16 August, 2013

Dodger Baaseball


Those of you that know me know I can barely spell a sports word much less am I the right person to comment on the pastime.  But those of you that know me know I’m an Angeleno.  And while that might be a predatory colloquial, no one argues I was born and raised in this city, nor how much I love her History. 

It’s August and our beloved Dodgers are doing well.  Better than well.  They were originally The Brooklyn Dodgers, of course, but when they’re doing as well as they are, they’re “ours.”  (I’m not saying L.A. fans are fickle but we’re hard core when we’re winning.  But now we’re getting into an entirely different article.)

The Dodgers are doing well.  A few highlights?  Sure.

Scanning several articles:  “The Los Angeles Dodgers are filthy rich.”  “They have the largest payroll in National League history, with four players alone earning in excess of $20 million.”  “They have the most lucrative TV contract in baseball history, averaging more than $300 million a year.”  “They are on the franchise's greatest winning streak since 1899” (nope, not a typo;  1899).  “They have become beloved, resurrecting a dormant franchise bankrupt a year ago, and turning them into The Evil Empire of The West Coast.”  A New York Yankee must have written that one.  “What The Dodgers are doing is good for baseball,” Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg says.

It's really no different than The Yankees.  You can hate them, and you can pray they're stuck paying Alex Rodriguez every nickel of his contract, but when they have success, baseball prospers.  The Dodgers are just taking their turn.  And after the suffering we endured during Frank McCourt’s administration, their success is being celebrated.

Too early?  Maybe.  Here’s Stan Kasten, our current President but also former President of The Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, so no slouch to the game:  “I do think a good team in Los Angeles is good for baseball.  I always thought that, even when The Yankees were beating us [The Braves] in The World Series.  When you have the media centers of New York and Los Angeles doing well, that's good for everyone.”  (See, even he’s “our” President ‘cause The Dodgers are doing well.) 

Mr. Kasten continues, “There's no franchise in any sport anywhere that has had the impact on popular culture or society as large as The Dodgers.  Whether it was Jackie Robinson or Sandy Koufax or Fernando [Valenzuela] or Hideo Nomo [or] Chan Ho Park, all those things are part of our legacy.”  And now, for the first time in nearly forty years, The Dodgers are admired -- and feared -- once again.  “Coming out of spring training,” Kasten continues, “I thought we were going to be a good team … but to get on a run like this, I didn't see that.  I've never seen anything like it.”  The only thing more bizarre than these trolley dodgers’ winning streak “might be their popularity,” says Larry Baer (and he’s President of our other rivals, The San Francisco Giants).  And in a field I’m a little more comfortable, look at The TV.  If Fox was excited at the thought of The Rays and Pirates in October, think of the party they’ll throw for us.

Any fickleness aside -- it’s a word -- let’s see how long this Dodger love-fest lasts.  ‘Cause if their payroll keeps skyrocketing, if they beat out The Yankees for free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano and have a bench filled with $20-million players, well … On the other hand, maybe we’re the next Atlanta Braves -- we have a lot of rivals, huh? -- who won fourteen consecutive Division Titles with dignity.  (And never knock “Dignity,” as Don Lockwood said.  “Always dignity.”)  Mr. Kasten again:  “We have an owner [Mark Walter] who believes in our market, believes in our fans, and believes in doing everything the right way, and making sure the team is built the right way.”  And, yes, apparently winning the right way, too.  “[But] we're trying to fly under the radar here,” Kasten finishes, “[so] let’s keep it quiet.”

Of course, how often does L.A. do something quietly?  Sure, baseball might be better for it … but what about L.A.?

Fans, here’s where I bunt this write-up.  After all, you’re probably still wondering why I’m writing about baseball.  Yes, The Dodgers are doing well right now;  and, yes, there’s always a certain buzz in the air when one of our teams is doing well.  And let me say that I like The Dodgers.  I might know nothing about them other than Mr. Vin Scully’s voice and great hot dogs but “Go blue!”  Still, reading about their recent success reminded me of something I heard the other day.

It was actually about Bunker Hill;  that long lost residential pearl in Downtown.  (And Bunker Hill certainly deserves its own write-up.  Please believe I mean that so I can simply continue here.)  Urban and Media Historian Norman Klein said, in part:

              "Erasure was a very important part of late 20th Century Modernist thinking.  It allowed for more freeways,    more roads.  It took whole sections of the city and turned them into what seemed more functional.

              "What’s generating memory, it’s usually things that were erased, half finished, spaces that were contested.  But if you come to it after it’s been destroyed, of course there are only the traces that are left on the streets.  And if the traces have been leveled you have this peculiar relationship with it.  You can’t even believe what’s happened.

              "You see an illustration of a wall and, let’s say, the floor.  And then for some reason the line where the wall and the floor meet has been so erased that you can’t take your eyes away from it.  Because it’s the thing that’s missing.  The absence makes a presence.  And it speaks to you, tells you something about how the wall and the floor work together.  So Bunker Hill is an absence that is a presence." 

 So I’m reading about how well The Dodgers are doing;  how they’re “filthy rich” with “the largest payroll in National League history” and “four players alone earning in excess of $20 million” with a “TV contract averaging $300 million a year.  And then the pull quote:  “The Evil Empire of The West Coast.”  All the while this other thing -- the Bunker Hill thing -- is ringing in my ear:  “Erasure” and “spaces that were contested” ‘cause you “come to it after it’s been destroyed” with “only traces that are left” and “You can’t even believe what’s happened” and “You can’t take your eyes off it” because “The absence makes a presence.”    

 The absence makes a presence.

 Chavez Ravine.

