politics of the time? How was the narrative of the battle over Chavez Ravine retold and remembered through art and by former residents?  The land that sits underneath present-day Dodger Stadium was indeed the disrupted home to a beloved, working-class neighborhood betrayed by the city of Los Angeles.  To follow the narrative of Chavez Ravine is to uncover a complex and rich history involving (1) public housing’s defeat in the McCarthy Era, (2) the impact of loss and change on communities subjected to urban renewal, and (3) preserving the memory of Chavez Ravine through art and storytelling.

II. Early History of Public Housing and its Defeat in the McCarthy Era:

Public housing reform in the United States gained crucial momentum in the 1930s New Deal Era, promoting housing as a universal right, and shedding light on deplorable slum conditions around the nation.  In fact, housing reformers were able to win support for their cause by keying in on slum conditions, advocating the then popular idea of slum clearance.  In the article “A Study in Contradictions”, Alexander Von Hoffman (2000) traces this early history of public housing in the United States.  As Von Hoffman points out, slum clearance “had great political appeal” and was a key component to housing reform:

The notion that the inner-city environment trapped the poor evoked a sympathetic response across the political spectrum. To rally support for a national public housing program, public housing advocates inveighed against the evils of slums and promised that good public housing would eliminate them (Von Hoffman, 2000: 302).

Housing advocates, however, believed that slum clearance was not in itself the answer.  Urban redevelopment, they argued, was bound to fail when affordable housing units are destroyed and not replaced.  In fact, they pointed that slums would only spread if those displaced by slum clearance projects were not re-housed:

Public housers made the powerful argument that the extraordinary step of providing federal support for urban development could not be justified unless it provided housing—or rehousing as they called it—for the low-income families displaced by slum clearance.  And as a practical matter, they pointed out, displacing low income people from their homes would only spread slums into new areas (305).

In short, public housing was coupled with the sometimes-contradictory urban renewal program to define housing reform in this era.  After a long political battle in the early 1930s, a broad, diverse, and powerful coalition helped pass into law the 1937 Housing Act.  Von Hoffman describes this process:

The law was the product of seven years of bitter legislative stalemate and a shotgun wedding between enemy lobbying groups. It set lofty goals—to eliminate slums and blighted areas and provide a decent home for every American family—but provided only the limited mechanisms of public housing and urban renewal to meet them (299).

Although limited, a valiant attempt was made to provide adequate housing for all, as support for public housing would reach its pinnacle during the 1940s.  Unfortunately, this support would soon after reach a precipitous decline as public housing came under attack during the McCarthy Era of the 1950s.

After the 1949 Housing Program was approved, which dramatically increased the number of public housing units planned for the city of Los Angeles, a public housing war would be waged during the McCarthy Era.  During this period popularly known as the Red Scare, public housing was reviled, called socialistic and unpatriotic as anti-housing sentiment spread to offset public housing’s great 1949 victory.  In brief, McCarthyism developed during the Cold War, as an overzealous anti-socialist crusade led by Senator Joe McCarthy would ravage American politics.  As Don Parson (2005), author of Making a Better World, notes “Propelled with demagogic intensity, McCarthyism invaded domestic politics in the early 1950s and regarded even the mildest liberal reform as suspect” (Parson, 2005: 6).  For Red Scare politicians, public housing was indeed foremost on the list of potential targets.   In the essay “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism”, Thomas Hines describes this crusade as crucial in derailing plans for public housing:

The antisocialist, anticommunist crusade was the focus, symbol, and ideological umbrella of a highly complex cluster of antihousing sentiments, but it was without doubt the crucial factor in the rapid shift of sentiments from the balmy pro-housing aura of August 1949 when the city council had voted unanimously to approve the program (Hines, 1982: 138).

Behind the scenes, many powerful interests hid behind the guise of patriotism to agitate for the end of public housing.  However, the defeat of public housing was very much financially motivated as these interests stood to gain immensely with housing off the public agenda.  At the heart of the anti-housing crusade, for example, real estate industry leaders launched a powerful and extremely organized national lobbying campaign, which played a devastating role in the attack against public housing.  Parson describes these efforts in the following:

The national lobbying efforts of real estate interests financially and organizationally empowered these referenda.  These attacks on public housing were well coordinated, with information, tactics, and issues being shared, compared, and evaluated between the program’s national and local opponents as well as between municipal battlefields (Parson, 2005: 187).

