(I grew up in Los Angeles, but I believe there is a lot that I still do not know about Los Angeles. There remains so much that I must learn about this incredible city.)
“I want to let you know at the start that I am a very big fan of the Dodgers and Vin Scully, but how dare any of you call Chávez Ravine a wasteland or a dump. Every time anyone talks about Chávez Ravine before the Dodgers came along they seem to forget that many families made their homes there! No one wants to acknowledge the fact that people lived there.” – Natalie Ramirez
In 1948, a photographer named Don Normark fell upon a small Latin-American community in Southern California. He had been looking for a good vantage point of Los Angeles in order to get a postcard view of the city. Instead, he found the small village of Chávez Ravine. Tucked away in the midst of the sprawling expanse of the city, the little town was primarily Mexican American in population and, as Normark states, “The people seemed like refugees—people superior to the circumstances they were living in.” He returned several times after that to take photographs, documenting all that he could and looking for a way to tell the story of the little village. Unbeknownst to Normark, in just a few short years the town and the families within it would be caught up in a political drama that would force them from their homes and replace them with what we now know as Dodger Stadium.
We are very lucky that Normark captured the images that he did for the history of Chávez Ravine is rather brief and not as widely covered as it should be. Very little has been written on the fate of the small town and it is usually glossed over with the housing developments that were going on at the time along with threats of Communism due to the Red Scare. But I believe there are important considerations to be made with this particular history concerning racial injustice, integration and multiculturalism. For the purposes of this essay, I will be focusing on how certain elements of integration and normative claims of multiculturalism come up short when applying them to the topic of race. That is to say, that there are political and economic disparities that tend to blur what it means to be proud of one’s race, in that definitions and methods of integration, along with particular elements of multiculturalism have the potential to efface local or traditional cultures within what can be considered a liberal democratic society. Furthermore, using the history of Chávez Ravine, I hope to show that there is what can be defined as an “epistemic loyalty,” a purposeful means and utilization of a politics of difference in terms of other cultures or races that affirm one’s history and culture, such that mere integration cannot necessarily be viewed as a justifiably normative claim. I will then conclude that, while the history of Chávez Ravine is one that is frequently overlooked, not only is there still a vibrant and rich culture that remains in Los Angeles’ Mexican American community but that these types of instances unfortunately are ongoing in that they push the limits of loyalty to one’s culture and geography that provide potential to this vibrancy and richness. Ultimately, that it is a racial injustice to ignore examples like this one and others. To begin, we must first take a look at the history of the area and the people who once lived in Chávez Ravine. In order to do this effectively, it must be a genealogical analysis of the political, economic and geographical activities that have surrounded and impacted the land.
Since the 1800’s, there were three major communities that lived in Chávez Ravine, which is only a few miles northeast of greater Los Angeles, surrounded on all sides by the city. These were Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop. By the late 1940’s, many generations of native and immigrant families had made their homes there, living within the limits of the city by their own means. There were both paved and unpaved streets but this was not necessarily a hindering developmental issue. The houses had official addresses that were recognized by the federal government. They had a school in Palo Verde and a sprinkling of different stores throughout the area. Though, due to insufficient funding from the city of Los Angeles, the people of the Ravine had to rely on growing their own food, using the land as a resource. The city over the years did not adequately provide sufficient electrical power or water. This is primarily due to Chávez Ravine being seen as a “wasteland” or “blighted.” This neglect however, did not yet necessarily affect the people who lived there; they had a reliable source of food, income and overall sustainability in that they did not rely on the city to help provide them with business opportunities of which to take advantage. Unfortunately, because of this self-reliance, along with the geography of the ravine separating the communities—only one road led into the area, Bishop Road—the city officials regarded Chávez Ravine as a poor and destitute part of the city.
The Federal Housing Act of 1949, in a unanimous vote by the city of Los Angeles, created an urban redevelopment agency which rendered the ravine as fair game for the subsidization of the existing homes and development of new housing projects. The Los Angeles City Housing Authority then proceeded to send out eviction notices. An interesting note here, the notices were not individually addressed, rather, they were simply labeled “To The Families of Palo Verde and Chávez Ravine Area.” Thus, the 170 acres of Chávez Ravine was taken by the laws of eminent domain. Also, the Federal Housing Authority “not only sanctioned restrictions, but developed a recommended formula for inclusion in subdivision contracts.” Agents from the Housing Authority visited the people, showing them how the new development would take place and that they were being offered first choice in what would be re-named “Elysian Park Heights,” a series of 24, 13-story buildings and 163, 2-story buildings. Obviously, the homeowners were not in favor of the forced development of their land. Additionally, they did not want the approximate 3,500 people who would move in to fill the rest of the project housing. Some owners and landlords did initially sell their land, avoiding any conflict with the city, but most of the people wanted to stay.
