You may know about Chávez Ravine if you are a baseball fan, or if you are old enough to have been following baseball in the early 1960’s, or if you were a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, or if you or your family once lived in Chávez Ravine, or if you’re a hardcore Ry Cooder fan. My family never came close to Chávez Ravine. We’re blond, blue-eyed Scandinavians who rarely strayed from the Mid-West much less into big cities like Los Angeles. I do fit all the other criteria for knowing about Chávez Ravine.
Years ago I borrowed Ry Cooder’s album Chávez Ravine from the library. I was recently reminded of the album when I stumbled upon one of its songs while browsing in iTunes. The album is a concept album that tells about the city of Los Angeles and the Dodgers destroying a Mexican-American community in order to build a baseball stadium.
The first song on Cooder’s album is Poor Man’s Shangri-la. I don’t know if it was a Shangri-la but in the 1940’s
the area was a poor, though cohesive, Mexican-American community. Many families lived there because of housing discrimination in other parts of Los Angeles.
The city designated the area as blighted and moved forward with plans to redevelop the area. The plans included a public-housing project, and the city began buying land from individual home owners. The buy-out efforts were not completely successful. Holdouts who did not wish to sell were part of the
Battle of Chavez Ravine, an unsuccessful ten-year struggle by a small number of remaining residents of Chavez Ravine to maintain control of their property, after the substantial majority of the property had been transferred to public ownership, during the period in which the city intended to use the land for the Elysian Park Heights public housing project.
The housing project died, and L.A. transferred the land to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a land swap.
With Chavez Ravine slated to become the site of the new Dodger Stadium, the tiny number of remaining members of the Chavez Ravine community were physically forced to relocate, although they were compensated for their properties at fair market valuations. While some had initially left the neighborhood, voluntarily or involuntarily through either the use of eminent domain or condemnation, a number (quite a small number after about 1954) stayed until the end. Eventually the sheriff’s department went in with bulldozers and armed men. A few property holders in the area had actually managed to avoid eminent domain proceedings and they were finally bought out by O’Malley [the owner of the Dodgers]. The final holdout eventually accepted the city’s offer of $10,500 for his former home. The homes and streets were razed, the larger community having been destroyed years before in the public housing effort.
Ry Cooder’s album tells the story of Chávez Ravine through songs in English and Spanish.
Cooder sought out musicians from the era and the place, including the late Pachuco boogie boss Don Tosti, the late legendary Lalo Guerrero, Ersi Arvizu, and Little Willie G., all of whom appear with Joachim Cooder, Juliette & Carla Commagere, Jim Keltner, Flaco Jimenez, Mike Elizondo, Gil Bernal, Ledward Kaapana, Joe Rotunde, Rosella Arvizu, and others. Chávez Ravine was nominated for “Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album” in 2006.
Check out the album if you like Mexican music and Ry Cooder and want to get a taste of what the Mexican-American music of that era sounded like. The above quotes are all from the Wikipedia entry on Chávez Ravine. It has a lot more information, citations, and links.
Something similar happened in St. Paul when the African-American, Rondo Street community was gutted to make way for the I-94 freeway. Here’s is a page from a newsletter published by my former employee taken during the construction of the freeway.