Large-scale commercial and property interests would in fact profit the greatest from Red Scare politics.  These groups would seize onto the mechanism of slum clearance to promote a corporatist vision of urban renewal that would bypass housing.  Indeed, they would help redefine urban renewal as a scheme to maximize investment potential to the main benefit of corporate businesses.  By comparing a corporate with a community perspective on modernism, Parson reiterates this point:

Those who profited the most from Red Scare politics were large-scale commercial and property interests.  The geography of an expanded public housing program—the built-environment of the non-market-oriented and pathetically humane urbanism of community modernism—would have poor investment potential compared to that of a dynamic corporate modernism (197).

These are crucial points in explaining the tragedy of Chavez Ravine, which was marred by this political battle, and ultimately claimed by large commercial interests.  In many ways, Chavez Ravine was just another unfortunate incident as Los Angeles transitioned itself into a corporate modernist, international city.

            The 1950s signaled a transition period in the history of Los Angeles where redevelopment took on a more corporate nature and public housing was readily marginalized.  Don Parson describes this process as corporate modernism, which he defines as “inner-city redevelopment for commercial purposes on a monumental scale” (9).  This model heavily impacts the development of housing, where modern housing becomes 

relegated primarily to the suburban periphery in the form of single-family homes…In the suburbs, large-scale community builders sought to lower the cost of suburban development and expand the homebuyer market to include increasingly lower income wage-earners, resulting in a marketing conflict with and an antipathy to public housing” (9).

Following this reasoning, public housing not only was an obstacle in the way of a corporate vision of urban renewal but was also an unwanted competitor to private real estate interests seeking low-income homebuyers.  All said, public housing during the 1950s becomes all but invisible in the redevelopment process: “The call for housing as an integral component of the redevelopment process was, in the aftermath of the public housing war, politically nullified” (Parson, 2005: 144).  While federal funding for public housing projects declined, suburban housing became increasingly subsidized by federal and state tax dollars (www.pbs.org). 

During the McCarthy era, as Los Angeles transitioned into corporate modernism, urban renewal gained a growing number of adherents, ultimately opening the door for the Dodgers to claim Chavez Ravine.  Urban renewal was no longer of the sole interest to housers and planners whom advocated slum clearance and relocation into modern public housing.  Rather, urban renewal became seen as an instrument for modernism and growth, attracting a diverse coalition of businesses, planners, politicians and professionals.  Large businesses saw urban renewal as a way to involve the government in the acquisition and clearance of slum properties.  This would make it cost-effective for large businesses to grow in slum areas—without government intervention, private developers were forced to pay for these risky projects from out of their own pocketbooks.  As Von Hoffman explains, “After assembling tracts of land, private developers faced the expense of demolishing existing structures and building new ones. As a result, few private developers undertook the redevelopment of slum tracts” (Von Hoffman, 2000: 304).  Chavez Ravine was to be the jewel of the proposed public housing projects approved by the city of Los Angeles.  During the volatile Red Scare however, the city of Los Angeles would back out of a myriad of these public housing commitments and entertain the wishes of the new pro-growth coalition.  Parson makes this point in the following, describing 1950s Los Angeles as a by-product of the McCarthy Era:

Urban renewal united conservatives, liberals, and planners—no longer left-leaning partisans of a better world but now mandarins of the modern city—in a pro-growth coalition that removed “political power from the groups that were to be replaced”.  In this manner, modern Los Angles, shaped by urban renewal and insulated from popular participation in political alternatives, might be described as nothing short of the spatial expression of the Red Scare (Parson, 2005: 198).

