Aug 19, 2020, 05:55AM

Dodger Stadium’s Shameful Origin Story

Newspapers ran articles about a government run amok and the inequity of democracy.

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In the 1982 movie Poltergeist, a planned community is built over an old cemetery. The sins of the past are revealed and we learn the community never should’ve existed.  Dodger Stadium has a similar story arc. In order for the ballpark to be built, the city of Los Angeles took homes from 1800 Mexican-American families and destroyed three vibrant neighborhoods.

Chavez Ravine is a canyon and series of hills in Elysian Park just north of downtown Los Angeles. The area was named after Julian Chavez, a 19th-century city councilman who owned property along the LA River. The land was used for the city’s first Jewish cemetery and for two brick manufacturing warehouses.

In the early-1900s, three neighborhoods arose in the hills: Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop. Mexican-Americans forbidden from buying properties in nearby areas due to housing discrimination moved to Chavez Ravine. They built homes, grew crops and raised chickens, goats and pigs. By 1913, more than 250 Mexican-Americans lived in the area.

Mexican immigrants came to Los Angeles to work in agriculture and construction jobs.  Abrana and Manuel Aréchiga came to Palo Verde in 1922. They purchased an empty lot at 1771 Malvina Ave. and lived in a tent. They bought tools, wood and concrete and built a house by hand. They paid taxes, raised families and watched as the neighborhood grew around them.

There was a grocery store where residents bought sugar, flour and rice. An iceman delivered large blocks with tongs. Children walked the streets barefoot or with shoes made from old tires. Young men bought fedora hats and Zoot suits in the Pachuco fashion. The neighborhood didn’t have paved roads, streetlights or electricity. On Saturday nights, teenagers stood around lit trashcans watching the city below.

Los Angeles was growing fast. City hall was built in 1928. The police department opened an LAPD Training Academy in Chavez Ravine at the end of Malvina St. The police earned the trust of the local communities by sponsoring sports leagues, ice cream socials and cookouts.

The neighborhood added a Catholic church and an elementary school. Father Tomas Matin presided over weddings, baptisms and funerals. When kids got in trouble, he bailed them out of jail. School principal Silvia Salvin hosted dances and cultural events. She published a bilingual newspaper for the community and made sure families had enough food and school supplies.

During the Depression, anti-immigrant sentiment arose in Los Angeles. Mexicans were blamed for stealing American jobs and taking government aid. Groups like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars demanded the deportation of immigrants. City officials went door-to-door asking for proof of citizenship. Hundreds of thousands of people were repatriated to Mexico including natural born US citizens.

In 1937, Congress allotted funds for low-income housing projects. A man named Frank Wilkinson of the Citizens Housing Council of Los Angeles began searching for land to construct a 10,000-unit public housing project to be called Elysian Park Heights. Famed architect Richard Neutra designed blueprints that included two 13-story towers, a school, churches and retail space. Local real estate developers felt threatened. They viewed the project as a socialist plot to reduce property values throughout the city.

By 1940, the population of Los Angeles swelled to 1.5 million. America entered the war and the city was on edge. The US Navy built an armory in an old small pox infirmary on Chavez Ravine Rd. Naval recruits, largely white, didn’t like the cocky young Mexican youths in their sharkskin jackets and pompadours.

In June 1943, white sailors from the armory spilled into downtown and East LA and beat Mexican-American youths with clubs. The attackers included LAPD officers. They stripped the kids of their clothes, urinated on their Zoot suits and burned the clothes in the streets. Afterwards, police arrested the victims for disturbing the peace. The Zoot Suit Riots lasted five days.

As the war progressed, young men from Chavez Ravine joined the fight. Families came to dread the arrival of the Western Union man with news of casualties or sons who were missing in action. By the end of the war, returning soldiers and Japanese-Americans freed from relocation camps contributed to a Los Angeles housing shortage.

President Truman signed the Federal Housing Act of 1949. Public housing became part of an urban renewal effort. Frank Wilkinson of the Citizens Housing Council viewed public housing as a “moral imperative.” He took Angelenos on slum tours urging politicians to clean up inner city neighborhoods and replace aging buildings.

On July 24, 1950, the residents of La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop received a letter from the Housing Authority of Los Angeles. “This letter is to inform you that a public housing development will be built on this location for families of low income… The house you are living in is included… You will be visited by the Housing Authority to inspect your house in order to estimate its value…T he Housing Authority will give you all possible assistance in finding another home. If you are eligible for public housing, you will have the first chance to move back into the new Elysian Park Heights Development.”

