CHAVEZ RAVINE: A Los Angeles Story

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The History of Chavez Ravine

Children running and playing in a quiet hilly street with trees and houses.

“They didn’t want to move. They didn’t want to lose their friends. They didn’t want to lose their homes...”
—Carol Jacques, former Chavez Ravine resident

“It’s the tragedy of my life, absolutely. I was responsible for uprooting I don’t know how many hundreds of people from their own little valley and having the whole thing destroyed.” 
—Frank Wilkinson, former assistant director, Los Angeles City Housing Authority

Located in a valley a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, Chavez Ravine was home to generations of Mexican Americans. Named for Julian Chavez, one of the first Los Angeles County Supervisors in the 1800s, Chavez Ravine was a self-sufficient and tight-knit community, a rare example of small town life within a large urban metropolis. For decades, its residents ran their own schools and churches and grew their own food on the land. Chavez Ravine’s three main neighborhoods—Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop—were known as a “poor man’s Shangri La.”

Five men in suits and hats hold and look at a large piece of paper.
City officials unveil the new public housing projects

A map of a planned community with drawings of streets, buildings and trees.
Plans for the proposed Elysian Park Heights

Two men operate a bulldozer, driving it into a small home.
Demolition begins at Chavez Ravine

A group of men in suits seated around a table with microphones.
Mayor Bowron defends L.A. City Housing Authority against Communism accusations

The face of a white man in Fifties-style glasses with black rims on top appears on a large screen.
Frank Wilkinson testifies before House Un-American Activities Committee

A sign on the front of a Fifties-era automobile reads: Welcome Los Angeles Dodgers.
A banner welcomes the Brooklyn Dodgers to L.A.

An aerial view of Dodger Stadium
Dodger Stadium today

The death knell for Chavez Ravine began ringing in 1949, the same year that Don Normark captured his collection of photographs of the community. The Federal Housing Act of 1949 granted money to cities from the federal government to build public housing projects. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron voted and approved a housing project containing 10,000 new units—thousands of which would be located in Chavez Ravine.

Viewed by neighborhood outsiders as a “vacant shantytown” and an “eyesore,” Chavez Ravine’s 300-plus acres were earmarked by the Los Angeles City Housing Authority as a prime location for re-development. In July 1950, all residents of Chavez Ravine received letters from the city telling them that they would have to sell their homes in order to make the land available for the proposed Elysian Park Heights. The residents were told that they would have first choice for these new homes, which included two dozen 13-story buildings and more than 160 two-story bunkers, in addition to newly rebuilt playgrounds and schools. Some residents resisted the orders to move and were soon labeled “squatters,” while others felt they had no choice and relocated. Most received insubstantial or no compensation for their homes and property.

Using the power of eminent domain, which permitted the government to purchase property from private individuals in order to construct projects for the public good, the city of Los Angeles bought up the land and leveled many of the existing buildings. By August 1952, Chavez Ravine was essentially a ghost town. The land titles would never be returned to the original owners, and in the following years the houses would be sold, auctioned and even set on fire, used as practice sites by the local fire department.

The plan for Los Angeles public housing soon moved to the forefront of a decade-long civic battle. The story of Chavez Ravine is intertwined with the social and political climate of the 1950s, or the “Red Scare” era. While supporters of the federal public housing plan for Chavez Ravine viewed it as an idealistic opportunity to provide improved services for poor Angelenos, opponents of the plan—including corporate business interests that wanted the land for their own use—employed the widespread anti-communist paranoia of the day to characterize such public housing projects as socialist plots. In 1952, Frank Wilkinson, the assistant director of the Los Angeles City Housing Authority and one of the main supporters behind Elysian Park Heights, faced questioning by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was fired from his job and sentenced to one year in jail.

The Los Angeles City Council attempted to cancel the public housing contract with federal authorities, but courts ruled the contract legally binding. But by the time Norris Poulson was elected mayor in 1953, the project’s days were numbered. Poulson ran for office using the Chavez Ravine controversy as a platform, vowing to stop the housing project and other examples of “un-American” spending. After much negotiation, Poulson was able to buy the land taken from Chavez Ravine back from the federal government at a drastically reduced price, with the stipulation that the land be used for a public purpose.

Los Angeles was also a rapidly growing city in the 1950s. Despite its expanding population, the city had yet to host a major-league sports team. County supervisor Kenneth Hahn began to scout out potential teams that might be willing to relocate to Los Angeles, including the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley soon struck a deal with the city officials, acquiring the minor league Los Angeles Angels and its small ballpark with the promise of a new stadium to be built on the land from Chavez Ravine. As Frank Wilkinson explains in CHAVEZ RAVINE, “We’d spent millions of dollars getting ready for it, and the Dodgers picked it up for just a fraction of that. It was just a tragedy for the people, and from the city it was the most hypocritical thing that could possibly happen.”

O’Malley’s move to Chavez Ravine did not occur without major controversy. Vicious inter-city politics included allegations of Mayor Poulson making illegal deals with the Dodgers while betraying the public, while supporters of the stadium, including public figures such as Ronald Reagan, argued that opponents were “baseball haters.” In the end, O’Malley supporters won a public referendum by only three percent, allowing O’Malley to build the stadium in exchange for giving the Angels’ ballpark back to the city. Additional lawsuits froze the official transfer of land and delayed construction, but in 1959, the city began clearing the land for the stadium after removing the last few families that had refused to leave Chavez Ravine. On April 10, 1962, the 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium officially opened.

View an album of Don Normark's photographs >>

Sources

Independent Lens: CHAVEZ RAVINE: A Los Angeles Story
Los Angeles Times: Requiem for the Ravine
The Chavez Ravine Story

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