In this way, the residents of Chavez Ravine would lose political power unable to reestablish themselves in their beloved former community. The city would ultimately turn to the Dodgers to usher in a new era for downtown Los Angeles.  Eric Avila, author of Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, details the history of Chavez Ravine and urban renewal in 1950s Downtown Los Angeles.  In what follows, Avila describes the Dodgers’ impact on a modernized downtown:

Downtown’s elite valued the material rewards of bringing the Dodgers to the Chavez Ravine over the psychological ones.  Given the decline of the downtown as a center of manufacturing during the war years, the downtown establishment struggled to steward downtown’s transition to a corporate-base, service-oriented economy in which tourists and tourist attractions became increasingly central (Avila, 2006: 160).

In short, the tragedy that befell Chavez Ravine was a result of a complex and heated political moment in the United States.  The previous was a whirlwind account of the conditions surrounding Chavez Ravine as it went from condemned slum, planned vanguard public housing project, and ultimately Major League Baseball stadium.  The next section delves into grater detail about the communities of La Loma, Bishop, and Palo Verde, the battle between the city and residents, and explores feelings of loss and change as a result of slum clearance.

III.  Chavez Ravine, Loss and Change, Modernizing Los Angeles

To the residents who lived there—raised their families, played with reckless

abandon, and celebrated holidays there—Chavez Ravine was a picturesque and atmospheric place unlike any seen in Los Angeles.  However, its age, lack of utilities, and isolation would make it a prime candidate for redevelopment.  As journalist Kevin Baxter writes in “Orphans of the Ravine”, Chavez Ravine was a small-town refuge in the heart of a massive metropolis:

And by the time it came to the attention of urban planners, it had become home to a vibrant, tight-knit community of mainly Mexican immigrants, who saw the peaceful and pastoral area as a small-town refuge in the middle of a growing metropolis, a place where they could still grow gardens and keep chickens even as skyscrapers went up all around them (Baxter, 2008).

These attributes were not lost on outside observers either, as many remarked upon Chavez Ravine’s rustic charm and lively street life.  Here, Thomas Hines explains, “Most observers commented on the lively street life, the exquisite plantings and yards and window boxes, and the manana ambience of rather harmless abandon—a Mexican ‘Brigadoon’ in the heart of Los Angeles” (Hines, 1982: 130).  This however was not enough to convince these same observers to keep Chavez Ravine in tact.  A larger, more ominous opinion began to circulate and predominate—namely, that Chavez Ravine was a slum, and a hazardous place to live.  What made this a vibrant community, planners and other city officials reasoned, would also make it into the ideal setting to an expansive public housing development.  One of the most prominent leaders behind this proposal was the housing advocate Frank Wilkinson.  His hopes were not to obliterate Chavez Ravine but to improve upon its qualities and create modern affordable housing at this picturesque site.  In the following, Wilkinson comments on what he saw there, noting safety and health concerns:

 It was a wonderful little community, but there were problems in terms of health and safety. A good strong fire would have taken the whole place out, like a tinderbox. The rat infestation was the heaviest in town. If the residents had a choice of having the project built or not, they would have said no, no question about it. But I don’t think I ever had a second thought, I don’t think anyone in the field of health or housing or planning did. It was a place that had to go (Boehm, 2003).

Although planners appreciated the small-town qualities of Chavez Ravine, they neither promoted these communities as ideal nor considered them to be replicated in the planning process.  As Eric Avila points out, it took some time before planners would do an about-face and extol these communities: “It was not until 1961, with the publication of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that the American planning community began to appreciate the kind of community that thrived within the Chavez Ravine” (Avila, 2006: 158).  In this case, planners highlighted the failings of Chavez Ravine, which was subsequently seized through eminent domain, and almost entirely cleared out. 

Chavez Ravine was an ideal place to offer public housing because of its proximity to the city center, as an area capable of absorbing a large population and other displaced Los Angeles communities.  Planners looked to increase urban density near downtown, and saw this as the most logical place to do so.  As Thomas Hines explains,

Urban density was, in fact, the chief rationale for redeveloping Chavez Ravine.  Why should such an area, the argument ran, so close to the center of a city that, like most cities, needed more housing, not be available to more people?  Why not utilize the provisions of the Housing Act to “develop” Chavez Ravine, without—it was bravely hoped—destroying its rich assets? (Hines, 1982: 131).

