Dodger Blues: Eminent Domain and the Broken Promises in Chavez Ravine by Todd Taylor

Dodger Blues: Eminent Domain and the Broken Promises in Chavez Ravine by Todd Taylor

May 25, 2020

Razorcake founder and editor Todd Taylor wrote an in-depth essay about the people who were displaced from the area known as Chavez Ravine where Dodger Stadium now stands for Zisk, a baseball zine. He took a deep dive into the partially buried history of eminent domain, redlining, and the crappy forces that shaped not only a sports facility, but the city of Los Angeles itself. His 56-page essay takes up the entirety of Zisk’s 20th Anniversary issue #30. Below are the opening two sections. The full zine is available right here for $2 + shipping:

Dodger Blues

By Todd Taylor

Dodger Stadium is undeniably beautiful. It sits above downtown Los Angeles in its own bubble. It’s a kingdom on a hill with a nice breeze. The stadium is very much a part of L.A., but largely undisturbed by it. It’s not cut directly into a busy neighborhood. It isn’t fed by light rail. It’s surrounded by expansive parking lots that fan out all around it like a nautilus.

As good as the scenery is, and regardless of how well the Dodgers are playing, I can’t forget that when I’m at the games, I’m sitting and cheering atop the homes of displaced citizens. My research deepened this disconnect: the physical splendor of the place and the enjoyment of watching games at Dodger Stadium versus the discovery of how many lives were destroyed on the same land where Dodger greats thrilled fans.

I was surprised by what I found scattered in archives and partially buried in libraries. However, I was not expecting to find a lever that could be pulled by people who have the power to change the present, to partially right several deep wrongs, to have the offending parties pay some reparations for the many promises they broke. This revelation came in the unexpected form of a recreation center that was promised to the people but never built.

A Hidden Valley Adjacent to an Urban Core

“It was so beautiful up there, with the animals, the fresh wind from the ocean every afternoon, and the flowers and the trees. We thought we were in paradise. We called it Shangri-La.” –Helen Vasquez (One-time Stone Quarry Hills resident)

Stone Quarry Hills was close to downtown L.A., less than a mile and a half from City Hall as the crow flies. Yet, it was treated like terra incognita by the city of L.A. Mostly due to its topography, the hilly land was set aside from intensive development. Smaller hills nearby were graded to flatten the heart of downtown L.A., making way for wide boulevards and tall buildings. According to 1868 L.A. County survey maps of the Stone Quarry Hills commissioned by Los Angeles Mayor Cristoval Aguilar, this land parcel included multiple ravines: Sulphur, Cemetery, Solano, and Chávez, all marked with existing roads to be improved and made “passable for wagons.”

Julián Chávez was a city council member between 1850-1875 and a native of Aliquot, New Mexico. Julián and Mariano Chávez’s names are clearly written on adjacent parcels of land on the survey map. Julián’s name is smack dab in the middle of 83 acres immediately northeast of the hills—an area now known as Frogtown. Inside the Stone Quarry Hills, a majority of the other 35-acre gridded tracts are labeled “reserved,” meaning the city reserved them for public use and bear no surname. One rectangle of land is marked off at the bottom of Solano Canyon: “Sr. Solano.” There are other named ravines running through the map, but the ravines don’t demark ownership. Yes, there is a Chávez Ravine, and it was most likely named after Julián or his brother Mariano. However, the 1868 map shows no Chávez ownership of land in the Stone Quarry Hills parcel itself. Through today, the actual Chávez Ravine remains largely unused and was only cleared for a single road, currently called Stadium Way. The hills overlooking this ravine are visible from downtown Los Angeles.

Francisco Solano and his family lived on that 87-acre parcel of land in the Stone Quarry Hills. Their land ownership eventually grew to 122½ acres, land where the village neighborhoods of Solano, La Loma, Bishop, and about half of Palo Verde were formed. Also, for some context, the population of all of L.A. at this time hovered around 6,000.

The vast majority of residents were Mexican Americans—Mexicans who, after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, went to sleep on Feb. 2, 1848 in Mexico, and, without moving, woke up in California.

The four small neighborhoods slowly filled in. The vast majority of residents were Mexican Americans—Mexicans who, after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, went to sleep on Feb. 2, 1848 in Mexico, and, without moving, woke up in California. The border had crossed them in a day, along with roughly half of what was formerly Mexico (including the guarantee of full rights for Mexicans in the United States and safeguarding property rights dating from before the treaty as “inviolably respected”). Each year, more people populated the isolated ravines, many escaping the Mexican Revolution. The four barrios’ populations increased by 250 families in 1913 when they were willingly relocated with the help of progressive lawyer Marshall Stimson from the unpredictable and deadly L.A. River, which periodically over-swelled and knocked out communities on its shores.

The barrios grew and stitched into one another—as adjacent communities often do—surrounded by ever-circling urbanization. Industrialists and the city of L.A. periodically sniffed out Stone Quarry Hills, but remained discouraged by the rough terrain that ran through the heart of it. The Police Academy, privately owned by the Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club, constructed its facility and started training cops in the area in 1924.

The neighborhoods banded together in 1926 against the Los Angeles Brick Company, which had been blasting the nearby hillsides since 1886 for clay and baking it for bricks. The homeowners filed a successful petition with the Los Angeles City Council to shut down the brickmaker’s operation. An ordinance prohibiting the blasting was unanimously passed on Aug. 20 and the area was zoned for residential use. A million dollar Naval Reserve Armory was built below the hillside homes in 1940, displacing no residents.

