Chavez Ravine: Community to Controversial Real Estate

Panoramic view of the community of Chavez Ravine, circa 1952. Photo by Leonard Nadel, courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Now fifty years old, Dodger Stadium has become a Los Angeles landmark, steeped in baseball nostalgia and traffic angst. But the Dodgers' recent change of ownership has brought new attention to the real estate possibilities associated with the team's hilltop perch, reminding us that before the land served as home to athletes in white-and-blue jerseys, it was the site of a thriving Mexican American community named Chavez Ravine.

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Chavez Ravine takes its name from Julian Chavez, a native of New Mexico who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1830s and promptly became a leading political figure. In 1844, Chavez acquired 83 acres encompassing a narrow valley northwest of the city center. We know little about what Chavez did with the land, but during Los Angeles' 1850 and 1880 smallpox epidemics, Chavez Canyon, as it was then known, was home to a hospital for Chinese-Americans and Mexican-Americans suffering from the disease.


Despite the land's proximity to downtown Los Angeles, its rough terrain prevented intensive development even as the city grew around it. Much of the land became Elysian Park in 1886, the same year that the Los Angeles Brick Company -- later joined by a rival operation -- moved into Chavez Ravine and began blasting into the hillsides.

By the early twentieth century, a rural Mexican-American community had taken root on the hilly land surrounding the ravine. Plenty of open space surrounded three distinct neighborhoods -- Bishop, La Loma, and Palo Verde. Goats grazed on hillsides, and residents raised a variety of domesticated animals, from pigs to peacocks.

Drawing of Chavez Ravine as it appeared circa 1870. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

The Barlow Sanatorium in Chavez Ravine, 1915. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Animals graze in fields outside Chavez Ravine homes in this undated photo. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Bridesmaids and best man at a wedding in a Chavez Ravine neighborhood, 1929. Courtesy of the Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The community's population boomed in 1913, when a progressive lawyer named Marshall Stimson subsidized the relocation of some 250 Mexican-American families to Chavez Ravine from the dangerous L.A. River floodplain. A local grocery provided for residents' everyday needs, Palo Verde Elementary schooled the local children, and regular religious processions through the village reinforced community ties.

A political fight in 1926 over the local brickworks demonstrated the strength of those bonds. Suffering for years from proximity to the brick companies' blasting, Chavez Ravine homeowners organized to shut down the manufacturers' operations. On August 20, 1926, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously adopted an ordinance prohibiting the blasting and zoned the area around Chavez Ravine for residential use.

The community's victory over the brick makers did not deter others other development. As capital flowed into Los Angeles and engineering methods advanced, the community's rough terrain presented less of an obstacle to new ventures. Even before plans for public housing and then a baseball stadium rang the community's death knell, Chavez Ravine was routinely targeted for a variety of public and private uses.

In 1937, regional boosters began planning the Pacific Mercado, an international exposition that would celebrate the 400th anniversary of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's voyage up the California coast. Their preferred site: the Chavez Ravine. The following year, the United States Navy foiled the boosters' hopes for a world's fair by announcing plans for a new $1 million armory in Chavez Ravine. The same year, the city engineering department proposed that a new limited-access highway -- modeled after the Arroyo Seco Parkway, then under construction -- through Chavez Ravine to cut travel time between the San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles.

In the end, only the Navy's plan -- backed by WPA funding -- won out. During World War II the Naval Reserve Armory became an important West Coast military installation. Built in the canyon, below hillside homes, the armory did not displace Chavez Ravine's residents.

But while the Depression-era public works proposals may have spared Chavez Ravine, the city's postwar redevelopment mania eventually claimed the community in the name of the public good.

Two children walk up a dirt road in the Chavez Ravine area in 1950. Photo Leonard Nadel, courtesy of the Southern California Library for Social Studies & Research.

Children play outside the Palo Verde Elementary School. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

1951 view of the community of Chavez Ravine. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Children play on a hilltop near Chavez Ravine with a smoggy Los Angeles skyline visible in the background. Photo by Don Normark, courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The Chavez Ravine Naval Reserve Armory under construction in 1940. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

In 1950, Chavez Ravine became the centerpiece of a plan -- made possible by funding under the American Housing Act of 1949 -- to bring 10,000 new public housing units to Los Angeles. Located just a mile from downtown Los Angeles, and with only 40 percent of its roughly 300 acres occupied, Chavez Ravine appeared to the city's well-intentioned public housing advocates to be an ideal site.

As initially envisioned by architects Robert E. Alexander and Richard Neutra, Elysian Park Heights would encompass 254 acres, 24 thirteen-story towers, and 163 low-rises, providing nearly 3,600 new low-cost apartments. The plan used Chavez Ravine's terrain to its advantage; lines of garden apartments would occupy terraced slopes, separated by lushly landscaped promenades that granted apartment dwellers privacy.

