Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Chavez Ravine - Too Familiar, Too Sad

'Chavez Ravine' too familiar, too sad - A PBS documentary forces a look at the people who lost their neighborhood to Dodger Stadium.

Paper: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Author: Paul Brownfield
Date: June 7, 2005
Section: Calendar
Page: E-11

We like Dodger Stadium; the Dodgers play there. We don't want to hear the sad story of the families who lost their homes to create a pitcher's mound where Sandy Koufax and Fernando Valenzuela worked their magic, and Kirk Gibson limped to home plate in the bottom of the ninth of a World Series game and stopped the city cold.

Indeed, Vin Scully, despite his butter-rich way of selling the Dodgers as the ultimate in family entertainment, couldn't narrate "Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story," a half-hour documentary, airing Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. Its part of the PBS series "Independent Lens," this one on the Mexican American immigrant families who had built homes there only to be driven out to pave the way, eventually, for the house that Walter O'Malley built.

As in many stories about a lost community, there is an unmistakably mournful, one-sided tone to this compact piece from filmmaker Jordan Mechner, with evocative music from Ry Cooder and the photography of Don Normark, whose book, "Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story," resulted from his having stumbled upon the community in 1949.Normark's pictures evoke the place and the people, who composed a tight-knit village of around 300 families. As Normark's beautiful pictures show, Chavez Ravine back then was a rambling micro-community -- people living in bungalows amid hillsides with vegetable gardens and schools and a church -- all remarkably close to downtown Los Angeles, a freeway running through it.

The children of Chavez Ravine don't own anything but the memories. They are bittersweet. At least one, Carol Jaques, went to Dodger Stadium once and couldn't go back, calling the experience like "dancing on a grave." Jaques and others know what's buried there, beneath the parked SUVs and the Union 76 station. "In a thousand years, somebody's gonna start digging, they're gonna find a school down there," Beto Elias, a child of the ravine, says, referring to an old grammar school.

"Chavez Ravine" is an all-too-familiar story, both an L.A. story and a primer on how stadiums get built (hint: people don't necessarily come first) -- although here, the story doesn't begin with the team owner pushing out the little guy. Here, it begins with plans, backed by federal housing money, to remake Chavez Ravine into a low-income housing project, until that idealistic bit of urban planning fell to political winds and was squelched, paving the way for what sits there today -- Dodger Stadium.

The city had planned to turn Chavez Ravine into low-income housing on what was mostly vacant land. At the time, residents could either sell their homes at what the city termed a fair market rate or risk forcible eviction, although they were also told they would get dibs on a home in the new project.

As a child, Elias remembers a man coming to his front door and offering his father $9,600 for his home. The senior Elias took the offer, his son remembers, only to discover that prices for homes in other neighborhoods were around double that.

Then came the land grab -- what then-city housing official Frank Wilkinson calls "the tragedy of my life." The project he helped engineer ended up killing off a community, not creating a new one, after homeowner groups protested what they saw as a socialist urban works project. Wilkinson, hounded as a Communist menace during the Red Scare of the '50s, lost his job; the land of Chavez Ravine was eventually sold to O'Malley so he could move his Brooklyn Dodgers west.

The rest you know. The O'Malleys eventually sold out to the Fox people, who have given way to the McCourts. Please drink responsibly.

'Independent Lens -- Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story'
Where: KCET
When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
Cheech Marin...Narrator
Writer, director, editor, producer Jordan Mechner. Executive producer Tomi Pierce. Photographer, producer Don Normark. Music, Ry Cooder.
Author: Paul Brownfield
Section: Calendar
Page: E-11
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times

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