Dodger Stadium was once home to a lost barrio
It was bright and sunny on April 10, 1962 — perfect weather for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ opening game. A little more than 52,000 people attended the ceremonious event. The city had yet to claim a major sports team and had scoured the country, asking major MLB teams to switch over state lines. That’s when L.A. officials hooked the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It took three years to build Dodger Stadium, and the first pitch was thrown by none other than Walter O’Malley, commencing the game between the L.A. Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds. Despite the excitement, the now-Los Angeles Dodgers lost to the Reds 6-3. An anticlimactic, yet, fitting beginning, considering the tumultuous history between the stadium and the residents who used to occupy the land.
Before Dodger Stadium, there was Chavez Ravine
The history of Dodger Stadium is not shrouded in mystery. The area Dodger Stadium sits on was once known as Chavez Ravine, and in the 1950s, it was a thriving barrio that was home to three communities: Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. These individual communities comprised Chavez Ravine, which was a haven for Mexican-American families living near the Elysian Hills. In these hills, neighbors were family. Their community held quinceañeras, weddings, and parties — events that any Latino or Hispanic family would recognize.
Unfortunately, those living around their community saw the area as a slum, but such was not the case for its residents. What the community lacked in technological advancement, it made up for by raising livestock, vegetable gardens, and fostering a close-knit family community. Since the area’s incorporation in 1887, Chavez Ravine has birthed several generations of Mexican-Americans. But everything changed in July 1950.
Eviction notices disguised as eminent domain
By the summer of 1950, the City of Los Angeles had sent out a series of letters to the residents of the ravine. In the letters, city officials asked residents to sell their homes in order to make way for a new housing project directed by the City Housing Authority. The new housing project was called “Elysian Heights,” named for its close proximity to Elysian Park.
Although Chavez Ravine was its own thriving community, it also lacked paved roads, plumbing, and sometimes electricity. The city thought to renovate the area for the benefit of the community and to help ease life for lower-income families. Elysian Heights would have shops, grocery stores, playgrounds, churches, and schools. The town would be the site of 10,000 affordable units. Those who wished to remain in the area were promised the first pick of the new units once construction was completed.
Objectively, the premise was simple: Those who sought greener pastures and sold their homes would be given fair compensation. This process was known as eminent domain, which found its basis in the Fifth Amendment.
The Fifth Amendment, under criminal cases, applies to what everyone knows today as, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury … ” But if you keep reading, there is also the final clause in the amendment that states, “ … nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” In other words, the government can’t take something without your consent and without fair compensation.
Eminent domain affected millions and has been used to evict and displace communities for decades. Professor Craig Olwert of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at California State University, Northridge, talks about eminent domain as a foundation for creating a progressive and easily accessible city, though he admits there are consequences. Olwert believes that as the government seizes land, many are left to suffer in its aftermath. And it has to do with, in part, what Olwert calls “white flight” and “suburbanization.”
Olwert says, “It’s more of the effect, I think, of the result of white flight and suburbanization, because what’s happening with the late ’40s and early ’50s is obviously a building of all this new housing out in the suburbs, all the wealthy and middle-class people are going to those new housing units. They’re predominantly white people as well. Then basically, which leaves in your inner city is a bunch of low-income people of color, is what you’re leaving.”
Suburbanization is progressive but poisonous to ethnic communities
White flight is a phenomenon where white populations move out of urban areas, leaving behind minority populations within an urban area. The opposite would be called “gentrification” or “suburbanization” — these terms have only been around for a little over 50 years.
As populations expanded outward, racial and social lines were drawn.
Los Angeles is no stranger to either definition. When both overlap, it creates a defined line between the classes. As Los Angeles expanded, more space was needed to create housing units for the ever-growing population, making Chavez Ravine a prime real estate area to ease the population. For urban housing officials, the solution was Elysian Heights.
The low-income community would help those who were faced with urbanization. It was a great idea for the citizens of the Chavez Ravine, however, residents would soon learn that the development would never happen, and their property would be traded for peanuts.
The people of Chavez Ravine were severely cheated
Under eminent domain, the government may have the right to seize the land, but not without offering a form of fair or equal pay. In the 2005 documentary, Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story, descendants of the neighborhood revealed stories of their time within Los Angeles’ lost neighborhood.