But Elysian Park Heights contained no room for the existing community of Chavez Ravine. Contending that Chavez Ravine was a slum -- an argument advanced by photographs that selectively depicted ramshackle structures and street patterns defying suburban norms -- the city called for the demolition of the entire community. Hills would be regraded, canyons filled, and access roads built through existing neighborhoods.

In July 1950, the city's housing authority sent letters to the current residents of Chavez Ravine, informing them that "a public housing development will be built on this location for families of low-income...the house you are living in is included."

"Later," the letter added, "you will have the first chance to move back into the new Elysian Park Heights development."

As Alexander and Neutra refined their plans, the city housing authority used its power of eminent domain to purchase residents' property, spending roughly $3 million in the process. Some resisted, fighting the city's actions in court, but by the summer of 1952 most of Chavez Ravine was abandoned.

Then, the political winds shifted. As Dana Cuff explains in her book, "The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism," a coalition led by the Los Angeles Times, private home builders, and a public interest group named Citizens Against Socialist Housing (CASH) played up early-Cold War fears of creeping socialism. Support for the government-run housing project collapsed.

Artist's rendering of Elysian Park Heights, the low-income housing development slated to replace the community Chavez Ravine. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Artist's rendering of an Elysian Park Heights garden apartment building. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The city housing authority sent this letters to residents of Chavez Ravine, informing them that they would soon be displaced. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Map of Elysian Park Heights. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Chavez Ravine homeowners stage a sit-in outside Mayor Fletcher Bowron's office in 1951. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Chavez Ravine residents and public housing opponents protest the Elysian Park Heights proposal in City Hall in 1951. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Surveyors in a Chavez Ravine neighborhood, 1951. Photo by Leonard Nadel, courtesy of the Southern California Library for Social Studies & Research.

By 1957, only 20 families remained in Chavez Ravine. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

The city promptly cancelled its redevelopment contract with the federal government, negotiating a scaled-down citywide plan that abandoned the two largest projects, including Elysian Park Heights. The housing authority sold its land holdings in Chavez Ravine to the city, on the condition that the land be used for public purposes only.

Chavez Ravine sat in limbo for several years. Bulldozers claimed many of the abandoned houses; others were given over to the fire department for use in training exercises.

As the city searched for a new use for the land, the community's final holdouts resisted eviction orders, challenging their property's seizure in court. By 1957, only twenty families remained.

Then the Brooklyn Dodgers, frustrated in their attempts to build a new stadium in New York, announced their move to Los Angeles. The previous fall, as the Dodgers played the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series, Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson had met privately with Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and floated the idea of a baseball stadium in Chavez Ravine. Now, enticed by this offer, the Dodgers struck a deal with the city. The team would purchase the minor-league Los Angeles Angels and transfer the 9-acre site of the Angels' ballpark, Wrigley Field, to the city. In exchange, the team would receive 315 acres in Chavez Ravine to build a modern baseball stadium.

O'Malley's team fought an uphill political battle, as the deal seemed to violate the city's earlier agreement to devote Chavez Ravine to public purposes. City voters were given the opportunity to weigh in and in June 1958 approved a referendum on the agreement by less than 25,000 votes. The following January, the California Supreme Court upheld the agreement.

On May 9, 1959 -- a day that came to be known as Black Friday to the community's former residents -- sheriff's deputies and bulldozers arrived to enforce the eviction orders against the few remaining families.

Dodger Stadium opened nearly three years later on April 10, 1962.

Much later, after the community had disappeared, artist Leo Politi described Chavez Ravine (as quoted in Cuff's "The Provisional City"): "It was a happy community where everyone knew and helped one another. At night there were lighted bonfires, and people gathered around and sang songs... In many ways, Chavez Ravine was living a life all its own. Horse drawn plows were still in use, and the hillsides were planted with corn and sugar cane... Though all this reminded one of a village in Mexico, nonetheless this was old Los Angeles with a charm all its own, a Los Angeles we will never see again."

Artist's rendering of Chavez Ravine Lake, an alternative proposal advanced in 1958 for the site in case legal challenges against Dodger Stadium prevailed. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Police carry Aurora Vargas, daughter of Manuel and Abrana Arechiga, from her Chavez Ravine home on May 9, 1959. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

A bulldozer demolishes a Chavez Ravine home on May 9, 1959. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

To build Dodger Stadium, construction crews reshaped the hills around Chavez Ravine, as seen in this photo taken on May 25, 1960. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

Read more L.A. as Subject posts here at KCET.org, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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