Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story
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Film review: Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story
Directed by Jordan Mechner
Bullfrog Films (www.bullfrogfilms.com)

book image Inspired by photographer Don Normark's photo book "Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story" (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999), this half-hour documentary debuted on PBS in June 2005, coinciding with Ry Cooder's new Chávez Ravine CD. (Cooder also wrote the score for the documentary, which is narrated by Cheech Marin.) The film details a Mexican-American neighborhood's destruction by the relentless post-WWII expansion of Los Angeles, using documentary stills and ancient TV footage, interviews with former residents and others, along with Normark's remarkable black-and-white photographs of the community only shortly before it was bulldozed.

Promised first priority in the public housing project slated to replace their community, Chávez Ravine residents instead were displaced in a power struggle between different factions of the city bureaucracy and the real estate lobby. Progressive forces committed to providing poor residents with affordable dwellings were red-baited by city politicians and developers who sought to discredit the public housing program as "creeping socialism," to use the language of the era.

The residents interviewed here take a different view, naturally. One man recalls a public hearing prior to the community's removal: "My grandma got up and she says, 'You don't have no right to'-in Spanish, right-'you don't have no right to buy us out of our neighborhood. Our kids were born and raised here. Besides, you bastards, my son died [in WW II]. Can you replace my son?' Then she started crying, and that was it." He continues, "Our government was good enough to take us out of our neighborhoods to fight a war. We came home to what? To find out they're going to uproot us from our neighborhood."

There were other victims as well. The LA City Housing Authority's Frank Wilkinson headed the Chávez Ravine public housing project planning effort - until he was called before the House un-American Activities Committee, that is. Refusing to dignify opportunistic allegations that he was a "covert communist agent," he was jailed for a year in contempt of Congress. As became clear in 1980 when Wilkinson brought suit, the FBI had collected an astounding 132,000 pages of documents on his life from 1942 to 1980, a small fish in a coordinated effort to target public housing officials and undermine their efforts across the country. Wilkinson remarks, "In there is the story of Chávez Ravine." (The ACLU spent 12 years and $1 million on the case that cleared Wilkinson's name and brought this covert history to light.)

Although the LA Housing Authority received the very first federal grant for public housing, with a cool $110 million in hand the Chávez Ravine project was stopped in its tracks. Once residents were bought out and their homes razed, the land sat vacant from 1952 to 1958, when, as the Dodgers official web site (losangeles.dodgers.mlb.com/) discreetly reports, a city referendum passed "allowing Los Angeles to sell 300 acres to the Dodgers."

Wilkinson offers a different view of those 300 acres. "We spent millions of dollars getting ready for the project and the Dodgers picked it up for just a fraction of that... It's the tragedy of my life. I was responsible for uprooting I don't know how many hundreds of people from their own little valley, to have the whole thing destroyed."

According to the Dodgers web site, "During the 20th century, the only privately-financed ballparks in Major League Baseball were Yankee Stadium (built in 1923) and Dodger Stadium." Chávez Ravine reveals "privately-financed" to be a euphemism for the forced, bargain-basement removal of a coherent, rooted community whose "condemned" property subsidized the stadium's "private" financing to the tune of many millions of taxpayer dollars.

book cover The club's web site seems to suggest that the ballpark landed on virgin land: "Since 1962, the beauty of Dodger Stadium has awed spectators with a breath-taking view of downtown Los Angeles to the south; green, tree-lined Elysian hills to the north and east; and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond." No mention of the Chávez Ravine community buried beneath it.

Former resident Carol Jacques thinks differently, relating how she was convinced years later to take her baseball-playing son to a game at Dodger Stadium, says, "I hated it... I'll never go again. It was like dancing on a grave." Prefacing her observation with more colorful language, she remarks dryly, "We were ripped off."

It's almost too easy to paint the Dodgers as the villain here, and that is perhaps an unintended weakness to the argument the film seems to want to make. Included is footage of Dodgers President Bob Graziano at a 2000 reunion of former Chávez Ravine residents. A sheepishly grinning, visibly nervous Graziano lamely tells the mostly elderly crowd, "I was two months old when the Dodgers moved to LA [crowd laughs], and honestly, when we started working with the community, I didn't understand what happened years ago." Quite possibly so, but the viewer's own understanding might be better advanced by connecting the tensions between the artful Dodgers and their understandably bitter victims with the deeper, even more difficult lessons of history.

The club may not have set the events in motion, but clearly it benefited. If Dodger efforts to buttress the club's public image by distancing themselves from that history are understandable, they are also more than a little self serving. Undeniably, the club incurred an enduring obligation to the families of those it displaced. Precisely because that debt will never be retired (and looking to the city's demographic future), Dodger public relations might start with a more honest assessment of its ethical debt to LA's burgeoning Spanish-speaking working-class population, many of whom, the club well understands, buy tickets to see the game's increasingly international lineup.

But the underlying story is a bit more complex than "big guys squash little guys." Chávez Ravine is a local cautionary tale that speaks to a tragically recurrent and widespread pattern in US political history. The much bigger story is that of pervasive, government-leveraged efforts to privatize the commons while discrediting progressive social policies as the secret agenda of a nefarious, anti-American conspiracy by (fill in the name of today's current) public enemy number one. The enduring question is when and whether this nation will ever be ready to learn anything from - and to act more generously and wisely as a consequence of understanding and acknowledging - its own checkered history. - Michael Stone

Resources:
RootsWorld review of Ry Cooder's Chavez Ravine
PBS' Independent Lens
Don Normark (1999) "Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story" (San Francisco: Chronicle Books)
US Supreme Court decision on Kelo v New London, June 2005
Ry Cooder's Chavez Ravine CD is available from cdRoots


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