By this time in 1951, fear of Communism, the Cold War and the Korean Conflict had escalated nervously in the United States. Public housing projects such as Elysian Park Heights were blacklisted as communist/socialist activity and deemed un-American. The pressure of this nervousness was felt by the city of Los Angeles and on December 26, 1951 the L.A. City Council voted to cancel the public housing contract. A referendum was obtained by the Los Angeles City Housing Authority and was to appear on the election ballot of June 3, 1952. This would have allowed the citizens to vote on whether or not the government contract was indeed, legal. Unfortunately, with the help of a lobby by then California State Senator Richard Nixon, it passed in April of 1952 that the cancellation of government contracts was, in fact, legal. This was passed before the election and the Federal Government deemed that the contract was valid and that any new laws made would not apply. This, of course, included the referendum to cancel the public housing project. Therefore, Chávez Ravine was still up for grabs.
In 1953 Chávez Ravine’s eminent domain was sold to the city of Los Angeles on the condition that it was to be used as an “appropriate public purpose.” While this was happening, the abandoned houses of those that had already left the ravine were being torn down and sold. Local fire departments were also allowed to set fire to the empty houses for training. Those families that had refused to leave were now considered vagrants on their own land since most of the ravine was now technically owned by the city of Los Angeles. But over the following years, the city would find itself negotiating the remaining acres of eminent domain illegally in that the city did not own the entirety of Chávez Ravine. These negotiations were with Charles O’Malley who was looking for a new market of west coast major league baseball, specifically to relocate the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a move that underhandedly allowed the endeavor to be designated as an appropriate public purpose, a public park was added to the overall deal in which after 20 years the land would eventually be turned over to the Dodgers.
In 1957, after much debate within the Los Angeles city council, and a publicized and outright lie by Mayor Norris Poulson to the National Baseball League, it was decided that regardless of the legality of the offer the deal had passed. But the credibility of the deal itself came under the same scrutiny as before since the city only offered to allow the Dodgers to move there; O’Malley did not officially own the land yet. Proposition “B” was to appear on the 1958 ballot for the citizens to vote whether or not the new private stadium was appropriate public purpose. The proposition passed by a slim margin. Yet an injunction filed and several lawsuits eventually deemed by the Los Angeles County Superior Court that the city’s contract with private interest was negligent and invalid. This was to no avail for the city then filed a writ of prohibition which allowed the California State Supreme Court to intervene in the decision. On January 13, 1959 it was decided that the City Council of L.A. process the contract in the interest of public purpose. While an appeal was still waiting to reach the United States Supreme Court, a five month time span that had up until then put a halt on any grading and construction on Chávez Ravine land, a team of L.A. Sheriffs and bulldozers and media on May 8, 1959 infiltrated the ravine and began systematically forcing the remaining citizens out of their homes and summarily destroying the houses in front of them and leaving them with nowhere to live.
