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The Ugly, Violent Clearing Of Chavez Ravine Before It Was Home To The Dodgers

L.A. County Sheriffs forcibly remove Aurora Vargas from her home.
May 8, 1959: "Several Chavez Ravine residents fought eviction, including Aurora Vargas, who vowed that, 'they'll have to carry me [out].' L.A. County Sheriffs forcibly remove Vargas from her home. Bulldozers then knocked over the few remaining dwellings. Four months later, ground-breaking for Dodger Stadium began."
( Herald-Examiner Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
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As the Dodgers gear up for Game 5 of the National League Championship Series — once again, on their home turf — it's worth remembering that before Dodger Stadium was a legendary baseball venue, it was known as Chavez Ravine.

The area was home to generations of families, most of them Mexican American.

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"View of children playing in a fenced yard of a very dilapidated house."
(Housing Authority Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

After the Dodgers made the deal to ditch Brooklyn, Los Angeles officials used eminent domain and other political machinations to wrest that land away from its owners.

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"Panoramic view of the Elysian Heights and Chavez Ravine area as photographed by the Los Angeles City Housing Authority in an effort to document slum conditions."
(Security Pacific National Bank Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

It was ugly. It was violent. It remains the sort of living history that Los Angeles residents don't like to remember.

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May 9, 1959: "Los Angeles County Sheriffs forcibly evict Mrs. Aurora Vargas, 36, from her home at 1771 Malvina Avenue in Chavez Ravine. Media representatives record the event. The family put up a fight and reported they had only received a written eviction notice, causing criticism of the government's methods."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Chavez Ravine was named after Julian Chavez, a rancher who served as assistant mayor, city councilman and, eventually, as one of L.A. County's first supervisors. In 1844, he started buying up land in what was known as the Stone Quarry Hills, an area with several separate ravines. Chavez died of a heart attack in 1879, at the age of 69.

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"A group of children play on hills above the ravine, with a smoggy downtown skyline visible in the background."
(Don Normak/Housing Authority Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
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By the early 1900s, semi-rural communities had sprung up on the steep terrain, mostly on the ridges between the neighboring Sulfur and Cemetery ravines.

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"Two young and happy residents of Chavez Ravine."
(Leonard Nadel/Housing Authority Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
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Flora Cano (left) with the best man and another bridesmaid at a wedding in Chavez Ravine in 1929.
(Shades of L.A.: Mexican American Community
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

What eventually came to be called Chavez Ravine encompassed about 315 acres and had three main neighborhoods — Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop.

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1948: "Panoramic view of the housing in Chavez Ravine. Mostly Mexican American families lived in this area. Children are at play in the foreground."
(Housing Authority Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
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It had a grocery store, a church and an elementary school. Many residents grew their own food and raised animals such as pigs, goats and turkeys.

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1949: "An older woman carrying a bucket crosses an unpaved road with a small child and a dog. Buildings in the background are quite run-down. Chavez Ravine is towards the left of photo."
(Housing Authority Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Many Mexican American families, red-lined and prevented from moving into other neighborhoods, established themselves in Chavez Ravine.

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1951: "The Navarro family pose at their Chavez Ravine home before their relocation to the William Mead Homes Housing Project. Blasito Navarro (divorced) lived with her 3 children in this 5 room house, which rented for $25 per month."
(Housing Authority Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Residents of the tight-knit community often left their doors unlocked.

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"Veteran William Nickolas and three of his children stand in the door of the home in the rear of his father-in-law's house at 942-1/2 Yola Drive, Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles. The home had two rooms for sleeping quarters and toilet, no bathing facilities, no gas or hot water. The family is to move into Basilone Homes Housing Project. The wife is Emily Nickolas. There are six children in the family, ages 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 3 months."
(Leonard Nadel/Housing Authority Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Outsiders often saw the neighborhood as a slum. City officials decided that Chavez Ravine was ripe for redevelopment, kicking off a decade-long battle over the land.

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1950: "View of the hillside in the Chavez Ravine area in Elysian Park Heights depicts a country-like setting. The housing in the foreground is fenced and has several animal cages."
(Housing Authority Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

They labeled it "blighted" and came up with a plan for a massive public housing project, known as Elysian Park Heights.

Designed by architects Robert E. Alexander and Richard Neutra and funded in part by federal money, the project was supposed to include more than 1,000 units — two dozen 13-story buildings and 160 two-story townhouses — as well as several new schools and playgrounds.

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May 11, 1959: "Cruz Cabral, 39, ex-Marine war hero of World War II, gives moral support to relatives evicted from their house in Chavez Ravine. His aunt, Mrs. Abrana Arechiga, 72, shows his medals. He was wounded four times in South Pacific battles. She reared him on this site."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

In the early 1950s, the city began trying to convince Chavez Ravine homeowners to sell. Despite intense pressure, many residents resisted.

