Jerald Podair: The story of Dodger Stadium

Dodger Stadium, which opened in Los Angeles on April 10, 1962, was the single most controversial building project in the city’s modern history. It was constructed in Chavez Ravine, a neighborhood overlooking downtown, whose Mexican American residents had been dispersed for a public housing project that was never built. In 1957, the city of Los Angeles attracted the Brooklyn Dodgers by promising team owner Walter O’Malley Chavez Ravine for his new stadium on favorable terms. O’Malley agreed to build Dodger Stadium at his own expense.

Critics of the contract between the city and the Dodgers under which the land was transferred labeled it a “giveaway.” Over the next five years they fought a multi-front battle to have the contract voided. They initiated a ballot referendum challenging the contract’s validity that failed by a razor-thin margin and brought a series of taxpayer lawsuits that were initially successful but eventually reversed by the Supreme Court of California. There was also a racially charged eviction of Mexican American homeowners from the Chavez Ravine land by city authorities.

The battle over Dodger Stadium was a civic war that divided Los Angeles in half. But it did not divide the city along the lines we might expect, especially if we adopt the essentialist view of race and class that seems to be in vogue today. It is tempting to view the Dodger Stadium story as a simple one of rich white people on one side and poor people of color on the other. But the truth is more complicated. There is no question that the city’s Latino community was deeply wounded by the Chavez Ravine removals. The evictions have been the subject of plays, films, and songs, and are credited with inspiring the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. They remain a subject of bitter memory today. But a majority of residents of the city’s heavily Latino East Los Angeles council district defied their own anti-contract councilman to vote in favor of the Dodger Stadium deal in the closely contested ballot referendum. Latinos have also constituted the Dodgers’ most loyal and enduring fan base through the years. Fair-weather fans come and go, but the Latino community remains Dodger Blue. The divided character of the Latino response to the Dodger Stadium controversy thus defeats attempts to cast it solely in racial terms.

The most vociferous and passionate opponents of the Dodger Stadium deal, in fact, were white. They were the people the late California historian Kenneth Starr has called the “Folks”: middle-class homeowners, often with Midwestern or Southern roots, who lived in the peripheral areas of the city and harbored conservative cultural and economic sensibilities. Fearful of resources in their outlying communities being siphoned off for the benefit of large-scale undertakings downtown, the Folks were fiercely opposed to the Dodger Stadium project. Their campaign to keep it from being built allied them with the evicted residents of Chavez Ravine and their supporters in the city’s Latino community. Both groups united around the rights of property owners, no matter how humble, to keep what was rightfully theirs.

The coalition in favor of the stadium contract also defied simplistic race-and-class based expectations. Conservative downtown commercial and financial leaders lined up behind the stadium project, as did more liberal representatives of the city’s “Westside,” a center of the building-and-loan, construction, and entertainment sectors with a substantial Jewish population. Both shared an interest in revitalizing a downtown core whose civic and cultural amenities lagged significantly behind those of Los Angeles’s chief rival cities, New York and San Francisco.

These elites were joined by a crucial ally: the city’s African American community, which backed the stadium project overwhelmingly. The Dodgers, were, of course, closely associated with civil rights, having brought Jackie Robinson to the major leagues in 1947. Robinson was a Los Angeles-area native and his endorsement of the Dodger Stadium project was critical in gaining African American support for it.

The battle over Dodger Stadium thus produced interracial, cross-class alliances on both sides of the partisan divide. We can, of course, interpret these alignments as counterintuitive and even aberrational. But this view implies that identity is destiny, and that our political configurations can always be explained by the simple binaries of race and class. At Dodger Stadium, interest politics overcame identity politics. And that may not be a bad thing. In an identity-obsessed contemporary political environment, Dodger Stadium’s example of boundary-crossing allegiances is one we should take to heart.

PodairJerald Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is a recipient of the Allan Nevins Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians for “literary distinction in the writing of history.” He is the author of City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.