The decision made to clear Chavez Ravine was well intentioned and heartfelt, with hopes of preserving the lively street life while increasing density and housing near the city center.  This reflected the pro-public housing climate of the 1940s, and the downside to this event did not become apparent until the 1950s.  For the project, architect Richard Nuetra proposed high-rise towers to best increase density and to take advantage of the hillside surroundings.  To do so, it was necessary to clear the land completely:

Accommodating the towers on the more solid higher ground would require considerable grading and filling, which demanded in turn that virtually the entire population of the Ravine be ‘temporarily’ relocated and that most of their structures and the fabric of their village be demolished” (Hines, 1982: 140-1).

What was at first temporary, would become sadly permanent as plans for housing here were scraped, and the land sat vacant and returned back to the hands of the city.  In Loss and Change, Peter Marris brilliantly comments on the psychological impact of grief, relating personal loss to changes due to planning decisions.  As Marris points out, the loss felt by residents of slum clearance projects would indeed be life shattering: “We face this predicament whenever change is disruptive: if events contradict crucial assumptions about our world of experience, they threaten to overwhelm the structures of thought on which we depend to assimilate and adapt to life” (Marris, 1974: 17).  The battle of Chavez Ravine would emerge out of this pain, as residents confronted the city over evictions, and fought the arrival of the Dodgers.

In the 1950s, the nearly empty Chavez Ravine was treated like any other “blighted” area of the time—as a roadblock to advancement needing to be cleared for private development.  Before the land was finally developed and turned over to the Dodgers, however, a memorable battle would be waged between resident holdouts and the city.  During the 1950s, a discourse developed around slums that would equate them with “blight”.  To destroy slums then would mean eliminating “blight” and thus rid the city of unwanted chaos.  As Avila explains, the city would view slum clearance much differently in the 1950s when compared to the 1940s:  “By the mid-1950s, however, ‘blight’ became invoked as a strategy for privatized, downtown redevelopment and not, as it once had been, for improving the living conditions of the urban poor” (Avilla, 2006: 164).  In addition, proponents of commercial redevelopment discredited residents of slums along with blight.  Peter Marris makes this point in the following, as he looks at the symbolic language evoked in describing slums:

The physical symbols are so evocative of social disorder, a critical analysis of the association between them seems pedantic or even subversive.  Hence, if the residents cling to their slum, they too must be, at best, appallingly ignorant of the possibilities of life, and at worst morally corrupt (Marris, 1974: 55).

As hopes for public housing on Chavez Ravine land became dashed, the city would make a sweetheart deal with the Dodgers—charging them next to nothing in hopes that downtown would become revitalized with their presence.  This defied convention because the land was handed back to the city only under one condition—that the land be developed for public purposes.  The anti-housing mayor Norris Poulson—so instrumental in defeating public housing proponents in the 1950s—would make sure that the Dodgers would be the next tenants of Chavez Ravine.  Avila explains how Poulson, taking advantage of a weakened California Housing Authority (CHA), worked around this stipulation:

With the help of an obsequious CHA, thoroughly cleansed of any “subversive” opposition, Poulson simply changed the wording of the deed, eliminating the public purpose restriction.  With the omission of this clause, the mayor and his clique in city hall could confidently promise the Chavez Ravine to Walter O’Malley (Avilla, 2006: 162).

With deed in hand, the last step was to remove the final holdouts.  On May 8, 1959, sheriffs descended upon the final households with bulldozers in tow (Parson, 2005).  At this point, these residents were depicted, like Marris had described before, as “clinging” to their slum, and “appallingly ignorant of the possibilities of life”.  However, the traumatic televised accounts and favorable newspaper coverage would sway public opinion dramatically in favor of the residents.  The event heavily tarnished the city’s image, as they were viewed as barbaric in forcing people out of their homes.  This would become a rallying cry for preceding generations of political activists who took note of the courage displayed in taking on the city.  Nevertheless, Dodger Stadium would make its triumphant debut in 1962 completing a modernized transformation of downtown Los Angeles.  Avila comments on this transformation, noting the post-war trend in the United States of spatial and social isolation:

Given the heightened middle-class demand for social and spatial isolation that accompanied postwar suburbanization, the new downtown resembled a collection of single-use, not mixed-use, spaces.  Thus corporate plazas and music centers displaced the older, heterogeneous public spaces that defined neighborhood life on Bunker Hill or in the Chavez Ravine (Avilla, 2006:172).