One former resident, Beto Elias, explained how his father was taken advantage of by housing developers.
“My dad made a mistake,” Elias began. “You know, the guys from the city knocked on the door and they offered him nine thousand six hundred. So, my dad says, ‘Wow! You know, I really made some money, you know. I made a killing.’ That’s what he thought. So, when we moved out of there, and my dad had to buy another house, they weren’t nine thousand six hundred, they were fifteen, seventeen, eighteen thousand dollars.”
Elias’ family found that they’d been unjustly given an unfair price for their home. He and many others found themselves not only without a home, but without the sufficient means to buy a home for their families. But what might have been worse than being cheated out of their houses might have been those who sold their homes believing they would return to a nicer unit — only to find that their future homes would never be built.
The dream that would be Elysian Heights was soon to be finalized. The only thing that stood in the developers’ way was a few unchecked residences. However, there was one threat City Housing Authority did not anticipate, and that was an organization known as the Real Estate Lobby, which was associated with the Department of Household Owners Association.
To the eyes of some, Elysian Heights was the bane of Los Angeles, and some called it “creeping socialism.”
The Red Scare killed Elysian Heights
By the 1950s, tensions rose as the Red Scare blanketed the fears of the American people. Some would use the Red Scare to cleanse any affiliations with communist sympathizers, while others saw the hysteria as a business opportunity. The property owner of Chavez Ravine was asking for an intimidating sum of money for the ravine, a cool $100,000, which, with inflation, would be approximately $1.1 million today.
While negotiating for property prices, the lawyer of Chavez Ravine’s property owner decided to question the political ties concerning both the mayor of Los Angeles, Fletcher Bowron, and the director of the City Housing Authority, Frank Wilkinson, who proposed the creation of Elysian Heights. With both figures out of the picture, the housing project was canceled.
With the City Housing Authority gone, the community was uprooted from the land, and those who remained were being bullied into selling their homes to make way for a new project. One that would serve, not a neighborhood, but the entire population of Los Angeles: a stadium.
The City of Los Angeles had been looking for a major sports team to represent the ever-growing motor metropolis, and city officials looked no further than the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A baseball team for a growing city
The city offered Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley Chavez Ravine. Well, not the land itself, but they offered a promise. The city presented a stadium that would become a symbol of baseball pride. But there was a hitch: There were still residents living in Chavez Ravine. Of course, when residents heard their homes would be demolished for a stadium, many went to the city council to protest.
Those whose homes had already been demolished camped in the ravine with trailers and signs demanding fair compensation. However, their demands fell on deaf ears.
On Friday, May 8, 1959, a group of sheriff’s deputies and a line of bulldozers arrived to evict the remaining residents of Chavez Ravine, specifically Palo Verde. One of the families was the Arechiga family. After they refused to leave their home, officers kicked down the Arechiga family front door and swarmed the family living room. Inside, officers would drag out the remaining residents by force, handcuffing them as their children wailed behind.
As officers moved in, like a shadow, movers infiltrated the space and broke apart the family’s furniture. However, that wasn’t the only unsightly thing that occurred in Chavez Ravine. Hills were leveled and they dug deep into the earth. The sand was dumped over an abandoned elementary school, burying it in the stadium’s foundation.
“They took the roof of the school … left the walls, they filled it with dirt, and eventually covered it,” Elias said. “So, in a thousand years, they’re going to start digging and find a school down there.”
Let’s go, Dodgers?
Although there’s no way to go back in time and change the past, there is a way to combat the actions of eminent domain. It was obvious that not only were the people of Chavez Ravine given an unfair amount of money for their homes, they could have settled this in court. But, according to Olwert, “ … If you can convince them (courts) that this is not a valid taking, then yes, you can have it overturned. But you don’t have a good chance of winning. So most of the time, the court cases are more about how much you should be reimbursed.”
Four million people currently live in Los Angeles, and the city continues to expand. This year, the word “gentrification” marked its 50th anniversary, and remains a threat for many minority communities. What’s ironic is that 48% of the Dodgers fan base is Latino, some unaware that the very stadium they cheer in is the site where 1,100 families were evicted from their own homes.
Call it the aftereffects following “Fernandomania,” but at the end of the day, history can’t be erased. For now, it’s silenced with whistles, cheers, and fanfare. Let’s go, Dodgers!