Barrio, Bulldozers, and BaseballThe Destruction of Chavez Ravine
The cover of a Ry Cooder cd encapsulates one of the urban myths of Los Angeles. The illustration on the 2005 album shows Death driving a bulldozer through a hilly community of simple houses. Death sports a baseball cap and chomps on a cigar holder like the ones used by Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley. For those slow on the uptake, the cover of the booklet inside the cd case shows a picture of earth-moving equipment at the groundbreaking ceremony for Dodger Stadium.1
The myth in the music, and the story repeated to this day by some former residents and activists, connects two undoubted facts.2 The poor, Mexican American community of Chavez Ravine was destroyed. And Dodger Stadium stands there today. The myth is that these facts are logically connected, that the first was done to create the second.
The myth is constantly reinforced by powerful photographs and film from the archives. The pictures that appeared in Los Angeles newspapers on May 9, 1959, showed Aurora Vargas being forcibly carried down the steps of her wooden frame home by policemen. The picture is presented as a poor Mexican American family torn from their home to permit construction of Dodger Stadium. Context can be everything. In some cases, pictures need their thousand words.
Some of the context came quickly in 1959, but has largely been forgotten. Mrs. Vargas was part of the extended Arechiga family. Soon after the eviction, Los Angeles newspapers reported the family owned and rented out eleven houses around Los Angeles.3 The Arechigas were not poor. They were in a dispute with the city of Los Angeles about the value of the Chavez Ravine house. The squatters who inhabited the hills around the Arechigas property were poor, but they weren’t part of the story.
The rest of the context, however, was quickly lost. It’s a story of a divided city elite, a disenfranchised minority community, and the McCarthy era of the early 1950s. [End Page 47]
Chavez Ravine sits in the hills just a bit north of downtown Los Angeles. Its name grew from the quickest path from the old central area of the city into the hills, up a ravine owned by Julian Chavez. In the late 1940s, it was a community of about 1,100 families, overwhelmingly Mexican American and mostly poor. Crispin Martin, who played Pancho in some of the Cisco Kid movies, lived there, but his financial status was the exception.
Some of the streets were unpaved. Utilities could be haphazard. There were solid houses, but there were also ramshackle dwellings teetering on hillsides. Goats and chickens wandered freely. An elementary school and a Catholic church served as focal points.4
Chavez Ravine evoked different images. The residents saw a close community where somebody always had an eye on the kids playing outside and you could count on help if hard times hit. The elites of downtown Los Angeles saw an eyesore. They saw roaming animals, trash, wooden shacks, and poor Mexicans. The liberals in the elite wanted to improve housing conditions and conservatives in the elite wanted to clean things up.
Driven by World War II, and then Cold War defense spending, Los Angeles had boomed during the 1940s. The county’s population had grown 49 percent, to nearly 1.4 million.5 But the number of available housing units had grown by only 32 percent.6 Veterans and their families were living in Quonset huts in city parks and other appropriated areas. The elites knew they had a problem and the liberals among them saw an opportunity for public housing, then a byword of urban planning across the country.
In 1949, Congress passed the Public Housing Act, providing funds to build eight hundred thousand housing units across the country. The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles acquired $110 million to build ten thousand units at eleven sites. In October 1950, the Los Angeles City Council signed a contract with the housing authority for the project. The 3,364 units to be built in Chavez Ravine were dubbed Elysian Park Heights and a young executive named Frank Wilkinson became the housing authority’s point man.
Internationally renowned architect Richard Neutra and a young architect named Robert Alexander were hired to design the project. When Neutra and Alexander visited the area, they found a vibrant neighborhood and recognized that much of the sense of community that architects and planners were striving so hard to create with urban renewal already existed in the area.
The project went ahead through 1950, 1951, and 1952. Landowners, some of whom weren’t residents, were offered cash settlements, most of which were accepted. Almost all the families left, promised that the move was only temporary until the project was built. Their houses were torn down. Neutra walked the hillsides, figuring out where to site the apartment buildings and planning the spaces between them. [End Page 48]
Some people, however, didn’t like this, or any other, public-housing project. Conservatives had denounced public housing as creeping socialism for years. Now, the real estate industry weighed in. The Home Builders Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and, most importantly, the Los Angeles Times, joined the movement.7 Public housing had become the focus of liberal-conservative battling in Los Angeles.
