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Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Battle for Chavez Ravine: Eminent Domain and the Construction of Dodger Stadium

Dodger Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is a baseball landmark with few peers. The venue, which opened in 1962, boasts the largest capacity in professional baseball and is roundly viewed as one of the most beautiful places to watch a game. Sadly, in order to be built, an entire community was destroyed, and residents evicted from their homes in what became known as the Battle for Chavez Ravine.

After he was unable to secure a new stadium in New York for his Brooklyn Dodgers, team owner Walter O’Malley shocked the baseball world by announcing he was moving his franchise west to Los Angeles following the 1957 season. The move not only presented him with better opportunities, but for the time being gave him an entire territory to himself, as the Major Leagues had not extended further than St. Louis and Kansas City at that time.

The Dodgers needed a permanent place to play in their new home and one was found for them. The land that the stadium was built upon was known as Chavez Ravine and had been originally seized by the City of Los Angeles in the early 1950s under the premise of eminent domain (the power of the state to take property in exchange for a price) with funds from the 1949 Federal Housing Act. The area was designated as blighted; a slum. While residents were primarily of modest means, the community was vibrant and tight-knit, composed primarily of hardworking families of Mexican-American origin, who often helped make ends meet by raising animals and vegetables.

Originally, the local government planned to use the Chavez Ravine land to construct the Elysian Park Heights public housing project, which would have provided expansive housing, schools and a college. However, after Norris Poulson was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1953, priorities changed drastically. Public housing projects became synonymous with socialist ideology, which rapidly became taboo due to the Red Scare of McCarthyism—ultimately leading to their abandonment. The city bought back the Chavez Ravine land at a dramatically reduced cost under the stipulation that it was to only be used for a public purpose.

The Dodgers began play in Los Angeles using the enormous Memorial Coliseum. On June 3, 1958 voters narrowly approved the “Taxpayers Committee for Yes on Baseball” by a three-percent margin, which permitted the Dodgers to acquire approximately 315 aces of the Chavez Ravine land from the city in exchange for a parcel of land around the minor league Wrigley Field Park, so they could start construction on the next marvel of baseball. It was necessary to go to a vote because the very idea of this transaction seemed to be a clear-cut violation of the previous terms of using the land for public good.

The site of Dodger Stadium was specifically to take over Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop, which were three neighborhoods in Chavez Ravine. Over 1,800 families once lived there; many due to housing discrimination that had driven them from the city. Although some saw this neighborhood as an example of urban decay, many residents had done well for themselves, even if their successes were modest. Eminent domain allowed for them to be removed from their homes, whether they liked it or not. The majority of these removals took place when the land was originally seized for the public housing project. The fact that eminent domain, and no less than for the purpose of a new baseball stadium, was being imposed on a group who already faced discrimination and bias made it even more eye opening. It was the flashpoint of a 10-year legal battle known as the battle for Chavez Ravine.

When the city first asserted eminent domain, landowners in Chavez Ravine were initially opposed to selling their land. There were sit-ins in public offices, protests and other forms of resistance. Even before the appearance of the Dodgers, developers began making offers in the early 1950s, and as a tactic meant to create panic and quick decision making, reduced those offers after the smaller initial group of residents accepted the buyouts. Home owners were told even though they were being made to leave they would “have the first chance to move back into the new Elysian Park Heights development."

By 1957, only about 20 families still remained in the Chavez Ravine zone scheduled for development. Almost $3 million had been spent to buy out those who had left. The holdovers resisted the aggressive overtures to buy them out and hung on to their homes with every fiber of resistance they could muster. Once potential Dodger Stadium construction started looming in 1958, the holdouts were targeted with evictions, as time was money and of the essence.

On May 9th, 1958 the Los Angeles Times reported on the eviction of the Arechiga family from the day before, who made a desperate attempt to save their home on what became known as “Black Friday”:

“It has been a long skirmish. And yesterday the battle was joined in earnest.
It including a screaming, kicking woman (Mrs. Aurora Vargas, 38, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Manual Arechiga) being carried from the house… children of the family wailing hysterically as their sobbing mother, Mrs. Victoria Angustian, 29, struggled fiercely in the grasp of deputies… the 72-year-old matriarch of the family, Mrs. Avrana Arechiga, hurling stones at deputies as movers hustled away her belongings… an obstreperous former neighbor, Mrs. Glen Walters, screeching defiance at the deputies and finally being forcibly ejected from the battleground, handcuffed, and taken to a squad car. … Mrs. Vargas was the last to leave — making good her threat that ‘they'll have to carry me.’”

It took two hours for authorities to clear the site. Police kicked the door in and brought movers. 66 year-old Avrana Arechiga, the matriarch of the family, threw rocks at the deputies and reportedly shouted in Spanish, “Why don’t they play ball in [Mayor] Poulson’s backyard—not ours?”

After they were able to clear the home, bulldozers razed the site. Still, it wasn’t over. Members of the Arechiga family were steadfast in their outrage and returned to the property where they continued camping out for a week in an RV. Their story was splashed across the front pages of newspapers and on news broadcasts, causing quite a stir. Once the public vote confirmed that stadium construction could proceed, there was no stopping the project and enthusiasm for baseball overpowered the displaced and disenfranchised.

Dodger Stadium officially opened on April 10, 1962. The team developed a large fan base that has been significantly bolstered over the years by those of Latin heritage. Their patronage became particularly ingrained with the team after the debut of Mexican pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela in the early 1980s.

Years after Dodger Stadium opened, artist Leo Politi wistfully recalled what had been lost at Chavez Ravine. “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."

For years after Dodger Stadium was erected and open for business family members of some of the evicted families continued to gather annually on the site of their former family homes. Even today, Melissa Arechiga, the great granddaughter of Avrana, operates the Buried Under the Blue website, which is part of an organization charged with maintaining the history of the flattened Chavez Ravine neighborhoods.

Over time, it seems like the origins of the stadium’s construction site has gradually been slipped from the public’s memory. However, it is something that should never be forgotten. UCLA historian Eric Avila told NPR that “The broadcast of these images (of the evictions) on national television, live images on national television, left a very bitter legacy of racial tension between L.A.’s Mexican-American community and the Los Angeles Dodgers. This is the legacy of conflict upon which Dodger Stadium was built.”

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