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The Battle of Chavez Ravine

Thomas S. Hines, a professor of history and architecture at UCLA, is the author of "Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture" (UC Press). His most recent book is "William Faulkner and the Tangible Past: The Architecture of Yoknapatawpha."

The optimum use of Chavez Ravine has been a significant and vexing issue for nearly 50 years. At mid-century, the area was a pleasant, hidden, semi-rural Mexican American Brigadoon that, nonetheless, offered an ideal target for intensified “modernization.” In the early ‘50s, a plan for using it as an innovative housing project became the victim of McCarthyite cold warriors, who killed it because it was “socialistic” and “un-American.” In the late ‘50s, however, the city was happy to offer the land to such all-American institutions as the Police Academy and the Dodgers. Today, a substantial portion of the original acreage remains unused. Those who will now determine its future should be aware of the many missed opportunities in its turbulent past.

Under the National Housing Act of 1949, the City Council, at the urging of Mayor Fletcher Bowron, approved 11 federal projects in Los Angeles, at a cost of $110 million. The most prominent of the proposed sites, Chavez Ravine was a large tract of open land in the middle of the city, a byproduct of L.A.'s sprawling, low-density, crazy-quilt growth patterns. Because it was the choicest site, the design commission gave it to renowned architect Richard J. Neutra, and his younger associate, Robert Alexander.

Neutra had trained in his native Austria and, after World War I, apprenticed with Erich Mendelsohn in Berlin, then Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin. In 1925, he came to Los Angeles, where, after a short partnership with fellow Viennese expatriate Rudolph Schindler, he launched his own practice with the dramatic 1929 Lovell House in the Hollywood Hills, in which suspended floors and pool surged out over the hillside.

Though Neutra designed distinguished schools and commercial structures in the 1930s and 1940s, he won international celebrity with his houses and apartment buildings. His most important qualification for the Chavez Ravine assignment was his 1942 Channel Heights Public Housing project, near Los Angeles harbor. The accomplished, though less famous, Alexander had made his mark in the late ‘30s, as a member of the team that designed Baldwin Hills Village.

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The first of several paradoxes in the Chavez Ravine story was the architects’ ambivalence about changing the area. Neutra and Alexander admitted it was a “charming” neighborhood, and that its people seemed “happy” and had great pride in, and identified with, their community. The “Mexican village” was strongly Catholic, and the church and public school were vital centers of its rich urban fabric. Festivals and holidays were celebrated with esprit. Most observers commented on the lush vegetation and the lively street life. Indeed, though the planners agreed it was technically a “slum,” they felt uneasy about clearing the alleged “blight.”

The area, Neutra observed, exuded “a certain human warmth and pleasantness, a certain contact with nature which cannot be found in Harlem, N.Y., or along South Halsted Street, Chicago. The trees of the lovely mountain park have grown high around the strangest ‘blightlocked’ area that can be found in any city of America.”

Increasing urban density was the main rationale for redeveloping Chavez Ravine: Why should an area so close to the center of a city that desperately needed housing not be available to more people? Why not use the Housing Act to develop the area, without--it was hoped--destroying its rich assets? Though Neutra had personal doubts about the possibility of having it both ways, he convinced community, civic and church leaders that an equivalent richness could--and would--return in the new plan.

In the Neutra and Alexander plan for “Elysian Park Heights,” new and old streets would complement each other, major roads would skirt rather than bisect the area, most interior streets would be traffic-free cul de sacs. Housing would face inward, toward garden plots or finger parks. The buildings would be modernist in massing and detail, with the crisp elegance of Neutra’s minimalist aesthetic. This was particularly true of the project’s smaller compositions, both apartments and service structures, reminiscent of Neutra’s earlier successes with modular, low-slung, abstractly asymmetrical buildings.

