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Orphans of the Ravine

Families were uprooted when the Dodgers came to town, a time that still resonates with many from the area. Some of the evicted families needed three generations to get back to a comparable economic level.

March 29, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

Virginia Pinedo grew up less than 10 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Yet her childhood was filled with long, slow walks with her grandfather, bike rides at breakneck speeds along empty streets and quiet afternoons watching Basque shepherds tending their flocks.

"It was very peaceful," she said. "Kids were different because the kind of upbringing they had had a lot of rural-type influences."

Memories, however, are about all that's left of the old neighborhood, much of which was razed half a century ago, eventually to be replaced by Dodger Stadium. In what quickly became a controversial and emotional chapter in the city's rapid post-war growth, some 1,200 families -- many of whom came to Los Angeles to escape the Mexican Revolution -- were forced out and their houses were bulldozed to make way for an ambitious public housing project that was never built.

Instead, the city awarded the 315 acres to the Dodgers as part of the effort to lure the team from Brooklyn. And some have never forgotten -- or forgiven -- the slight.

"It was a lot of political chicanery that got the people out of there," said Don Normark, a Seattle photographer whose pictures of Chavez Ravine became the basis for a book and documentary movie. "So it's certainly sad."

So sad, in fact, many of the displaced -- some of whom formed a group called Los Desterrados, Spanish for the Uprooted -- have never bought a ticket to a Dodgers game.

"I did construction. I worked [at] Dodger Stadium. But I've never been in there," said David Fernandez, whose wife Aurora was carried, kicking and screaming, out of her family's Chavez Ravine home in May 1959 by sheriff's deputies as television cameras rolled.

Seconds later a waiting bulldozer destroyed the house she had lived in for 37 years.

"She took the headlines away from Elizabeth Taylor when she married Eddie Fisher," Fernandez said with a laugh.

For years afterward, Aurora Fernandez, who was fined and jailed for her protest, had trouble even saying the name Dodgers. Eventually, though, they became her favorite team.

"At one time, I know, she couldn't [watch] the Dodgers and blah blah blah," her widower said dismissively. "And she got over it. We got over it."

So did Pinedo. Although she has yet to pay her way into Dodger Stadium she no longer blames the team for stealing the last years of her childhood.

"They didn't have anything to do with it," said Pinedo, who still lives in the shadow of the ballpark. "It wasn't a conspiracy of taking people's homes to sell the land to the Dodgers."

What it was, said Ronald Lopez, a professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at Sonoma State who did his doctoral dissertation on Chavez Ravine, was something fairly common in the 1950s: an attempt by a rapidly growing city to remake and reinvigorate itself. And that meant tearing down many of the old neighborhoods.

"There had been this idea of building up L.A. as this world-class city," he said. "They wanted the things that New York had."

In other areas, residents were forced out to make room for freeways, airports or shopping centers. Most went quietly. What made Chavez Ravine different was the fact some residents fought back.

"It's a symbol of standing up, of resistance," Lopez said. "It's a historic story."

And it's a story that was told with reverence in Mexican-American homes for decades, inspiring many of the Chicano activists of the 1960s and '70s. And it still resonates today.

"The fact that they fought, fought, fought showed people that they were going to stand up. And people can identify with that," Lopez said. "Do I think it was racist? Yeah, I think it was racist. [But] it wasn't so much [city planners] thought of it in racial terms but that it was an expendable population."

The valley known as Chavez Ravine, located just to the north of City Hall, was named after Mexican-born landowner Julian Chavez, one of L.A. County's first supervisors. And by the time it came to the attention of urban planners, it had become home to a vibrant, tight-knit community of mainly Mexican immigrants, who saw the peaceful and pastoral area as a small-town refuge in the middle of a growing metropolis, a place where they could still grow gardens and keep chickens even as skyscrapers went up all around them.

The city, Pinedo remembers, even allowed shepherds to graze their flocks there on the way to the slaughterhouses. Others, however, saw the working-class neighborhood -- which was actually made up of three barrios, Palo Verde, Bishop and Loma -- as a shantytown and an eyesore and by 1952, with the area marked for a massive public-works project, only a handful of families remained.

The housing complex -- where many of the former residents were told they could live -- would never be built, but the idea of urban renewal, which had spawned the idea in the first place, could not be stopped.

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