The play “Chavez Ravine” is once again being performed by the Latino-based theatrical group Culture Clash. This live theatrical performance provides a great historical snapshot and artistic depiction of 1950’s Los Angeles and particularly its portrayal of one of the oldest Mexican-American communities that once existed within the heart of the city. As such, this play creatively combines an ethnic format with a content that possesses both political and historical substance. This performance by Culture Clash should be widely viewed by families and especially young people for its educational value, but also as a creative form and example of vibrant Chicano/Latino art. While satirical in its format, this element does not overshadow the play’s informative story line which depicts real families from LA’s past who experienced the destruction of their Chavez Ravine community and its subsequent replacement with Dodger Stadium. There are surviving members of the old Chavez Ravine community that belong to an association named “Los Desterrados” or exiled ones who still gather together for reunions. The historical and political events that are narrated within the play also expose the power politics, economic interests and unethical practices that existed within 1950’s LA which negatively affected the residents of this traditional Chavez Ravine community. Unfortunately, this form of social gentrification and profit-driven urban removal that dislocated this closely-knit neighborhood over fifty years ago is still alive and stronger than ever. The present economic power of developers and the drive to profitably exploit vulnerable communities within the central city and drastically change their ethnic, class and cultural composition continues to steadily displace the long-time residents of many neighborhoods.
A 1950’s tale of money, manipulation and red-baiting
During the late 1940’s and early fifties the LA Housing Authority represented by Frank Wilkinson had proposed a revitalization plan for the Chavez Ravine neighborhoods of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop. This plan included the construction of new low-cost housing and an improved infrastructure for its residents who were somewhat geographically cut-off from the rest of the mainstream city and its rapid development. This proposed city housing development was to be called Elysian Park Heights upon completion. By the early 1950’s the eviction of residents from Chavez Ravine had begun with a promise by city
officials that those who left would get first preference to the new public housing units once they were built. However, an alliance of building developers, conservative politicians and a coalition called CASH (Coaliton Against Socialist Housing) soon organized a ruthless campaign against the city’s policy of building public housing within low-income neighborhoods. The immediate target of this financially-driven alliance was the defeat of the new housing development that was being proposed for Chavez Ravine. In the view of these allied right-wing politicians and financial developers such a valuable plot of land next to Downtown that could be profitably developed should not be wasted on a poor Mexican community and low-cost public housing. A coordinated campaign to attack and destroy the Chavez Ravine housing plan focused on Frank Wilkinson who was a liberal member of the LA Housing Authority and an advocate for integration and civil rights. This involved an intense red-baiting campaign and a barrage of vicious accusations and slanders which were leveled at Wilkinson and the concept of public housing in general as the true motive by CASH was not patriotism, but financial gain. This propaganda campaign alleged that Wilkinson and the Chavez Ravine project were un-American and part of a secret communist plot to build Soviet-style housing which had to be blocked and eliminated for the ‘good’ of the country. During this period of the 1950’s McCarthy era and the red scare this type of unprincipled political agitation and smear campaign was a common practice used against individuals and organizations who favored progressive measures. The political hatred that was unleashed against the Chavez Ravine residents and housing project successfully created a wave of public fear and hysteria which ultimately led to the destruction of the proposed housing plan, Wilkinson’s career and eventually the Chavez Ravine community itself. In short, the proposal for new housing within Chavez Ravine was finally abandoned and many of the residents who had been moved out of their neighborhoods and who were patiently waiting for their new housing to be built were simply ignored and left stranded by the city. Wilkinson was continually hounded by FBI agents and blacklisted by federal government investigative committees who eventually imprisoned him for refusing to answer their questions and cooperate with them.
A political campaign of urban removal that eliminated a community by force
By the mid fifties the Brooklyn Dodgers and their ambitious owner Walter O’Malley now entered the LA political scene. O’Malley was trying to hustle up a different site in Brooklyn for his new Dodger’s baseball stadium and had used the tactic of threatening to move his team to another city as leverage to strong-arm New York politicians into agreeing to his plan. This request by O’Malley for a new stadium site was firmly rejected by New York officials who felt that he was trying to take advantage of the city’s taxpayers. The next characters to enter this political mix were LA City
Council member Roz Wyman and other politicians and developers who saw the potential benefits of a financial deal that would bring the Dodgers to LA. This coalition made a proposal to O’Malley which included Chavez Ravine as a site that had open land suitable for building his team a new baseball stadium if they relocated to Los Angeles. The opportunistic Dodger owner smelled a sweet welfare deal that he couldn’t refuse as it was comprised of almost free land, improvements funded by LA tax payers and a new stadium with the potential to make immense profits in a growing city. The possibility for sharing in such a lucrative financial deal created an alliance of LA politicians, developers and O’Malley’s Dodger organization. It was now time for the use of unethical political manipulation and the removal of any legal and human obstacles that could possibly block the immense profits to be made with this secretive Dodger partnership. The materialization of this backroom deal also required that the remaining residents still
living within Chavez Ravine be forcefully removed through the cooperative efforts of then Mayor Poulson, the courts and police. Eventually, eviction notices were served upon the remaining residents of Chavez Ravine and paltry sums were paid for these valuable properties adjacent to Downtown. Those who refused to leave their traditional community were dragged from their homes by LA sheriffs and shortly after bulldozers leveled their houses in a series of ugly scenes from LA history that are still etched in my memory. This deal between Wyman and other politicians and developers with the Dodger organization left a trail of unethical political maneuvering, pay-off money and broken families for those driven out of their homes and community by this wealthy and powerful alliance. During the decade of the 1950’s many of the evicted residents from Chavez Ravine were dispersed like refugees into other neighborhoods such as Echo Park, Riverside Drive and across the river into Lincoln Heights.