In December 1951, the city council reversed itself, adopting a resolution to cancel the city’s contract with the housing authority. The housing authority sued and won an April 1952 state supreme court ruling that the contract was valid and that a pending June referendum on the issue would be moot. The ballots, however, had already been printed and just under 60 percent of Los Angeles voters said they didn’t want public housing. The results might have been moot, but practical politicians knew how to read voting results for the mood of the electorate.
They also knew that, in that McCarthy era, the real estate industry’s charges about left-leaning bureaucrats, socialism, and threats to the American Way were resonating with a lot of voters. Los Angeles City Councilman John Holland said, “Public Housing follows the Communist pattern. These are the people who are trying to wreck America. Those who have been warning us that liberty is in grave danger in this country are right.”8 And many believed.
Later in 1952, the California State Senate’s Committee on Un-American Activities, the local version of the House of Representatives’ committee trying to root out communists in Washington, began to investigate the Los Angeles Housing Authority. Frank Wilkinson and other staff members of the authority failed the litmus test. They all took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer when asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”9 They were fired. In that McCarthy era, the housing authority and all its works were political untouchables.
Senator William Knowland and Vice President Richard Nixon, two influential California Republicans in Washington, were instrumental in pushing a special measure through Congress in 1953 that would allow the city to get out of the contract. But an October US Supreme Court ruling upheld the contract and the housing authority forged ahead with construction on all but two portions of the housing program.10 One of the two was Chavez Ravine.
By the 1953 election for Los Angeles City Council and Mayor, public housing was the top issue. Incumbent mayor Fletcher Bowron, a liberal Republican supported by unions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the League of Women Voters, campaigned on his earlier advocacy of public housing in Chavez Ravine and elsewhere in the city. Norris Poulson, a conservative Republican congressman, was approached to run by a [End Page 49] group led by Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler. Poulson protested that the only Los Angeles issue he was really familiar with was public housing, which he had opposed in Congress.11 The delegation said they knew that.
For Poulson, public housing was a senseless waste of public money. He argued that the cost of building the project would require rents that only the middle class could afford. He joined the chorus charging the housing authority was dominated by “leftists” and that they would show political preference in choosing tenants.
Bowron supporters charged that Poulson was in the pay of real estate interests. Already, of the eleven sites around the city set aside for public housing, the opposition was focused on Chavez Ravine. They charged that Poulson wanted to get it pulled from the list of public housing sites so he could sell it to developers active in his campaign.12 Poulson acknowledged he had received campaign money from Howard Hughes, but said he was not beholden to real estate interests or any developers.13
Other opponents of public housing apparently were. When City Councilman Ed Davenport died a few years later, $30,000 in cash was found in his safe deposit box and his checking account balance was suspiciously large for a man who had only a $7,500 annual councilman’s salary and lived at the posh Park Wilshire Apartments. His widow said Davenport, whose switch had been crucial in the 1951 vote abrogating the city’s contract with the housing authority, had received “gifts of money” from the real estate lobby.14
The city’s more liberal elements supported public housing. The president of one of the city’s most visible unions, a young actor named Ronald Reagan, threw his support behind Bowron.
Poulson won, and with a mandate on public housing, moved quickly through some complicated negotiations with the housing authority and the federal government. The projects Bowron had managed to start would be completed. The others, including Chavez Ravine, would not. The federal government would sell Los Angeles the land it had acquired for public housing and stipulate only that it be used for a “public purpose.” The city paid $1,279,000 for the Chavez Ravine property. The housing authority had used about $4 million in federal funds to buy the land.15
By the time this agreement was reached in mid-1953, the community of Chavez Ravine had been destroyed. Walter O’Malley had barely begun his efforts to get a new stadium for his baseball team in Brooklyn. He would not begin to consider other locations for several more years.