More than 75% of the homes constructed in the Stone Quarry Hills by 1940 were built under legally issued construction permits, mostly by individual homeowners and various small developers. These four communities repeatedly asked the city for civic improvements such as water, electricity, paved streets, and access to sewers, few of which were made readily available. L.A. was experiencing growing pains city-wide. According to a 1939 Works Progress Administration survey, over ten percent of Los Angeles’s housing was “substandard,” which ran the gamut of being in various states of disrepair, to lacking bathtubs and indoor toilets.

In 1951 Stone Quarry Hills was estimated to be home to over 1,400 multi-generational families in 1,145 houses, with a total population of 5,575 (based on the last census of the area in 1940 and growth rate patterns), some who had been living in the valley for over a hundred years. Let me reiterate, these were United States citizen homeowners living well within the law. It’s just that 86% of its population was “Hispanic” (“Hispanic” defined by the census report as being “born in Mexico, or one or both parents born in Mexico.”) Brown people. In 2019, I’m most comfortable using Latinx, a gender-neutral term that encompasses Latin American cultural identity.

Population in these ravines also increased because of “redlining”—color-coded land parcels on a map made by the government-sponsored Home Owners Loan Corporation that was adopted as a best practice by a majority of the private mortgage industry. These enforced maps ghettoized Los Angeles into described areas that codified discriminatory lending practices. If the map classified you as a certain “race” or ethnicity, you were prohibited from buying a house in many districts, assuming you could even afford it. Your options were severely limited. According to the 1939 Thomas Brothers map hosted on the Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America’s website[1] is labeled as a “residential security map.” The heart of Stone Quarry Hills is blank, “undeveloped,” and rimmed with red (“hazardous”), which is also the color that gave this cartographical practice its name. Since Latinxs had fewer options of places to live in the L.A. area, they clustered together. One of those clusters was Stone Quarry Hills. The footnotes to these maps are astonishingly frank and display another layer of racism. I suspect the cartographers never thought their notes would be released to the general public. Here’s a direct quote from the map’s assessor in regard to Stone Quarry Hills:

“This is an extremely old area which was never highly regarded and is now thoroughly blighted. A part of it is known as ‘Dog town’ is [sic] typical Mexican poon district. Although there are a few old fairly presentable homes which are still in original ownership, the area as a whole is dilapidated and inhabited by a highly heterogeneous and subversive population. The area being thoroughly ‘blighted’ is accorded a ‘low red’ grade.”

An easy read of these maps shows geographical divisions that perpetuate white fear and bring about racist scar tissue that’s woefully evident in L.A. today. The land further west—such as the fortress of Beverly Hills—and in the north with protectable, exclusive elevation—the Hollywood Hills—are colored green, “best.” The powers-that-be actively dismantled thriving multiethnic neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Watts by controlling who could own a home in those towns.

The map’s notations regarding Boyle Heights foreshadow how the vibrant town was intentionally bisected by major freeways and its multiethnic community was actively dismantled in the name of private real estate interests:

“This is a ‘melting pot’ area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is seriously doubted whether there is a single block in the area which does not contain detrimental racial elements, and there are very few districts which are not hopelessly heterogeneous in type of improvement and quality of maintenance. Nationalities: Russian, Polish and American Jews, Slavs, Greeks, American Mexicans, Japanese and Italians.”

Even after redlining practices became illegal, they were enforced. In the ’60s, governor Ronald Reagan claimed, “If an individual wants to discriminate against negroes or others, in selling or renting his house he has a right to do so.”

Racism wasn’t solely subtext, it was headlines.

Racism wasn’t solely subtext, it was headlines. It was carried out on all levels. Not only was it personal, it was institutional, from city, to county, to state, to federal. Between 1931 and 1934, just shy of a third of L.A.’s Mexican population was rounded up by authorities, put on trains, and deported under the authority of secretary of labor, William Doak, who stridently enforced President Hoover’s dictum of “American jobs for real Americans.” Many battles have been waged in the name of Los Angeles and one of the longest has been for white supremacy. The Los Angeles Times was a continual, ever-willing, vicious-slash-gleeful cheerleader of racist government policy. A June 12, 1954 article was titled: “Wetbacks’ Detention Camp Slated: Elysi­an Park Will Be Fo­cal Point in Ali­en Roundup.” The piece went on to describe the military-style operation, where a wire fenced “concentration camp,” was being made with a capacity for 1,000 detainees (many of them American citizens) for deportation to Mexico. It’s as age-old as it is enraging: When you’re viewed as less than human and pushed to the margins, you’re invisible to those with political power.

Despite all of these challenges, a vibrant, multi-generational, family-based, tight-knit, semi-rural community thrived in the shadow of urbanization. Goats, pigs, and cows grazed. Chickens, rabbits, and turkeys were raised for meat. Peafowl colorfully lazed around. Crops were grown in family gardens: corn, beans, tomatoes, chiles, loquats, and apricots. Multiple stores thrived, including City Center Grocery. The communities hosted two schools and churches. In 1948, the Free Methodists took out a construction permit to add both a classroom and a women’s restroom. Houses were built, often a room at a time, when funds became available. Mail and ice were delivered door-to-door.

Resident Sally Muñoz remembered how in Alta Loma, a juke was rigged into the overhead electricity pole. “Kids would come from all over. We had the best jukebox in the world, and everybody’d be dancing up there under the only streetlight we had. We had a real good time. We had happiness.” Resident Leo Politi described it as “a happy community where everyone knew and helped one another…. Horse drawn plows were still in use... all this reminded one of a village in Mexico.”

The residents were generally poor, relied on farming and manual labor, and not white. The city of L.A. grew around the semi-rural Stone Quarry Hills at an ever-increasing and fevered pace: wider and wider paved streets, concrete bridges, municipal lighting, aqueducts, and underground sewers all coiled around it.

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