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Chavez Ravine: Community to Controversial Real Estate

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

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