Tuesday, November 18, 2014

chavez ravine time machine

The thing I wish for the most, after the obvious, much-blogged-about things, is the ability to passively time travel. I don’t want to kill Hitler or my own grandfather, or warn the Titanic crew to bring extra lifeboats. I do want to watch history unfold like the best reality show ever. At least once a week, I pause and marvel at the fact that I’ll never be able to see the original occupants of the houses I walk past in Lincoln Heights, or know what L.A. looked like before white people found it.

I feel this wish in my bones; it’s almost like regret. When I imagine Heaven, I hope it comes with an endless, searchable DVR queue of times and places. That said, I’d be satisfied with a queue limited to Southern California in the last two hundred years. Maybe I’m self-centered, or just lack the imagination to muster curiosity about ancient Rome, but I most want to witness the here and now just before it became now.

Until we figure out how to do that Matthew McConaughey bookshelf trick* in real life, I have Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story by Don Normark. For those of you unfamiliar with L.A. history or urban planning’s hall of shame, Chavez Ravine—the scoop of land that now cradles Dodger Stadium—used to be home to three poor, semi-rural Mexican-American neighborhoods. The roads were unpaved. Kids went barefoot. Rain made a racket on the tin roofs of small unpainted houses.

Packards and palm trees. (Actually, I don't know if these are Packards. But alliteration!)
In the late 1940s, city planners declared it a “blighted” neighborhood, despite the relative peace and happiness of the residents, and enlisted Richard Neutra and others to design new homes. As the city evicted the residents, they promised them first crack at the new development when it went up. The plans included a “non-discrimination” clause to ensure that Chavez Ravine natives wouldn’t be excluded for being low-income.

However, public housing foes were freaked out that Communists would somehow sneak in under this clause, and so they killed the project. The once-tight communities remained scattered; the final few houses were auctioned or burned. In 1957, the city council sold the land to the Dodgers.

Portrait of resistance in mariposa pants.
But before the tragedy, there was Don Normark, a young photographer who stumbled upon the neighborhood and documented its residents over a period of months. I’d seen a few of the photos before, in various books and galleries. The one below is the kind of image you never forget, and I’m a little bit stunned that I now have a copy of it after spending a couple of bucks on Amazon.**

This girl and her doll do not take any shit.
There are too few photographs of the everyday lives of people of color (although Heyday Books has published some good ones); to see historical versions of the people I see in my city every day feels like being let in on a secret.

I bought an extra copy of Chavez Ravine, 1949 so I could cut out the pictures and use them as prompts for my creative writing class tomorrow. Maybe some of them will recognize Dodgerland before it was Dodgerland. Maybe they’ll see a little bit of themselves in the photos, or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll be interested to learn, as I did today, that the neighborhoods of La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop were as tight-knit as gangs, but without the consequences of drugs and guns.

Kicking it in front of Genaro's store.
The coolest thing is how Normark decided to approach the book when he embarked on the project in 1999. He rounded up former residents and their children and asked them to comment on the photos. What memories did they evoke? Hence the book resists easy or singular narratives, as when sisters Kate and Connie argue about old times.

Kate: We lived at 707 Phoenix Street. The Ortiz family. We were notorious.

Connie: No. That’s not true, don’t say that.

Chavez Ravine was also home to los viejitos, old white men who lived alone on the steep outskirts of the ravine. Normark points out that, because they didn’t have families, their stories are largely lost, which made me sad. Stories are immortality.

Viejito y gato.

*Just a little Interstellar reference there. Good movie. And silly. But moving and well-acted. I just kind of wish that Brit Marling had gotten her hands on it instead of Christopher Nolan.

**I buy most of my books on Powells or Indiebound, but I knew I wanted two copies of Chavez Ravine, 1949 so I cheaped out.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi. That's my grandfather, Lupe Garcia, walking to his house in la Loma at 671 Spruce Street on the front cover of Don's book. You can read more about that here:


Leonard Nadel took extensive photographs of the three old neighborhoods. You can see that here:


I enjoyed your blog post!