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A Helicopter Ride Led Dodgers to Chavez Ravine

Fifty years ago this week, more than 66,000 fans showed up at the Coliseum to watch the Dodgers play the St. Louis Cardinals in a doubleheader. In their first season in L.A., the Dodgers were a box office hit at the Coliseum; but they figured to be a bigger sensation near the Arroyo Seco, a few miles north. In part four of her series about the Dodgers' move west, KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde explains how Dodger Stadium ended up in Chavez Ravine.

Kitty Felde: In early 1957, Walter O'Malley wasn't telling the world he planned to move the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. But he took a big step in that direction. He bought the minor league L.A. Angels, and with them, the right to put a team in Los Angeles.

He bought the ballpark, too: Wrigley Field in South L.A. But it held less than 20,000 fans. Not enough for the Dodgers. So in May of 1957, O'Malley came to L.A. to scout locations for a new ballpark. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn drafted a sheriff's helicopter to give O'Malley the grand tour.

Jim Hahn: They flew the helicopter over Wrigley Field and looked at it, and as they were turning around also they flew over the Coliseum, but then they flew over Chavez Ravine.

Felde: Former L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn is the son of the late county supervisor. He remembers his father's stories about that day.

Jim Hahn:What was amazing to me, what my dad said was amazing to him, is that he thought O'Malley, being from New York City, wouldn't understand what freeways were. But he instantly saw all these freeways coming together at the famous four level, or "the stack" as we call it here downtown, and saw this big piece of vacant land, kind of a big hole there, and he said, "Well what's that?" And my dad said, "Well, that's Chavez Ravine. The city was going to build public housing there, but nothing ever happened with it." And O'Malley said, "I think you could put a ballpark in there."

Felde: The only problem was the 300 acres of Chavez Ravine weren't quite vacant. The ravine was named for Julian Chavez, who got it through a Mexican land grant. Chavez came to Los Angeles in the 1830s, after backing the wrong side in a revolution. Two decades later, when California joined the United States, Chavez became a successful L.A. city councilman and a county supervisor.

Charlotte Negrete-White: A man of honor in the city.

Felde: Charlotte Negrete-White was born in Chavez Ravine and wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on its history. She says it was another revolution that sent the next wave of immigrants to Chavez Ravine. When Mexican President Porfirio Diaz was overthrown in 1911, Negrete-White says a flood of refugees streamed over the U.S. border.

Negrete-White: If a family happened to ally themselves either with the revolutionarios or the federalistas, if you said the wrong one, you could be shot right on the spot. So people left.

Felde: Many of those refugees came to Los Angeles, and camped out on the banks of the L.A. River. L.A. lawyer Marshal Stimson, who owned property in Chavez Ravine, sold parcels of land very cheaply to these new immigrants. Negrete-White says the immigrants built houses and created a tight-knit community.

Negrete-White: Chavez Ravine was a rural, remote area somewhat removed from downtown. And they didn't seem to be bothering anybody, the city wasn't that interested in that region. So they came and they settled.

Felde: Electricity, sewers, and other services were spotty, and political clout at city hall was nil. Chavez Ravine was largely ignored. Until 1949. After the Second World War, the nation faced a severe housing shortage.

Congress passed a bill to tear down slums and build nearly a million new low income housing units all over the U.S. Los Angeles was promised $110 million. The late Frank Wilkinson was L.A.'s Assistant Housing Director.

Frank Wilkinson: We went out for three months and toured the city of L.A. both by air and by land to pick sites for the new housing. We wanted to look with our own eyes to make decisions.

Felde: Just like O'Malley would a few years later, Wilkinson focused on Chavez Ravine. Architect Richard Neutra designed two dozen 13-story towers that would rise above the city. The "Elysian Park Heights" project would house 17,000 Angelenos.

In July of 1950, a letter to the families of Chavez Ravine said surveyors would drop by to assess the value of their homes. For those who qualified for public housing, Wilkinson dangled the possibility of a brand new, Neutra-designed high rise apartment.

Wilkinson: I promised every person on that land, a letter, you'll be first in line.

Felde: But most residents didn't want to leave. Next week, we'll talk about the battle for Chavez Ravine.