Chavez Ravine to the present: a trail of gentrification and displacement
The destruction of the Chavez Ravine community by a powerful economic and political alliance which later allied itself with the Dodgers organization laid the groundwork for future economic encroachment upon vulnerable communities which is motivated by profits before people. During the decade of the 1930’s the residents of the original Chinatown where Union Station now stands were forcefully removed by the city and their community destroyed in order to build a new train station. Later, the residents living on Bunker Hill were evicted after falling victim to the plans of developers and gentrification and this type of urban removal was subsequently repeated against the residents of the nearby Temple-Beaudry neighborhood. Freeways, jails and cemeteries also chewed up Latino working-class neighborhoods such as East LA and Lincoln
Heights and most of these projects were usually constructed without any public hearings or input from residents who were simply uprooted and banished by government bureaucrats in collusion with developers. Presently, developer’s money still greases a close alliance with city government as this trail leads from Chavez Ravine in the past and continues onward with the present trend of economic encroachment and gentrification of neighborhoods such as Pico-Union, Echo Park, Riverside Drive, Highland Park, Boyle Heights and ultimately Lincoln Heights. All of these communities and their residents are under steady pressure and threatened with replacement by financially powerful forces who are supported by local politicians.
Decent and affordable housing is needed, not evictions and ethnic cleansing
Under the guise of urban renewal, this present wave of financially-motivated gentrification within LA is actually a form of urban removal which uses economic means to evict and discard long-time residents as if they were some type of disposable refuse instead of real people with housing needs. What is not discussed in regard to
this rapid growth of gentrification within the central city are the issues of social class and race. The displacement of minority and especially working-class Latino residents in a form of ethnic cleansing is being led by an alliance of developers, city politicians and new affluent ‘hipster’ settlers who are primarily white, middle-class and from out of state. This trend of gentrification is also occurring within Downtown’s Skid Row as thousands of residents and homeless people are being ejected like refuse and pushed east to the other side of the LA River so that a higher-income populace can move in and replace them with costly housing and yuppy hang-outs. Some people believe that this process of spontaneous gentrification improves neighborhoods, yet, without any rational planning and collective input it actually creates serious and deep social problems such as dislocated families and a lack of decent and affordable housing for those being pushed out. The victims of gentrification do not simply disappear from sight. There is now a homeless camp along the Arroyo riverbank made up of ex-Highland Park residents who have been evicted due to the rapid wave of gentrification occurring within the north end of Highland Park. There are many other homeless camps now sprouting up along the banks of the river and in areas of Elysian and Griffith Parks. The question for these new homeless people of where to live is a growing problem not only for them, but also for many others in the same situation. Forcing people out of their homes and neighborhoods and disrupting their families and children’s lives is not a logical solution, but merely contributes to broader social and financial problems for those evicted and for our society while simultaneously creating an aggressive new system of economic and ethnic segregation within the city.
The legacy of Chavez Ravine: a defense of one’s principles and community
I would urge everyone if possible to attend Culture Clash’s performance of “Chavez Ravine” as it creatively narrates the past experiences and struggles of people within our greater community and contributes to our historical and cultural heritage in a positive manner. Hopefully, this play can be performed in other cities as this past event involving Chavez Ravine is historically linked to the present and growing problem of gentrification and dislocation of communities which is occurring in many other urban areas as well. The play is not merely a form of entertainment with its creative use of 1950’s music, costumes and props, but artistically brings to the stage an important aspect of our heritage. This heritage creates a legacy based upon a community’s principles, loyalty and efforts to organize and struggle for what they believed was right against powerful forces comprised of developers, politicians and eventually the Dodgers organization itself. We need to record our stories so that they may be told to others and especially the youth. To depend upon the establishment media and historians to do this is not realistic as it is our task to do so. This play contributes to the vital work of ensuring that our stories and history are saved and narrated to a broader public. The proud ex-residents of Chavez Ravine and their families still have reunions which are organized by their group called “Los Desterrados” in order to keep this legacy alive and share it with others within the city and particularly young people. We need to support and keep this proud legacy alive and utilize its example to motivate our present struggles to improve and defend our communities.
This piece first appeared in latinopov.com/blog/
Filed under: Bay Area / California