Without Bitterness, There’s Something Missing

View from Chavez Ravine, looking towards downtown L.A. with City Hall in the distance...

As the story is told, in the later part of the 1940’s, as the Federal Government made funding available for public housing sites were targeted for removal and redevelopment. Portentously, The Los Angeles City Council put Chavez Ravine at the top of their list of blighted neighborhoods and planned to build just such type public housing in its place- Los Angeles got $110 million dollars on its behalf!…[w]hat follows; eminent domain gives the government the power to purchase private property for the good of the public. Most of the property owners received insubstantial or no compensation for their homes.  People were directed to move, and prominent architects Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander were hired to design “Elysian Park Heights” housing project.  Chavez Ravine residents were promised, by the city, that they would have first pick of the new and modern housing units.

The residents relocated and the architectural plans were finished, but something transpired. The mood of the country swung from left to right.  The L.A. Times vociferously attacked subsidized housing as a communist action. A Committee against Socialist Housing was formed. In 1951 elected officials, led by the new Mayor Norris Poulson, bluntly canceled the project.  Subsequently, the City was taken to court in 1952 and the court decided: given that money was accepted from the federal government- the housing project must be built .  Instead of complying, the city held a special election and voters decided: they didn’t want a housing project.  Thus, the city bought the vacant properties in Chavez Ravine from the federal government–for about $1.3 million.  As a compromise, the city promised that the land would be used for “public projects” only.

From the Solano Canyon Community Organization 

Well then, since it was the Los Angeles Times who brought it up, it’s interesting how blame got deflected in the above-the-fold article which ran on the front page today:

 The housing plan was eventually abandoned, but by then most of the neighborhood was cleared. By 1957, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was already thinking of moving the team west. Flying over L.A. one day, O’Malley asked about the site. The next year, the city agreed to a deal for the land with O’Malley. A year later, only a few holdouts remained in the neighborhood.

On May 9, 1959, the city moved to evict the group. TV cameras captured one particularly ugly confrontation in which sheriff’s deputies dragged the Arechiga family from the property.

 Among the local TV cameras were those from KTTV, Channel 11–the Times-owned television affiliate, which would later benefit from the broadcast of Dodger games on television.  Prior to that, it was the LA Times who helped to fan the anti-Communist hysteria which led to the sinking of the public housing project originally designed to be built upon the land where Dodger Stadium now sits.  But when you read the article, Times writer Hector Becerra artfully chooses to avoid any mention of how his newspaper was probably more responsible for the construction of Dodger Stadium than even Walter O’Malley.  When the public housing project was killed, the land lay unused.  Even Walt Disney rejected the land in favor of an Anaheim orange grove for what would become Disneyland.

Dodger owner Walter O'Malley overlooking the construction of Dodger Stadium.

Just imagine the antipathy towards the Mouse House had that deal went down instead!  While the Dodgers are often forced to take the fall in the blame game in popular history, they were actually quite late to the party and I’ve always personally felt that the team takes a bit more of the blame, Walter O’Malley in particular, than it actually deserves:

 When the Dodgers arrived in LA, there was no new ballpark to play in. The Los Angeles Coliseum was used while a stadium location was searched for.

At one point, O’Malley took a helicopter ride to survey the city in the hopes of finding a suitable new home. When he landed, O’Malley said, “Can I have that?” to Ken Hahn, an LA country supervisor along on the site expedition. Hahn answered, “Sure.” He even said they’d throw in the infrastructure to get access to the location. The surprise “that” was a 300-acre site in Chavez Ravine, and it was far from urban. It was several miles from downtown Los Angeles, but O’Malley envisioned an expansive stadium that would eventually seat 56,000 and have parking for a staggering 16,000 cars. (By comparison, Ebbets Field seated 32,000 and had parking for 500 cars.)

The City of Los Angeles, the McCarthy-era politics of the time, and the Los Angeles Times are ultimately as culpable for how poorly the stadium deal went down as the Los Angeles Dodgers themselves.  You rarely see mention of the stadium’s construction history in the team’s recounting of its own legacy, but as the LA Times’ article points out today, the legacy remains.  It is a bitter recounting of corruptible absolute power.

So if and when you read the LA Times’ article from its front page this morning, remember how those same front pages nearly 60 years ago, made today’s main article entirely possible.  I shouldn’t be too surprised though, that Becerra chose to avoid the obvious.  Of course, when you read about the Dodger’s move west from the Brooklyn side, on that end, blaming the Dodgers for heading to L.A. is just as easy as blaming them for Dodger Stadium.

We are often told that history is written by the victors.  It’s therefore not shocking that however you view a particular version of the Chavez Ravine story, the 1% trounces the 99%.  And so it goes when the LA Times gets to write about how they take pity on the victims of its own legacy–and forgets how they got that bitterness.

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