The battle of Chavez Ravine has been an unfortunate and buried part of Los Angeles’s history for the past several decades now.  This event has recently been uncovered however and remembered by the Culture Clash comedy troupe and the musician Ry Cooder.

  1. Art, Storytelling and Preserving the Memory of Chavez Ravine:

In the play Chavez Ravine, the performance group Culture Clash retells the narrative of Chavez Ravine from the residents’ perspective with a critical and humorous account—one that celebrates the people, documents the history, and dramatizes the struggle of this embattled community.  In her seminal work The Power of Place, Dolores Hayden explores the connection between a people’s history and nurturing a sense of place, and shared identity.  To accomplish this, Hayden considers the potential of public art:

The kind of public art that truly contributes to a sense of place needs to start with a new kind of relationship to the people whose history is being represented.  This means that the artist is involved in an art-making process very different from conventional conceptions of art as the progression of an idiosyncratic, personal style (Hayden, 1997: 76).

Culture Clash accomplishes this in their routine by relating to the community’s story and creating a subtle portrait of everyday life on the ravine.  In so doing, the play celebrates the rich cultural traditions that made life in Chavez Ravine and this tight-knit community so distinctive.  Tara Yosso and David Garcia (2007) review Culture Clash’s performance in the essay “This is No Slum!”.  In it, they applaud the comedy troupe for a work that “unapologetically provides a critical, revisionist historical account of institutional racism, cultural resilience, and community resistance” (Yosso, 2007:146).  Culture Clash researched extensively the facts of the event, combing through the myriad accounts of the struggle.  As Yosso and Garcia explain, this research was combined with life-history interviews to sketch the characters of the play:

To add breadth and depth to their interviews, they examine social science and humanities scholarship as well as popular press coverage and judicial records related to these urban communities. Finally, Culture Clash collectively transforms their findings into characters and scenes for the stage, culminating in social satire from a uniquely Chicano-Latino perspective (150).

By blending fact with fiction, Culture Clash goes about the arduous task of retelling the story of Chavez Ravine from the perspective of community residents.

Chavez Ravine incorporates folkloric details of the community, emphasizing storytelling and oral traditions as a way to communicate history and develop solidarity.  In fact, the play evolves out of this storytelling tradition whereas an elder pillar of the former community shares the narrative with a young Dodger phenomenon, pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.  As Yosso and Garcia explain,

Culture Clash emphasizes the importance of documenting community histories and carrying on oral traditions as they present this narrative to Fernando…when he begins his career with the Dodgers in 1981.  Fernando symbolizes the resilience of Mexican communities in the United States.” (169)

In addition, the play focuses on the interactions between the children: “Culture Clash emphasizes the ways in which the Ravine’s children engaged in a storytelling tradition that included listening to and recounting oral histories, parables, stories (cuentos), proverbs (dichos), and comedy” (160).  Nicknaming was foremost in this tradition, as colorful nicknames were abundant in the play, carrying with them a sense of history, endearment, and shared identity. For example, Manazar, one of the main storytellers, explains that

we all had nicknames back then. . . ./ (All) La Living Monster, Nonio, Little Blackie, Headlights, Six Pack, Mocoso, and Once…We called him Once—Eleven—because he always had a runny nose. . . . Sometimes they called me El Peludo, the hairy guy. When we would go skinny diving, the guys would see the hairs all over my body, they said I looked like—(All) King Kong! (161)

These narrative details are crucial because they help to restore the humanity lost in historical records.

