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Requiem for the ravine

A Latino community once flourished where Dodger Stadium stands. Its still-debated demise fuels a new play.

May 18, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

The drama of Chavez Ravine begins with what photo-essayist Don Normark called "a poor man's Shangri-La" -- the villages of La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde, home to some 1,100 mainly poor, mainly Mexican American families. The terrain was rough and steep, the views picturesque, the community tradition-steeped and tightly knit as it lived in sight of City Hall's tower yet a world apart.

The peaceful landscape Normark stumbled upon and captured in his book, "Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story," vanished during the early 1950s. Its homes were condemned and its residents forced to leave in the first salvo of a decade-long civic war. The ensuing battles pitted liberals who hoped to wipe out poverty via a massive federal housing project (designed by architecture star Richard Neutra) against a conservative business establishment that was willing to use Red Scare tactics to defend its interests.

In the end, the spoils went to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who acquired Chavez Ravine and built their stadium atop the bulldozed villages.

It's a pivotal Los Angeles tale, now being retold on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum by the Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash. The trio -- Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza -- sifted through documents, listened to the accounts of those who shaped or witnessed events, then wrote a play called "Chavez Ravine." It aims to present a humorous but accurate and politically nuanced take on this turbulent and, for some, still unresolved episode in the city's history. For Culture Clash, it's the latest in a series of documentary plays since the mid-1990s; others have examined contemporary life in Latino communities in Miami, San Diego, New York and San Francisco.

A vision, then politics

What first undid La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde was the idealistic vision of urban planners. They appreciated the community feeling and idyllic life in those barrios, but decided that tearing down and building anew was the way to deal with substandard housing and rat infestations. The Los Angeles City Housing Authority, flush with newly appropriated federal money, hired Neutra to turn the 315 acres of Chavez Ravine into Elysian Park Heights, a high-rise housing project of more than 3,300 units. Armed with the power of eminent domain, the housing authority bought up the neighborhood and tore most of it down. But the people who had lived there, housing officials vowed, would get first pick of the new apartments.

Then politics -- heated, nasty and prolonged -- intervened. The city's business elite organized a Committee Against Socialist Housing. The Los Angeles Times editorial page -- and the paper's unabashedly slanted news coverage -- warned that the housing authority would grow into an unchecked political behemoth.

During a court hearing, one of the top housing officials, Frank Wilkinson, was asked under oath to list his political affiliations. He refused to answer, and soon the state Senate Committee on Un-American Activities was investigating the housing authority. Wilkinson and two colleagues were fired, a new mayor who opposed the housing project was voted in, and by mid-1953 it was clear there would be no federal homes in Chavez Ravine -- and no civic attempt to honor the right of return that had been promised its residents.

Instead, the battle over the land became entwined with a revolution in big league baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers of the mid-1950s were covering themselves in glory but not profit in their outmoded and poorly situated little park, Ebbets Field. When owner Walter O'Malley couldn't persuade New York City to give him a better stadium site, he looked west.

In 1958, the Dodgers began playing at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Meanwhile O'Malley and his supporters at City Hall banked on winning a June referendum on a land swap that would give Chavez Ravine to the Dodgers in exchange for a much smaller minor-league ballpark the team had acquired. Opponents blasted it as a sweetheart deal and a betrayal of the city's previous commitment to keep Chavez Ravine for public use. The Dodgers won with 52% of the vote.

All that remained was the removal of a few families who had refused to budge. The last stand came on May 8, 1959, when sheriff's deputies forcibly evicted the extended family of Manuel and Abrana Arechiga. It became the signature moment in the city's memory of the long saga of Chavez Ravine.

"Aurora Vargas was the last to leave -- making good on her threat that 'they'll have to carry me,' " The Times reported. "Less than 10 minutes later, two bulldozers lumbered onto the property, pushed their might against the old dwellings, and began reducing them to rubble."

Four months later, the Dodgers had their ceremonial groundbreaking in Chavez Ravine. The 56,000-seat ballpark opened April 10, 1962.

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