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The tall, less flexible towers offered more daunting problems, since economy demanded that identical units be arranged one above the other, with common plumbing stacks. This made it even more necessary to avoid the routinely crowded siting of tall buildings in other American cities, Neutra argued. “The tall buildings here will be spaced great distances apart and in spacious groups, separated by several valleys.”

He was certain that “to bring this rejuvenated community the benefits of transportation, shopping and cultural facilities that it has never been able to support, numbers will count.” Plans included housing and facilities for approximately 17,000 people, schools, kindergartens, day nurseries, churches, a commercial section of stores and a community hall with kitchen, and indoor and outdoor auditoriums. To house 3,364 families, as opposed to the existing 1,100, there would have to be 24 13-story towers and 163 two-story structures. This would encompass 481 one-bedroom units; 1,922 two-bedroom units; 742 three-bedroom units; 202 four-bedroom units, and 18 units of five bedrooms, for larger families.

Critics immediately argued that the density was high--especially in L.A., where it radically altered the city’s historic fabric and demographic patterns. While acknowledging the validity of this critique, Neutra replied ambivalently that the potentially vulnerable “towers in the park,” if properly and imaginatively sited and designed, could become splendid symbols of a new L.A. urbanism. Simon Eisner, the team’s site planner, recalled how Neutra spent long Sunday mornings on the site with his sketch pad, imagining and rearranging the units on the hills. “However romantic it may be to dream of retaining the present charm of rural backwardness,” Neutra argued in the tougher tones of the modernist reformer, “the area cannot be redeveloped with suburban bungalows.”

Accommodating the towers on the more solid higher ground meant considerable grading and filling. This meant that virtually the entire population of the ravine had to be “temporarily” relocated, and most of their village demolished. The “substandard” housing was condemned and purchased for what was purportedly a “fair price,” but home-owners had difficulty matching the selling price of their property with the cost of a new home elsewhere, and the Housing Authority provided minimal relocation aid. The church held out longer--and for far more money.

But even as the ravine’s original tenants were being relocated and their village demolished, and just before the development plans were opened for bidding, another force entered the fray: the ominous specter of anti-communism

A cluster of groups, institutions and individuals, including the powerful California real-estate lobby, the Home Builders’ Assn., the Chamber of Commerce and, most critically, The Los Angeles Times, rose up to attack the housing project as “creeping socialism,” if not rampant communism, subverting from within the American values being defended in Korea. Though they had enthusiastically endorsed public housing in 1949, the politically expedient members of the City Council began to shift positions. Bowron, however, continued to defend the plan, supported by the League of Women Voters, union locals of the American Federation of Labor and CIO, the NAACP and various church, veterans and citizens groups.

Yet the pro-housing forces were outbought and outshouted by the “educational campaign” of the affluent, highly organized opposition. Frederick Dockweiler, chairman of the aptly acronymed Citizens Against Socialist Housing (CASH), insisted there was “one basic issue: . . . Is the program socialistic, or is it not?” On Dec. 26, 1951, the City Council voted 8-7 to cancel its contract with the Housing Authority. In 1953, after two years of court suits and red-baiting, Bowron was defeated by Norris Poulson, the anti-housing candidate, who negotiated a series of compromises that cut L.A.'s housing program in half. “Elysian Park Heights,” the most visible of the original projects, was canceled,

Cleared of most of its population, Chavez Ravine lay idle until later in the decade, when the Brooklyn Dodgers decided to move west to Los Angeles. In 1957, the city traded the 315-acre Chavez Ravine for a less central, nine-acre site the Dodgers already owned. The City Council also agreed to spend $2 million on “site improvement,” an ironic contrast to the earlier outcry against the city’s commitment to provide sewage for the housing project. On Sept. 27, 1959, ground was broken for Dodger Stadium.

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The 10-year “Battle of Chavez Ravine,” from the early debate over changing it, to the Neutra and Alexander designs for redevelopment, to its tragic embroilment in Cold War hysteria, to its final American apple-pie resolution, framed an era in American history in which creative public housing was only one of the casualties.


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