- 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...