By delving into the daily lives of all members of this community, Culture Clash puts a human face on a group so often obscured and made faceless by history.  This personalized account of the events that transpired at Chavez Ravine “contributes to a sense of place”, as penned by Hayden, and expresses “a new kind of relationship to the people” (Hayden, 1997: 76).  Another critical element in their work as seen by a focus on storytelling is the generational aspect of the story—that even with their story obscured, their tale of valor and vindication will be preserved from generation to generation.  In their lively play, all members of the community—from very young to very old—coexist together.  Although the events would affect each generation differently, the play depicts a conflict between members of the same generation as well.  For example, the Ruiz family is seen as divided—the son, a World War II veteran, pleads for the family to accept the city’s money and move on, while the daughter fights adamantly against the government’s encroachment.  One argues for assimilation and creating his own niche in America, while the other stands for her community and preserving the family home.  Chavez Ravine stands out through its use of comedy to retell this tragic tale of displacement.  By using humor, Culture Clash emphasizes the resiliency of the community, and that behind the sadness is a lighthearted humanity.  This falls in line with the theme of resistance that permeates the play:

Though the city displaced the families for the “greater public good” and eventually handed over the land to the Dodger Corporation, Chavez Ravine residents continued to nurture resistant capital. City officials and Los Angeles power brokers failed to “see” the cultural wealth present in Chavez Ravine, and they did not anticipate a decade of community resistance (168).

Chavez Ravine chronicles this resistance through a composite of sketches highlighting what Dolores Hayden has termed the “power of place”. 

Although the victims of slum clearance projects such as Chavez Ravine and Bunker Hill in Los Angeles may have lost their homes forever, the meaning of the place, and the memories that are carried persist indefinitely.  Dolores Hayden writes about the power of these historic places in continuing to define the public pasts and legacy of all those involved in that community.  As she observes,

It is the key to the power of historic places to help citizens define their public pasts: places trigger memories for insiders, who have shared a common past, and at the same time places often can represent shared pasts to outsiders who might be interested in knowing about them to in the present (Hayden, 1997: 46).

As observed earlier in Culture Clash’s play Chavez Ravine, artists can be instrumental in this process of remembering, representing the memories of insiders and communicating them to outsiders.  The artist Judith Baca features the Chavez Ravine narrative in the venerable Great Wall mural along Coldwater Canyon in the San Fernando Valley.  Painted in 1983, Baca shows the whirlwind history of Los Angeles and how these events impacted the lives of people of color (www.frescoesforever.org/cultural.html).  She uses extraordinary and richly symbolic imagery to tell these stories.  Therefore, Dodger Stadium is shown as a towering UFO mother ship whose lights act as intergalactic beams abducting residents from their Chavez Ravine homes.  The pastoral hillside is shown flecked with chickens and small homes prior to the arrival of Dodger Stadium.  Next to this image is one of Mexican American families divided against each other harnessed by a choking freeway.  Here, she alludes to freeway clearance projects, which, like other eminent domain issues, have splintered communities.  Also, a mischievous grinned police officer is shown with Indian woman in arm making an exit with a spoil from battle.  A mural recently painted by San Antonio native Vincent Valdez with oil on the side of a truck introduces the narrative of Chavez Ravine to a new audience—“It was to be, literally, a vehicle for keeping the story alive and vivid…A way not to forget” (George, 2008:1).  Used to promote the musician Ry Cooder’s 2005 album Chavez Ravine, the custom-made 1950s ice cream truck tells the story of this historic place:

Traced along its sloping doors, its curved fenders, is a winding, deeply rutted dirt road, a few wooden houses rising from it. There’s a view of a 1940s downtown, then a sleepy neighborhood waking up, and later, faces familiar from the Chavez Ravine battle — then-Dodgers President Walter O’Malley, former LAPD Chief William H. Parker (George, 2008: 1).

Cooder finds yet another medium to help preserve the memory of this community, representing in song a celebrative account of what transpired at present-day Dodger Stadium.