This historical account of Chávez Ravine, as brief as I have attempted to make it, is necessary for empirically analyzing the racial injustices that occurred between the time of the land being designated as eminent domain to the time of Dodgers Stadium being built. If I apply a genealogical analysis to the historical account of Chávez Ravine, I can then show that it is not merely a societal commitment to any particular ethical or politicized expression, rather, I am emphasizing contingent historical forces that are the grounds for diagnosing certain racial injustices. For instance, the economic disparity that becomes immediately apparent when the people of Chávez Ravine were described. And while this seems apparent, it can be argued that it is at the same time racially charged as well. This would appear at first glance to be the result of intersecting the fact that someone is poor with what race they are and fleshing out the racial implications of this connection. But in fact, it is much more complex than this. First, the people of Chávez Ravine were federally recognized in that they had houses to which the post office regularly delivered mail. Second, there were also men who lived there that enlisted in the Army who fought and died in World War II. “When the war was over, my mother started visiting those mothers who had lost a son in the service. There was a lot of participation during the war in the church. There were parades. When the war ended there was a big celebration. It was a neighborhood.” These are the words of Reyes Guerra, a woman who used to live in Chávez Ravine. In her account, she also describes how many men were joining the marines. In this respect, the fact that the area was recognized by the government, and also the way Guerra describes the area as “a neighborhood,” implies that there is already a degree of integration present. In other words, the communities of Chávez Ravine were recognized and treated on some level as participatory members of society. Or they at least recognized themselves as such to some extent. The fact that the men could enlist in the Army demonstrates this. Yet, what it also demonstrates is the political disparity that happened as a result of an economic segregation. “’Dumb Mexicans’ is how they had them figured.” As we can see, this intersection comes ultimately at the price of a racial injustice. It did not matter that they appeared poor to the rest of Los Angeles, they could still fight and die for the country. But they were still Mexican and poor.
Analyzing this further brings to light something else. What does this say about integration in general? Insofar as the question becomes: When does integration and the identification of multiculturalism become recognizably distinguishable from segregation? It seems with Chávez Ravine that integration was working against the local communities both economically and politically. On the one hand, the city of Los Angeles denied the people of the area certain necessities for comfortable modern living; they had limited to no regular water or power. This did not hinder their ability to still thrive off the land like they had done for many years. On the other hand, this lack of modernism gave reason for the city to regard the communities as blighted or a wasteland; their homes were seen as a dump and the fact that these people were Mexican was attached to this in racist fashion. It seems reasonable at this point to say that both of these indicate the segregation of the people of Chávez Ravine, but not in the sense that they were fighting to participate in the quickly expanding urbanization. Nor were they being integrated by any normative standard.
If we were to look at this from a broader perspective we could easily formulate the conclusion that this is one example of institutionalized racism. The way that the economic and political disparities were utilized and exploited by the city officials of Los Angeles, especially during the 1950’s and 1960’s with the emergence of the Chicano Movement as a means to counter this racism is an obvious marker. Many different struggles over the course of the city’s history have striven to bring to light the acknowledgement of the presence of a Mexican American community. Unfortunately, this is not often enough tied to the idea of territory or a geographical presence. As Rodolfo F. Acuña explains in his book Anything But Mexican, “[The] sense of territory is not linked to a historical memory, and is often limited to identifying enemies…This lack of historical memory prevents the group from embracing a politics that asserts a collective entitlement to a better life and organizes to achieve it.” The communities of Chávez Ravine considered themselves Chicanos yet markedly separate from the rest of the population. They were initially categorized as “white” by the federal government but they did not want this. At the same time, they did not want to be identified as Mexicans either. “So to differentiate ourselves we became Chicanos.” The embrace of a hybrid sense such as this is important for two reasons. First, it establishes a people as an identifiable group. Second, and more importantly, it immediately ties that group to the territory which they occupy. The people of the ravine, in differentiating themselves also marked a historically collective entitlement which undoubtedly comes with embracing a politics that utilizes each part of the hybrid identity. That is to say, the resulting culture combination is tied directly to the land.
This may seem a difficult task at first, to connect the idea of a community’s race to the land on which they live. But perhaps this is a step in the right direction. To do this we would have to look at two things: (1) That a methodology such as this radicalizes the notion of racial participation in a liberal democratic society by evaluating the community’s concern in terms of difference. (2) It provides new spaces in which to consider race and how these spaces open up different ways of conceptualizing it. Each of these, I believe, provides potentially generous outcomes for racial distinctions that integration fails to account for. First, Lucius T. Outlaw sets up the stage for evaluating a community’s concern in terms of difference. He attaches the politics of difference with the idea of the conservation of race. Since history itself is already a vastly complex contingency of experiences, so too are the ways in which we can think about and establish solutions to racial problems that are more revolutionary in nature. He argues that since these experiences do not necessarily pool into reservoirs of applicable knowledge and “comforting rationalizations”, we must constantly strive to think up new and innovative strategies to combat societal challenges involving race. Outlaw goes on to point towards the “problem of the color line” as being far more difficult to distinguish contemporarily as it once was. Matters of gender or sexual preference and cultural forms of life, among many others, complicate political mobilization in that it is not the striving for similarity but of difference. Furthermore, this is not a strategy of exclusion. “Difference is now a highly valued preference that many persons and groups…have accommodated and recognized as the basis for their participation in civic, political, and economic life.” Affirming this strategy of difference rather than similarity acknowledges, promotes and enriches the potential for many different local, national and international societies to coincide rather than oppose others in the traditional sense of “different,” which in turn “distort[s]…the cultural, political, social, and economic aspects of societies shared by different races…” In simpler terms, Outlaw claims that the principles of political and social life must be rethought.