The city council was using the power of eminent domain to evict residents for the “public good.” Though the council claimed residents would have first dibs on the new units, homeowners and non-citizens weren’t eligible. This ruled out most of the people in Chavez Ravine.

Some residents took the city’s offer of $17,500 and sold their homes. Most protested. They were already homeowners. They didn’t want to rent apartments. The organized a group called The Civic Center District Improvement Association. They attended planning commission meetings and picketed city hall.

The Federal Housing Act specified that neighborhoods could be razed only if they were deemed “slums.” Manuel Cerda, a protest leader, confronted the council. “If you call this a slum, I don’t know what would be a good house. The streets are very poor but that is due to the City Engineer and the Council. They have not done anything for us.”

The Planning Commission ignored the protesters and authorized demolition of the neighborhoods. A local judge reduced the home value to $10,050 for those who wouldn’t sell their property. Properties were condemned and bulldozers were brought into Chavez Ravine. Many succumbed to the inevitable and moved away. Others stayed and filed legal appeals.

Anti-public housing forces included banks, construction companies, real estate investors and The Los Angeles TimesThe Times printed propaganda articles warning that public housing would increase juvenile delinquency. The National Association of Home Builders took out billboards reading “Don’t Pay Somebody Else’s Rent.” In 1951, the city council voted to cancel the public housing deal. Voters also rejected the deal.

The housing authority argued that since they already had a contract with the federal government the project could move forward. Hearings were held. When it was revealed that Frank Wilkinson of the housing authority and architect Richard Neutra were both Communist party members, support for public housing withered.

A group called CASH (Citizens Against Socialist Housing) claimed that public housing was a Communist plot to destroy America. Wilkinson was fired. The city elected a new mayor in 1953, Norris Poulson. His first action was to cancel the Elysian Park Heights housing project. He renegotiated a deal with the US government allowing Los Angeles to buy back Chavez Ravine, provided it was used for “public good.”

About a dozen families remained in their homes. They wondered if they’d been given a reprieve since the housing project was dead. The answer lay 3000 miles away in Brooklyn.

Walter O’Malley, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted a new ballpark. Ebbets Field was falling apart and had no room for a parking lot. O’Malley met with futurist architect Buckminster Fuller to discuss designing a geodesic domed stadium that would seat more than 50,000 fans. But first O’Malley needed land.

He met with Robert Moses, master builder of New York. Moses suggested building a publicly financed stadium in Queens at the site of the future World’s Fair. The Dodgers could then rent the ballpark. O’Malley wanted stadium ownership. The men were at loggerheads.

Back in Los Angeles, the city had two minor league baseball teams, the Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars. City officials believed that for Los Angeles to be taken seriously as a metropolis, they needed a professional team. The Dodgers fit the bill.

In September 1955, Roz Wyman and Ed Roybal of the LA city council flew to Brooklyn to meet with O’Malley. Their timing was bad as the Dodgers were about to defeat the Yankees for their first World Series championship. O’Malley gave them a message. “At a later date perhaps there might be a time when a meeting would be appropriate.”

A few months later, LA county supervisor Kenneth Hahn pitched the Chavez Ravine area to O’Malley. The location had 250 acres, freeway access and was close to downtown. O’Malley was intrigued. He visited Los Angeles and took a helicopter tour. He met with Mayor Poulson and worked out the general outline for a deal.

O’Malley would buy the Los Angeles Angels and their South Los Angeles stadium. He’d then trade the property in exchange for land comprising the neighborhoods of La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop. It’s not clear whether O’Malley was aware of the residential holdouts in Chavez Ravine.

Brooklyn was heartbroken. Los Angeles was ecstatic. The only thing left to do was remove the dozen or so homeowners from the future stadium site. This wouldn’t be easy. The residents filed a lawsuit against the housing authority demanding they reverse the property condemnation since the housing project was cancelled. The suit lasted two years during which time the families remained in their homes.

In 1958, the Dodgers arrived in Los Angeles. As O’Malley greeted fans at the airport, a process server gave him a summons from the residents of Chavez Ravine. Residents told the press that a New York businessman had been given a sweetheart deal at the expense of LA taxpayers. The protesters gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot. This spurred a citywide debate on the cultural merits of baseball.

Celebrities like Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Ronald Reagan and George Burns urged Los Angeles to “Vote Yes on Prop B for Baseball.” Urban areas largely voted yes; San Fernando Valley residents voted no. The proposition passed by 25,000 votes. On July 14 a court ruled the Dodgers land purchase illegal since it didn’t conform to the public purpose clause in the original deed. The Dodgers appealed to the California Supreme Court and won.

