The Curse of Chavez Ravine

The recent take-over of the L.A. Dodgers by the Baseball Commissioner, in the wake of financial problems revealed by the divorce battle of the McCourts, the Dodgers’ current owners, understandably inspired the spilling of much printer’s ink on the sub ject of  “dem Bums” (as they used to be called at times when still in Brooklyn), their ups and downs as a baseball team, and their famous players like Jackie Robinson (who broke the “color line” in major league baseball), or Sandy Koufax who, a la  The Chariots of Fire,  provided us with a real-life depiction of a celebrated athlete who wouldn’t compete on a religious holiday. But as we read all that nostalgic and highly entertaining stuff, we noted something that was conspicuous by its absence: how Dodger Stadium got to be built at its present location by the destruction of a modest Mexican community in Chavez Ravine, whose homes were taken by eminent domain to make room for the ballpark to sweeten the deal involving the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn to the West Coast. To us at least, this is  a story worth telling. So here goes.

Chavez Ravine, located near the intersection of the Hollywood and Pasadena Freeways, close to the famous four-level freeway “stack” in downtown Los Angeles, became the target of planners in the early 1950s. They decided that it was just the place to erect one of those hideous multi-story apartment buildings for the poor under the banner of “public housing.” Of course, as we know now, those things proved to be an urban disaster. Two of the more famous (or is it notorious) ones — Cabrini in Chicago and Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis — had to be demolished because, with the passage of time they had become hellholes, rife with poverty, drugs and other crimes.

But in the 1950s all that still lay in the future, so the Los Angeles do-gooders proceded to acquire what they thought would be a suitable site in Chavez Ravine. They did so by filing an action in eminent domain to displace a small, modest Mexican community.  Have you noticed how the burdens of  these glorious monuments to urban revival somehow always fall with particular harshness on downtrodden folks? Like in the case of old Chinatown that once sat on land now occupied by the Union Station?

The Chavez Ravine caper purported to be a high-glitz operation, compleat with federal grant money and the services of famous architect Richard Neutra who was going to transform Chavez Ravine into “Elysian Park Heights.” [Note to flatlanders who are unfamiliar with Los Angeles or who never venture east of Sepulveda Boulevard: Chavez Ravine is located right next to the city Elysian Park.] It sounded good but it didn’t work out.

The Los Angeles conservative Establishment, so goes the story, was opposed to “socialist housing,” and kept on fighting the project. Long story short, after the city acquired Chavez Ravine, plans for the public housing project were abandoned. The land sat there until the late 1950s when it was given by the city to the Dodgers in exchange for a dinky minor-league ballpark that the Dodgers already owned, and Dodger stadium was built. Most of those Mexican families capitulated to the city and moved out,  but not the Arechigas. They stayed put and did not move out until the L.A. Sheriff’s Deputies forced them out in a mano a mano confrontation. Another resident, Aurora Vargas also resisted and had to be carried out, a heinous offense for which she was convicted and jailed. Dodger Stadium opened in 1962.

But the Arechigas were not ready to give up without a legal fight.  After it became clear that their former land, taken from them for public housing, would be devoted to an entirely different use, to wit a baseball stadium (which in those days might not have passed muster as a constitutionally permissible “public use”) they sued. Alas, the courts turned them down. See Arechiga v. Housing Authority, 159 Cal.App.2d 657 (1958), and 183 Cal.App.2d 835 (1960). Their principled fight became a footnote in the wretched history of eminent domain law which holds that once a condemnor acquires title to private property by eminent domain, it is not bound to put it to the “public” uses for which it was taken, not even when the property is acquired by the government by extrinsic fraud. In other words, the condemnor’s representations to the courts as to the “public use” for which the subject land is being acquired, aren’t worth the paper they are written on.  If you are interested in that depressing subject, check out our article, We Don’t Have to Follow Any Stinkin’ Planning — Sorry About That, Justice Stevens, 39 Urban Lawyer 529 (2007).

So what’s the moral of all this? Actually, there are two. First, there appears to be an eminent domain angle to just about everything that makes the news. Second, if you are into morality and cosmic justice, all the troubles that are befalling the Dodgers’ owners and their team (which hasn’t won a World Series or even a pennant for God knows how long) may be nothing more than delayed divine justice. The Good Book has it that the Lord takes his time in exacting retribution from those who transgress His laws by abusing the sovereign power of eminent domain, but eventually He gets around to it. You don’t believe us? Check out I Kings 22:1-29 which tells the story of wicked King Ahab who wrongfully seized the vineyard of his subject Naboth for his own use, and had Naboth killed through the use of perjured testimony instigated by his wicked wife, Jezebel. Prophet Elijah, having been fully informed in the premises by the Lord himself, informed Ahab that he was in deep doo-doo with the Lord for his wickedness in treating Naboth the way he did. While the Lord kept this part from Ahab, he disclosed to Elijah that because Ahab had humbled himself before the Lord after he learned of the Lord’s displeasure, “I will not bring the evil upon [Ahab in his] days: but in his sons’s days will I bring the evil upon his house.” I Kings 22:29. And so He did in His own good time; see I Kings 22:34-35. And Jezebel got hers too, just as the Lord foretold; see 2 Kings 9:33-35.

So maybe the taking of the Chavez ravine land for the Dodgers from the  Arechigas for $10,500 did not rise to the level of biblical wickedness. But it didn’t pass moral muster either, and there is a distinct whiff of divine retribution implicit in the Dodgers’ ongoing troubles. Call it what you want. We call it the curse of Chavez Ravine.

And if you are interested in how it should be done; how a virtuous sovereign deals with his subjects whose land he desires for a genuine public use, check out the biblical story of King David and Ornan whose threshing floor the King was commanded by the Lord to take as the site for the ark of the covenant. See I Chronicles 21:18-25.  Ornan was understandably frightened by the royal demand, and not only offered the land to the King for free, but also offered to throw in his farm implements and meat for a burned offering. But King David would have none of that. He responded: “Nay, but I will verily buy it for the full price: for I will not take that which is thine for the Lord, nor offer burnt offerings without cost. So David gave to Ornan for the place six hundred shekels of gold by weight.”