Fighting for Land in the City of Dreams

City of Dreams - Jerald PodairOn Friday, May 8th, 1959, in front of a waiting audience of newspaper journalists and television cameras, the City of Los Angeles commenced the eviction of the Arechiga family from their two homes in Chavez Ravine. Sheriff’s deputies broke down the barricaded doors and dragged the Arechigas from the buildings before bulldozers moved in to demolish them. Local television stations showed live footage of the eviction and demolition. It was the latest and most dramatic episode in the tangled story of the Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles.

The Arechigas were among the last remnants of an established Mexican-American community in Chavez Ravine. The semi-rural canyon had provided homes for Mexican-American families for decades, but its location just north of downtown Los Angeles made it an obvious target for redevelopment following the Second World War, as the city struggled to house a rapidly growing population. Initially the Ravine was slated for an enormous public housing project, planned for over 3,300 units, in buildings designed by modernist architects Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander. The City Housing Authority moved rapidly to relocate residents, using federal funds to acquire the land via eminent domain. However, McCarthy-era Los Angeles proved unsympathetic to these “socialist” plans, and in 1953 newly-elected mayor Norris Poulson made good on his election promises to block the Chavez Ravine development.

Through the mid-’50s, Chavez Ravine was a ghost town, with only a handful of residents clinging on. The Arechigas continued to fight the condemnation orders against their homes, arguing that the abandonment of the housing project rendered the orders void, and attempted to pay taxes on the property. The City, for its part, declined the payments, and allowed the case to continue through the courts.

In 1957 the situation changed as a group of LA politicians and administrators, Poulson among them, pitched Los Angeles to Brooklyn Dodgers-owner Walter O’Malley as a new home for the team. O’Malley considered a new, substantially larger stadium essential to the Dodgers’ future, but the land on which to build it was not to be had in New York. Could Chavez Ravine offer a solution? O’Malley found himself embroiled in a complex political and legal battle between rival factions that was ultimately decided by the California Supreme Court in January 1959. The land could be used to build his stadium. But the land was not yet empty, and the massive publicity around the eviction of the Arechigas threatened to derail the stadium plan.

Four days after the eviction, there was a stunning new development. An article in the Mirror News newspaper revealed that the Arechiga family owned no less than seven other homes. Public opinion rapidly turned against the Arechigas. A few days previously they had been pitied as penniless citizens made homeless by a heartless administration; now they were pilloried as grasping obstructionists determined to wring a higher price for their land from the taxpayer. Their battle was lost; the Arechigas did not accept the condemnation payment on the property until 1962, but they could only look on as construction began on Dodger Stadium.


Read the full story of the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles, and the battles surrounding the construction of Dodger Stadium, in Jerald Podair’s City of Dreams, available now from Princeton University Press.