On April 18, 1958, the Dodgers played their first game in Los Angeles at the Memorial Coliseum. 78,762 fans came out to see the Dodgers beat the Giants 6-5. Duke Snider went for 2 for 5 with an RBI and a run scored. In 1959, while waiting for their new stadium to be built, the Dodgers won the World Series against the Chicago White Sox.

Abrana and Manuel Aréchiga remained in their Palo Verde home. In early 1959, their legal appeals ended. They were given 60 days to leave the premises. It had been 40 years since they built their house by hand. They weren’t ready to leave. They wrote a letter to the Daily Mirror: “I haven’t anything against the Dodgers but if they want my land let them pay a reasonable price for it, not take it away.”

On the morning of Friday, May 8, 1959, Abrana Aréchiga’s four grandchildren took the bus to school. Abrana, Manuel and their two daughters Lola and Tolina stayed home. Tolina had her nine-month old baby with her. At 11 a.m., sheriff vehicles arrived at the property accompanied by moving vans and bulldozers.

The Aréchigas locked themselves inside the house. They nailed the front door shut. An officer, speaking Spanish, tried to convince the family to leave peacefully. They refused. A deputy kicked down the door. Windows were smashed. Abrana screamed while moving men barged inside and removed furniture. Utility workers cut the phone lines. Reporters snapped photos.

Tolina came outside with her infant daughter. As she gave an interview to a television reporter, a female official grabbed her baby. Tolina became hysterical. Lola refused to leave the house. It took four officers to carry her outside while she kicked and screamed. She was handcuffed and forced into a squad car. She was jailed and charged with disturbing the peace.

Manuel exited the house with Abrana, who was holding a Chihuahua. She didn’t let the deputies touch her. A bulldozer moved toward the house and knocked it off its foundation. It then destroyed the front stairs, killing several chickens in the process. The family watched as the house was torn to pieces. The destruction took only 10 minutes. That night the Aréchigas gathered with family and friends outside their old home. They sang songs and cooked tacos around a campfire. A stranger sent a trailer to the location so they had somewhere to sleep. Others sent food and blankets.

Newspapers ran articles about a government run amok and the inequity of democracy. The Aréchigas were offered an apartment in Ramona Gardens, a public housing unit. They refused. Tolina told the Mirror Press, “I don’t want anything to do with public housing. That’s what started this whole thing. My family likes it here.”

The city council held hearings on the evictions. The Aréchigas said they just wanted fair compensation for their property, the original estimated value of $17,500. The city attorney said the $10,050 price was not negotiable. The family moved into the donated trailer. They kept some animals but it was painful to stare at their destroyed home. Lola had a nervous breakdown.

Everyone assumed the Aréchigas were destitute. An article appeared in the Mirror News that the Aréchigas owned 11 properties in Los Angeles rented to family and friends. Public opinion turned against them. The city had clearly cheated them but now they were viewed as cheaters themselves.Lola, Talina and their children moved into one of the Aréchiga properties in Echo Park. A few days later, Abrana and Manuel packed their car to leave. The car wouldn’t start. Neighbors pushed the vehicle down a hill and the Aréchigas said goodbye to their Chavez Ravine home.

The Palo Verde neighborhood was demolished. Trees were uprooted and houses were lifted by jacks and driven away. Some houses were used by the fire department to practice fighting fires. Others were moved to the Universal Studios back lot where they became part of the fictional town in the movie To Kill A Mockingbird.

The Dodgers broke ground for the stadium in September 1959. The hills were leveled. The old elementary school was buried as eight million cubic yards of dirt were moved. O’Malley ran out of money. He was rescued by the Union Oil Company, which provided financing in exchange for future advertising rights and the right to build a gas station in the parking lot.

Opening day at Dodger Stadium was April 10, 1962. City officials feared a massive traffic jam but crowds were orderly. Frank Sinatra attended. Hot dogs were a quarter. Fans realized O’Malley neglected to put in drinking fountains. (They were installed the following year.) Johnny Podres pitched and Duke Snider had the Dodgers’ first hit. The Dodgers lost to the Cincinnati Reds 6-3.

Manuel Aréchiga died in 1971. His wife Abrana died the following year at 75. The site of their old home remains somewhere beneath the Dodgers Stadium parking lot just north of the Union 76 gas station.


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