 You know, where Dodger Stadium sits.  And you know its story, right?  Chavez Ravine -- all the Elysian hills -- goes back to The Tongva Indians.  But it’s the story of the too-oft overlooked Mexican Americans that lived there until Dodger Stadium that will “blight” its history … and we’ll get to the blighting in a moment. 

Since the 1800s, there were three major communities in what we now think of as Chavez Ravine:  Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop.  (And think about that for a moment.  We’re not talking ten years but -- by the 1940s -- over a hundred.)  Indeed, generations of families had made it their home.  The houses had official addresses and were recognized by The Federal Government, but due to insufficient funding (little things like Water & Power), the people relied on themselves, including growing their own food.  Because the ravine geographically separated the communities -- and only one road led into the area -- City Officials regarded it as “blighted;”  that is, simply, “in disrepair.”  (Urban Blighting can be for any number of reasons;  geographic, economic, et cetera.  Trick of it is, a city uses the designation not to fix the issue but to change it.) 

So, in 1949, The City Of Los Angeles comes up with The Federal Housing Act to create Elysian Park Heights.  Step 1 would be twenty-four thirteen-story buildings and 163 two-story buildings (interestingly to be designed by renowned architect Richard Neutra).  Sounds good, right?  Well, Step 2 was they sent out eviction notices.  To whom?  Not each Federally recognized address but “To The Families of Palo Verde and Chavez Ravine Area.”  Area?  Yes, the 170 acres were taken by the laws of Eminent Domain.  That’s “the right of a government to seize private property for public use, with payment of compensation,” but we won’t get into that word “seizing” or that some of the “payments” in this case were one dollar.

By 1951 -- and these are the ten years that truly matter in this case, ’51-’61 -- fear of Communism ran rampant and public housing projects were blacklisted.  The L.A. City Council felt the pressure and voted to cancel the Elysian Park Heights contract.  Now follow this next part:  This is after most of the residents were kicked out.  Then in April of 1952, a referendum passed making the project cancellation legal.  (And it was passed before The Federal Government deemed the contract valid and any new laws would not apply.)  Loophole after loophole.  The biggest?  The 170 acres were up for grabs.

In 1953, Norris Poulson was elected Mayor.  Politically right of Attila the Hun, he fully supported the opposition to construct new Public Housing projects.  Chavez Ravine’s Eminent Domain was sold to The City Of Los Angeles on the condition it be used as “an appropriate public purpose.”  Remaining houses were torn down or sold.  Fire departments were allowed to use them for training (burning them).  Families that remained were considered vagrants on their own land.  For years the nearly vacant Chavez Ravine lay unused and was offered by The City to various Developers without success. 

Then in 1957, Mayor Poulson proposed to Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley -- he already looking to move the team from Ebbets Field -- that Chavez Ravine be used as the site of his new stadium.  (You’ll hear a story about O’Malley being pitched land “next door” and “seeing Chavez Ravine from a plane ride” but let’s not sugarcoat Attila The Hun.)  For “a small consideration,” The City Of Los Angeles sold Chavez Ravine to The Dodgers.  The stadium was constructed with private funds, and remains privately owned.

 Take a look at the photos from Don Normark.  (The sadly famous shot of Aurora Vargas being physically hauled away by police?  Yep, his.)  In 1948, he was looking for a hill in L.A. from which to get a good picture to sell as a postcard.  Instead he discovered Chavez Ravine.  He returned several times to take photos, documenting as much as he could.  Lucky he did, because they’re rare photos from that time.  Because no one foresaw that in a few short years the families -- the communities -- would be gone.

(Keeping in my more comfortable field, here’s a tidbit you might not know.  A number of structures from Chavez Ravine were spared demolition and sold to Universal Studios who kept the structures on its Back Lot where they were used in several productions, most notably To Kill A Mockingbird.  Yep, Atticus Finch’s home was built in Chavez Ravine.)

In 1962, Dodger Stadium opened and Sandy Koufax threw his famous first pitch in the new stadium.  (The team moved to L.A. in 1958 but played four seasons at The Coliseum before moving to Dodger Stadium;  incidentally winning their second World Series there in 1959.)  The Los Angeles Dodgers would go on to four more World Series wins plus fourteen West Division Titles and twenty-one National League Pennants.  And, again, this year?  Doing pretty well.

So let’s be clear.  I’m not here to bash The Dodgers.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, let’s keep in mind two other stats of theirs.  In 1947, they were the first Major League Team to employ and start an African-American player (you may have heard of him:  Jackie Robinson).  And in 2012?  They were the first Major League Team to employ a female lead trainer (Sue Falsone).

So why the hell am I writing this piece?  Because I was scanning headlines and saw how well we were doing.  ("We.")  Well, it is exciting.  But there was that ringing in my ear from what Norman Klein said.  And it made me want to write … something.

Because the absence does make a presence.  And the story of Chavez Ravine isn’t told as often as how well The Dodgers are doing.  In fact I’m still surprised to meet people who’ve never heard it.

And, well, nostalgic old me finds too much absence far too often.

For a much more learned article -- and great photos, some from Don Normark -- please see this by Nathan Masters from 13 September, 2012:

http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/history/la-as-subject/history-of-chavez-ravine.html

And here’s an update I made to this blog in January, 2016 where you can see Nathan Masters hosting a great show on KCET called ‘Lost L.A.’ with an episode on this very topic:

http://www.kcet.org/shows/lost_la/web-extras/watch-full-episode-before-the-dodgers.html

I’ll leave you with another tidbit from that comfortable field of mine, this from the Twilight Zone episode “The Whole Truth” (1961), which aired over a year before Dodger Stadium opened (10 April, 1962).  Prescient?  Only if such a thing bothers you.

“Be particularly careful in explaining to the boss about your grandmother's funeral, when you are actually at Chavez Ravine watching The Dodgers.”


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