Developers offered immediate cash payments to residents for their property. They offered remaining homeowners less money so residents feared that if they held out, they wouldn't get a fair price.

In other cases, officials used the power of eminent domain to acquire plots of land and force residents out of their homes. When they did, they typically lowballed homeowners, offering them far less money than their land was worth.

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July 20, 1953: "Home owners from Chavez Ravine, Rose Hills and Pacoima tell Mayor Norris Poulson (left) to fight on for abandonment of housing projects."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Chavez Ravine residents were also told that the land would be used for public housing and those who were displaced could return to live in the housing projects.

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Circa 1952: "Artist's sketch of Chavez Ravine, one of the three proposed projects in Elysian Park that the mayor is expected to ask to be abandoned."
(Leonard Nadel/Herald-Examiner Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

One way or another, by choice or by force, most residents of the three neighborhoods had left Chavez Ravine by 1953, when the Elysian Park Heights project fell apart.

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May 14, 1951: "New projected housing project is forcing many oldtimers like Julian, on wagon, to move from Chavez Ravine to new quarters. Later the area became part of the baseball stadium of the Los Angeles Dodgers instead."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Norris Poulson, the new mayor of Los Angeles, opposed public housing as "un-American," as did many business leaders who wanted the land for private development.

The city bought back the land, at a much lower price, from the Federal Housing Authority — with the agreement that the city would use it for a public purpose.

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1951: "400 sign-waving residents of Chavez Ravine, protesting a proposed housing project that would take the sites of their homes, appeared April 26, 1951, at the City Planning Commission's final hearing on the matter. Sporadic booing and hissing swept over the crowd when a speaker suggested immediate approval of the project."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

By 1957, the area had become a ghost town. Only 20 families, holdouts who had fought the city's offers to buy their land, were still living in Chavez Ravine.

In June of 1958, voters approved (by a slim, 3% margin) a referendum to trade 352 acres of land at Chavez Ravine to the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Walter O'Malley.

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May 1959: "Some, ready to move out of Chavez Ravine, and others not, members of the Manuel Arechiga family listen to the advice of attorney Phil Silver (left) as new developments transpire in the Chavez controversy."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The following year, the city began clearing the land for the stadium.

On Friday, May 9, 1959, bulldozers and sheriff's deputies showed up to forcibly evict the last few families in Chavez Ravine. Residents of the area called it Black Friday.

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This City of Los Angeles Health Department notice dated May 14, 1959 was given to the Arechiga family at 1801 Malvina Avenue in Chavez Ravine.
(Herald-Examiner Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Sheriff's deputies kicked down the door of the Arechiga family's home. Movers hauled out the family's furniture. The residents were forcibly escorted out. Aurora Vargas, 36, was carried, kicking and screaming, from her home at 1771 Malvina Ave. by four deputies. Minutes later, her home was bulldozed.

Crews eventually knocked down the ridge separating the Sulfur and Cemetery ravines and filled them in, burying Palo Verde Elementary School in the process.

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May 14, 1959: "Mrs. Abrana Arechiga (left) and her daughter, Mrs. Vicki Augustain, look at the ruins of one of their Chavez Ravine homes, which were destroyed by bulldozers during the controversial eviction last Friday, an action which now has erupted into a sensational city-wide furor. After eviction day, the Arechiga family lived in a tent and, later, in a loaned trailer. Now it is revealed they own 11 homes in the Los Angeles area."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The Arechiga family, led by 66-year-old matriarch Avrana Arechiga, camped amid the rubble for the next week before finally giving up.

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May 16, 1959: "All was quiet on the Chavez Ravine battlefront. Avrana and Manuel Arechiga are the only remaining eviction warriors there. He's sweeping the dirt off the 'front porch' of their tent. Protest signs are posted nearby."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Crews broke ground for Dodger Stadium four months later, on September 17, 1959. While it was being built, the Dodgers played games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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February 16, 1961: Ramparts rise at top speed as work is ahead of schedule at Dodger Stadium, built on the site of Chavez Ravine.
(Herald-Examiner Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium opened on April 10, 1962, on a site that thousands of people had once called home.

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"Balloons are released at possibly opening ceremonies at Dodger Stadium."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
/
Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

It is currently the third oldest major league ballpark still in use, after Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

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March 11, 1962: Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley stands in Dodger Stadium. "Built for $23 million, it is the first privately financed Major League Baseball stadium since Yankee Stadium was built in the 1920s."
(Herald-Examiner Collection
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Los Angeles Public Library Collection)


Updated April 28, 2021 at 10:09 AM PDT
This story originally ran on our sister website KPCC.org on October 17, 2017.
Corrected October 17, 2018 at 2:05 PM PDT
A previous version of this story had an inaccurate headline. LAist regrets the error.