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  • Private Property as Story: Helena Viramontes’ Their Dogs Came with Them
  • Mitchum Huehls (bio)

I don’t want to be responsible for taking one man’s private property through the use of eminent domain and giving it over to another private individual for his private gain.

De Witt McCann, resigning in 1958 as an aide to the Los Angeles Urban Renewal Committee convened by Mayor Norris Poulson

If you are not prepared to be part of this greatness, if you want Los Angeles to revert to pueblo status . . . then my best advice to you is to prepare to settle elsewhere.

Norris Poulson, Los Angeles Mayor, 1959

When You Sit in the Stands at Dodger Stadium and gaze beyond the outfield bleachers, you first see parking lots—acres and acres of flat pavement, hazy and rippled from the heat. At the edge of the parking lots are hills, absent any signs of life save for a smattering of palm trees and brush. These hills surround the parking lots that surround the stadium, making the entire area—referred to as Chávez Ravine even before the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958—resemble a giant shimmering wok. Directly opposite the stadium, set up high in the hills for the whole crowd to see, are huge blue letters instructing fans to “THINK BLUE.” Presumably, when the players can’t muster a victory on their own, the collective brainpower of the Dodger faithful will make the difference that puts them over the top. Of course, a more paranoid reader might wonder what the sign distracts us from. Think blue as opposed to what? Instead of thinking about how Manny Ramirez failed to lead the Dodgers to the World Series? Instead of thinking about how much your seats cost? Instead of [End Page 155] thinking about the fact that those hills, and those parking lots, and the very space under your seat used to be a thriving Mexican-American community of homes, shops, and public schools until it was completely demolished and its population displaced to make way for the Dodgers? Well, to paraphrase the mayor who helped bring the Dodgers to Los Angeles, if you are not prepared to be part of this greatness, you could always be an Anaheim Angels fan.1

Being an Angels fan, of course, would require you to think red, but red thinking—or more precisely, a McCarthyist hostility to it—contributed to the Dodgers’ presence in Los Angeles in the first place. In 1950, the City of Los Angeles, under Mayor Fletcher Bowron, declared Chávez Ravine blighted according to the terms of the 1949 Federal Housing Act, a piece of landmark legislation designed to increase affordable housing in urban environments. The original seizure of land, in other words, while still disturbing to Chávez Ravine residents, was intended to benefit the public.2 Adjacent to an ever-expanding downtown, however, this public housing project outraged private real estate interests—most notably the Chandler family, owners of the Los Angeles Times and significant tracts of downtown property—which viewed such projects as “creeping socialism.” With support from the Chandlers, the Times’ propagandistic editorial page, and the tellingly acronymed CASH (Citizens Against Socialist Housing), Norris Poulson ran a successful red-baiting campaign that earned him the mayor’s office in 1953. Almost immediately, Poulson’s administration attacked public housing, canceling most of the city’s federal public housing contracts, including the one originally planned for Chávez Ravine. After leaving the land fallow for four maddening years, the city eventually gifted Chávez Ravine to Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a deal that a referendum of voters approved as a “public project” (Villa 82).3 Since the 1949 Federal Housing Act had already sanctioned “federally subsidized, private ‘urban development’” (78), however, describing Chávez Ravine as a public project was not a necessary condition of the transaction’s legality. It was good public relations, but transferring private property by eminent domain to other private interests accorded perfectly with the law as it was written.4

In just ten years, then, the definition of “public” in Chávez Ravine shifted from federally subsidized...