While the mythmakers would continue to write things such as “the bulldozers were called in to shove the poor Mexicans out and clear the land for a baseball stadium,”16 the record clearly shows that in 1953 the city council had [End Page 50] no idea what to do with its new property and Walter O’Malley wasn’t interested in Los Angeles—yet.
The remains of the Chavez Ravine community, and the acres of newly created open space, would sit vacant for six more years. Ideas about a Los Angeles World’s Fair and cemeteries surfaced in the City Council, but were judged impractical.17
The mythmakers got their boost in May 1959. By then, the Dodgers had arrived and were playing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum while they negotiated with the city for the property that would become Dodger Stadium. Up in Chavez Ravine, there were still some twenty families living in the few houses that hadn’t been destroyed seven years earlier.18 Most of them were disputing the amount of money they had been offered by the housing authority for their property. With the housing project dead and without plans for the land, the city had let the legal matters drop. The money had been sitting in escrow accounts, drawing interest, since 1953. Now, as the time to begin stadium construction arrived, it became necessary to move the last residents.
On the morning of May 8, Los Angeles County sheriffs escorted bulldozers to Chavez Ravine. Reporters followed. As the bulldozers pushed into the wooden-frame houses, newspaper and television cameras captured Aurora Vargas struggling with deputies as she was pulled from her home. The pictures were dramatic and the television stations, then competing with newspapers to establish themselves as a source for news, played the story big.
Here it was, a poor Mexican American family being evicted to make way for a privately-owned baseball stadium. The pictures were quite clear and very dramatic. The context was gone, to be replaced by myth.
Frank Wilkinson knew who had destroyed Chavez Ravine. “It’s absolutely the tragedy of my life. I was responsible for uprooting hundreds of people from their own little valley and having the whole thing destroyed.”19
Andy McCue’s biography of Walter O’Malley is scheduled for publication by the University of Nebraska Press in 2014. He is a former president of the Society for American Baseball Research.
This article is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book from the University of Nebraska Press presently titled “Mover and Shaker: Walter O’Malley and the Dodgers.”
1. Ry Cooder, Chavez Ravine (Perro Verde Records, 2005), album art for the musical composition.
2. Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2012, a1. [End Page 51]
3. Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1959.
4. Don Normark, Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999). Normark was a young photographer who chronicled the community of that era.
5. Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission, 1951.
6. U.S. Census, 1950.
7. Thomas E. Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism: The Battle of Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, 1949–1959,” Journal of Urban History 8, no. 2 (February 1982): 130–133.
8. Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism,” 138.
9. Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism,” 138. Wilkinson later admitted he had been a party member at that time. See Robert Sherrill, First Amendment Felon: The Story of Frank Wilkinson, His 132,000 Page fbi File and His Epic Fight for Civil Rights and Liberties (Berkeley ca: Nation Books, 2005). Also, Wilkinson’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, January 2006.
10. Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism,” 139–40.
11. Norris Poulson, “Who Would Ever Have Dreamed?” (transcript in oral history program, University of California at Los Angeles, 1967), 158.
12. Poulson, “Who Would Ever Have Dreamed?,” p. 179.
13. Poulson, “Who Would Ever Have Dreamed?,” 168.
14. Drew Pearson, “Helping the Dodgers Get to Los Angeles,” Riverside (CA) Daily Enterprise, December 4, 1957.
15. Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1953; and Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1953.
16. Lionel Rolfe, “An L.A. Giant The Meaning of Frank Wilkinson’s Life & Death,” Harbor Independent News, retrieved at http://www.randomlengthsnews.com/archive/giantjan19.html on May 2, 2012.
17. Los Angeles Times, Jan. 14, 1958; and Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1958.
18. Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism,” 141.
19. Eve Goldberg, “Frank Wilkinson and the Battle of Chavez Ravine,” Magazine Americana, May 2010, retrieved in June 2010 at http://www.americanpopularculture.com/archive/sports/wilkinson.htm [End Page 52]