This leads to the second point of how these newly realized spaces of thought act in opening up different methods of conceptualization. Before exploring this, I first want to point out just what these spaces do not look like. Integration and normative claims of multiculturalism, I believe, cannot account for these new spaces and in fact efface their potential for a politics of difference. For instance, Elizabeth Anderson’s methodology for integration still smacks of assimilation tactics, though she tries to distinguish one from the other. In her book The Imperative of Integration, she lays out four stages in which her idea of integration takes place. These are formal desegregation, spatial integration, formal social integration, and informal social integration. She predicts that these stages would reduce alienation, anxiety, awkwardness and hostility, changing these to civil association and possibly even intimacy. Her primary concern here is for the black community, but it is obviously more complicated than this and Anderson’s form of integration, if it is truly integrative, should account for the multitude of different races and cultures. The examples she uses are famous studies of court-ordered housing integration projects that moved poor black families to racially integrated neighborhoods in suburban areas of the local major cities. The families were also given vouchers to help them out financially. The qualitative evidence that resulted from these integration experiments is supportive of her claim, but I believe she overlooks the strategy of the experiment itself and how it undermines the goal of desegregation. First, moving poor black families to more upscale suburbs is economically disparate. Second, it is a geographically racist strategy for producing expected outcomes of integration. Uprooting a poor and racially segregated family from their own neighborhood and giving them the financial means for sustaining themselves within a higher class area of living speaks to the residual notions of assimilation that I mention above. Of course they are going to do well and interact with everyone harmoniously. They are now without a huge degree of anxiety that stems from being forced to live in an economically and politically lower class; their levels of production are expected to increase. Also, the door obviously does not swing both ways in that moving white families into black neighborhoods would somehow increase the standard of living in those areas, or simply giving the poor black families the housing vouchers and letting them choose which neighborhood they wanted to live in. The fact that they had to give the families housing vouchers in the first place is, by itself, enough to show that it is not simply a matter of just plugging people into certain higher class white neighborhoods and nodding at the expected outcome. This kind of opportunity just does not exist and the strategy itself takes on assimilative properties when it must be the poor and racially segregated communities that have to move to better neighborhoods in order to thrive. Most importantly, it assumes that the people and families who were moved have little to no attachment or investment in the neighborhoods that they came from.
This critical approach demonstrating problems that can be found with normative forms of integration can be responded to with a progressive sense of multiculturalism that resides in the vein of difference politics. Multiculturalism promotes immigrants and minority groups to maintain a firm grasp on the important and identifying aspects of their cultures. The ideology behind it, along with its political values in general, works against any notions or ideas that would attempt to assimilate any group or community of people. Though some (very few hopefully) view this as a threat to Euro-American culture. For example Alvin J. Schmidt claims that “Multiculturalism’s denial of the existence of objective truth and morality has the potential for dire consequences. Once [the] posture [of multiculturalism] is taken, it opens the door for some totalitarian group or ideology to seize power and define “truth” consistent with its values.” This may be an extreme example and, frankly, quite a ridiculous and reactive claim to make. But I use this example to demonstrate that it parallels many of the same kinds of injustices that create economic and political disparities in the first place for smaller groups that need their voice to be heard. Much like in the example of Chávez Ravine, the communities themselves had no say because of the way that the political structures took advantage of the laws in place and exploited them to eventually seize the land from under them. This is not to say that elements of multiculturalism do not have their own pitfalls. Rather, it is to point out that differences, and recognition of those differences, concerning other races, groups and cultures must be considered outside the spectrum of objectivity; the politics of difference must take on a more radicalizing approach to multiculturalism in order to be successful. It is not merely an “us versus them” strategy, nor can it be problematized by an “us and them” alteration. Difference needs to be embraced in a multiplicitous way that intensifies the complexities as it analyzes each case, similar to what Outlaw proposes.
