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The Battle of Chavez Ravine

Field of Dreams | HISTORY

April 20, 1997|Thomas S. Hines | Thomas S. Hines, a professor of history and architecture at UCLA, is the author of "Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture" (UC Press). His most recent book is "William Faulkner and the Tangible Past: The Architecture of Yoknapatawpha."

The optimum use of Chavez Ravine has been a significant and vexing issue for nearly 50 years. At mid-century, the area was a pleasant, hidden, semi-rural Mexican American Brigadoon that, nonetheless, offered an ideal target for intensified "modernization." In the early '50s, a plan for using it as an innovative housing project became the victim of McCarthyite cold warriors, who killed it because it was "socialistic" and "un-American." In the late '50s, however, the city was happy to offer the land to such all-American institutions as the Police Academy and the Dodgers. Today, a substantial portion of the original acreage remains unused. Those who will now determine its future should be aware of the many missed opportunities in its turbulent past.

Under the National Housing Act of 1949, the City Council, at the urging of Mayor Fletcher Bowron, approved 11 federal projects in Los Angeles, at a cost of $110 million. The most prominent of the proposed sites, Chavez Ravine was a large tract of open land in the middle of the city, a byproduct of L.A.'s sprawling, low-density, crazy-quilt growth patterns. Because it was the choicest site, the design commission gave it to renowned architect Richard J. Neutra, and his younger associate, Robert Alexander.

Neutra had trained in his native Austria and, after World War I, apprenticed with Erich Mendelsohn in Berlin, then Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin. In 1925, he came to Los Angeles, where, after a short partnership with fellow Viennese expatriate Rudolph Schindler, he launched his own practice with the dramatic 1929 Lovell House in the Hollywood Hills, in which suspended floors and pool surged out over the hillside.

Though Neutra designed distinguished schools and commercial structures in the 1930s and 1940s, he won international celebrity with his houses and apartment buildings. His most important qualification for the Chavez Ravine assignment was his 1942 Channel Heights Public Housing project, near Los Angeles harbor. The accomplished, though less famous, Alexander had made his mark in the late '30s, as a member of the team that designed Baldwin Hills Village.

The first of several paradoxes in the Chavez Ravine story was the architects' ambivalence about changing the area. Neutra and Alexander admitted it was a "charming" neighborhood, and that its people seemed "happy" and had great pride in, and identified with, their community. The "Mexican village" was strongly Catholic, and the church and public school were vital centers of its rich urban fabric. Festivals and holidays were celebrated with esprit. Most observers commented on the lush vegetation and the lively street life. Indeed, though the planners agreed it was technically a "slum," they felt uneasy about clearing the alleged "blight."

The area, Neutra observed, exuded "a certain human warmth and pleasantness, a certain contact with nature which cannot be found in Harlem, N.Y., or along South Halsted Street, Chicago. The trees of the lovely mountain park have grown high around the strangest 'blightlocked' area that can be found in any city of America."

Increasing urban density was the main rationale for redeveloping Chavez Ravine: Why should an area so close to the center of a city that desperately needed housing not be available to more people? Why not use the Housing Act to develop the area, without--it was hoped--destroying its rich assets? Though Neutra had personal doubts about the possibility of having it both ways, he convinced community, civic and church leaders that an equivalent richness could--and would--return in the new plan.

In the Neutra and Alexander plan for "Elysian Park Heights," new and old streets would complement each other, major roads would skirt rather than bisect the area, most interior streets would be traffic-free cul de sacs. Housing would face inward, toward garden plots or finger parks. The buildings would be modernist in massing and detail, with the crisp elegance of Neutra's minimalist aesthetic. This was particularly true of the project's smaller compositions, both apartments and service structures, reminiscent of Neutra's earlier successes with modular, low-slung, abstractly asymmetrical buildings.

The tall, less flexible towers offered more daunting problems, since economy demanded that identical units be arranged one above the other, with common plumbing stacks. This made it even more necessary to avoid the routinely crowded siting of tall buildings in other American cities, Neutra argued. "The tall buildings here will be spaced great distances apart and in spacious groups, separated by several valleys."

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