            Cooder’s song “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium” speaks to the importance of revisiting the past, and that memories are impossible to bulldoze and burry.  His song represents the thoughts of a former resident watching a baseball game, pointing to different spots on the field of personal value to him.  For example, he states “And if you want to know where a local boy like me is coming from:/ 3rd base, Dodger Stadium./ 2nd base, right over there. I see grandma in her rocking chair./ Watching linens flapping in the breeze, and all the fellows choosing up their teams” (http://www.lyricsforall.com/).  The village remains intact in his imagination even without a physical trace of his former town.  The artist is in fact making this imprint, and imposing the experience of a former resident onto the field of play.  That is, his audience can now picture a lively street life where what exists today is a Major League Baseball diamond.  Even without physical signs, the artist still manages to recreate the setting and alert others of the neighborhood’s existence.  Again, Cooder sings

Back around the 76 ball, Johnny Greeneyes had his shoeshine stall./ In the middle of the 1st base line, got my first kiss, Florencia was kind./  Now, if the dozer hadn’t taken my yard, you’d see the tree with our initials carved./ So many moments in my memory. Sure was fun, ‘cause the game was free./  It was free (www.lyricsforall.com).

Furthermore, Cooder juxtaposes the games played by insouciant youth with the serious money making endeavor of professional sports—games that are not free.  The narrator speaks of his lost youth lamenting both the man-made demolition of his neighborhood and the natural process of aging.  Cooder’s song points to the irony that with absence there is substance and with substance there is absence.  Author Susanne Kuchler sums up this paradoxical theme of recollection even with absence in the “The Place of Memory”:

In the face of the ending of industrial economy with its object-based notions of knowledge and recollection we are led with De Certeau to reappraise the paradoxical—that recollection does not cease when there are no longer any traces of what is to be remembered, but draws its force from this absence (Kuchler, 2001: 59).

In “Requiem for the Ravine”, Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Boehm quotes a former resident, who, like Cooder’s character, becomes overwhelmed by a visit to Dodger Stadium.  Upon her first visit, a rush of memories overtakes Anita Cano:

In 1981, for the first time, I went back to see a Dodgers game, to see Fernando Valenzuela. We stopped at the gate on Elysian Park, I turned, and on the right side, what do I see? The driveway my uncles had built. I started crying. It was still there, part of my childhood hitting me in the face (Boehm, 2003).

In this case, Cano’s memory is spurred by a physical reminder of her childhood, yet these slab of concrete bears little meaning to an outsider.  Not all can be buried by the past, as the power of place resonates informing generations.

  • Conclusion:

For the cover of this essay, I chose a panoramic shot of Dodger Stadium taken recently with the stands filled and players on the field.  By fading the color of the photo and placing a shot of Chavez Ravine being bulldozed in the left corner of the photo where the scoreboard is, I attempted to draw these two seemingly isolated events together.  Although it is true that the Dodgers were not responsible for the displacement and demolition of the Chavez Ravine neighborhood, their presence signifies a chapter in Los Angeles’s history that demanded progress no matter the human cost.  The scoreboard is also a window informing and entertaining fans in the audience.  The average Baseball fan does not know of Chavez Ravine’s early history—a painful fact that the organization has seldom addressed.  In the essay, I begin by looking at housing reform and the heartfelt attempt to create a better world by making modern housing available to all.  Carried by the momentum of housing reform in the 1930s and 40s, Chavez Ravine was to be converted into a major Public Housing development to improve housing conditions for these residents—a plan that hopelessly failed as a result of 1950s Red Scare politics.

The boosters, politicians, and journalists of the city of Los Angeles became enamored with a corporate modernist vision of downtown that looked to Major League Baseball and the Dodgers to usher them into this era.  Finally, artists like the Latino comedy group Culture Clash, the painters Judith Baca, and Vincent Valdez and the celebrated musician Ry Cooder have attempted to restore the hidden history of Chavez Ravine relaying these stories to a 21st century audience.

Works Cited

Avila, Eric. 2006. Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight. University of California

Press: Berkeley

Baxter, Kevin. “Orphans of the Ravine”. Los Angeles Times. March 29, 2008: B1

Boehm, Mike. “Requiem for the Ravine”. Los Angeles Times. May 18, 2003: B1

George, Lynell. “Every Picture Tells a Story”. Los Angeles Times. May 8, 2008: B1

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