What I am hoping to show here is that in order to critically engage in a politics of difference, geo-political fidelity must also be taken into consideration. In other words, an epistemic loyalty is necessary to analyze not just the particular economic and political strata of a certain group of people, but also a geographical one as well. What I mean to say here is that there is a solidarity that emerges within communities that are forced to struggle against segregating forms of racial injustice. It is not simply a matter of intersecting these injustices and quantifying the similarities. For a politics of difference to work, the differences must be approached in a method that takes into account the myriad ways that one community interacts with another and with itself. The people of Chávez Ravine were happy with where they lived. They did not consider themselves as poor, blighted or living in a wasteland. They had knowledge of where they lived and how they identified themselves in contrast to the rest of the city of Los Angeles. Moreover, the fact that they lived humbly does not mean that they lived poorly. The city did not recognize their presence enough to adequately supply them with water or power, but at the same time they were obviously incredibly proud of where they lived and demonstrated that pride by continuing as they had for the last 150 years sustaining themselves by their own means.
Although this strategy of teasing out the complexities in a politics of difference problematizes the matter of racial injustice further, at least in the case of Chávez Ravine, it is important to note these complexities within each individual situation in order to amplify the actual struggles of racially motivated economic and political segregation. Moreover, in doing so, we can better see that we are not merely dealing with a quantifiable empirical account that is then assigned the label “just” or “unjust.” Instead we find that there are still struggles afflicting Mexican American communities similar to Chávez Ravine and that the situation becomes more and more complicated when the issue of race and racism come into play.
Many, if not all, of Mexican Americans in Southern California know of the history of Chávez Ravine. Many of them are also staunch Dodger fans. It is not that the area’s history is forgotten, rather, it is forgotten by everyone but Mexican Americans who have lived in the Los Angeles area for generations. There is a loyalty to the land itself that is intimately connected with their remembrance. On simply a personal note, one of my very good friends is Mexican American and has had the tradition of being a Dodger fan passed down to him. He considers it almost like a rite of passage. He, in turn, is passing it down to his children. If I am to honestly take a genealogical approach to analyzing the history of Chávez Ravine, then I must close with considering the theory that there is a correlation between Dodger Stadium and the struggle that the communities who once lived there went through trying desperately to keep their land and way of life intact. Though the history of the ravine holds more pride in their hearts, I would venture to say that there is a loyalty involved that suggests a deeper intimacy with the land. One in which these people know where they live, where they come from, and that they take great pride in the work and fighting it has taken to get them where they are today. The Mexican American communities in all of greater Los Angeles, especially East L.A., have a strong traditional sense of community and I believe that they have not forgotten the small village. Or as Natalie Ramirez, a proud member of the Mexican American community and a former resident of the ravine stated, “The people all loved their homes. Once a year the people who once lived in Chávez Ravine all get together for a picnic at Elysian playground, right next to Dodger Stadium…you could come around to meet people whose home you call a wasteland.”
Acuña, Rodolfo F. Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles. New York:
Anderson, Elizabeth. The Imperative of Integration. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010
Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story. Dir. Jordan Mechner. Prod. Andrew B. Andersen and
Tomi Pierce. Tiny Projects Productions, 2003.
The Chávez Ravine Story: Or What Price Baseball? Dir. Carlos Saldaña. Burrito’s Barrio
Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Normark, Don. Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story. San Francisco: Chronicle Books,
Outlaw (Jr.), Lucius T. On Race and Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Schmidt, Alvin J. The Menace of Multiculturalism: Trojan Horse in America. Westport: Praeger
Normark, Don. Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999), 11.
 The documentaries Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story and The Chávez Ravine Story: Or What Price Baseball? were used to supply the historical account of Chávez Ravine unless otherwise noted.
 Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 163.
 Normark, 128.
 Ibid., 128.
 Acuña, Rodolfo F. Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1996), 22.
 Normark, 50.
 Outlaw (Jr.), Lucius T. On Race and Philosophy. (New York: Routledge, 1996), 135.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 141.
 Anderson, Elizabeth. The Imperative of Integration. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 116-17.
 Ibid., 118-19.
 Schmidt, Alvin J. The Menace of Multiculturalism. (Westport: Praeger Publisher, 1997), 6.
 Normark, 127.