Chavez Ravine Residents Fought to Save Homes

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One of the wonders of Dodger Stadium is the fact that it's surrounded by freeways. Fans leaving the stadium can jump on the Pasadena, the Golden State or Hollywood Freeways. It was those freeways that first attracted Walter O'Malley to the land; but it would be a long battle before the Dodger owner could finally build in Chavez Ravine. In part five of her series, KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde tells the tale of the battle of Chavez Ravine.

Kitty Felde: There was a housing boom in Southern California after the Second World War, and not just the dozens of suburbs that sprung up like mushrooms. There was also a public housing boom, courtesy of the federal government.

Los Angeles decided to spend some of its money on high rises in the hills of Chavez Ravine. But there already were homes in Chavez Ravine, and homeowners who weren't happy about getting evicted to make room for those high rises. Charlotte Negrete-White wrote her doctoral thesis on the ravine.

Charlotte Negrete-White: Often times in history books we hear about families or certain ethnicities just being bowled over, but in fact, the people of Chavez Ravine, they banded together.

Felde: Many of them were poor, the children of Mexican immigrants. They collected signatures on petitions and went to city hall meetings. And they found an unlikely ally in real estate developers. Negrete-White says the group called itself CASH.

Negrete-White: The Citizens Against Socialist Housing, it was just really an interesting acronym. And they sided with the residents because real estate, for one, didn't want what they termed "socialist housing," nor federally subsidized housing.

Felde: It was the era of Joe McCarthy, stoking fears that Communists lurking around every corner. Even in L.A. City Hall. The late Frank Wilkinson was the city's Assistant Housing Director. Wilkinson said he was at another in a long series of eminent domain hearings, when a question was aimed at him.

Frank Wilkinson: One of the lawyers for the slum landlords turned to me, and this man turned to me and said "Now, Mr. Wilkinson, will you please tell us all organizations, political or otherwise, you've belonged to since 1931."

Felde: Wilkinson said he was surprised since he was a Republican, even a Youth for Herbert Hoover organizer in the 1930s. He suspected it was racial politics at play. The U.S. Supreme Court had just struck down race-based property rules that said who could live where.

Wilkinson, who was the driving force behind the public housing high rises planned for Chavez Ravine, had vowed they would be integrated. Whatever the motive, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI put Wilkinson under a microscope. He was drummed out of L.A.'s housing department. Former L.A. City Councilwoman Roz Wyman says the war was on.

Roz Wyman: That public housing fight got involved in the mayor's race of 1953 between Mayor Bowron, who was the incumbent, and Congressman Paulson, who ran against him. And there was a referendum on the ballot at the same time of that mayoralty election. The referendum was over the public housing site in the ravine. And anyway, to make a long story short on that, the people of the city voted down, at that time, that form of public housing.

Felde: But for the families of Chavez Ravine, it was too late. The federal government had already used eminent domain to take their land. Most houses were vacant. Only about a dozen families remained. But their memories of that community are still strong and clear. Next week, we'll hear stories from some of the former residents of Chavez Ravine.

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