A look inside City of Dreams

A look inside City of Dreams

By Jerald Podair

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On April 10, 1962, amid ceremony and celebration, Dodger Stadium, major league baseball’s modern showpiece, opened in Los Angeles, California. It was a day of pride and accomplishment for Walter O’Malley, the fifty-eight-year-old owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had moved his team from Brooklyn, New York, in 1957 in order to build the ballpark of his dreams, one with every possible amenity and convenience. Now here it stood in the former Chavez Ravine neighborhood, a beautiful setting overlooking downtown Los Angeles to the south and the San Gabriel Mountains to the north.

The city of Los Angeles also had reason to be proud. It had attracted the Brooklyn Dodgers, a storied and successful baseball franchise, with the promise of the finest stadium in America. Here it was, adorned in vibrant earth-to-sky colors, with unobstructed field views and the biggest and most technologically advanced scoreboard in the game. It was already being called the wonder of the baseball world, a grand civic monument befitting a world-class city. O’Malley, the Dodgers, and Los Angeles had done it.

But at what cost? Between 1957 and opening day 1962, Dodger Stadium divided Los Angeles in deep and profound ways. It raised the question of the city’s modern identity. How would it best serve and govern its citizens? How would it present itself to the nation and world? Opponents of the stadium objected to what they viewed as a giveaway of public property—the land at Chavez Ravine on which the stadium would be constructed—for the personal gain of a private individual. Supporters argued that the public benefits derived from the stadium in the form of property tax revenues, jobs, entertainment, and civic improvement justified O’Malley’s profits. They also envisioned Dodger Stadium as an important step in revitalizing Los Angeles’s lackluster downtown area and as one of the cultural amenities that marked the emergence of a sophisticated and modern city. Stadium critics rejected the idea that a great American city required a central core studded with civic monuments. They argued instead for a Los Angeles that performed the basic tasks of urban life, concentrating tax resources on neighborhoods in need of schools, streets, sanitation, and safety.

The disagreements over Dodger Stadium and these larger issues were fought out across the political and social landscape of Los Angeles between 1957 and 1962. There was a citywide referendum on the stadium project, a series of taxpayer lawsuits filed against the stadium contract, and a racially charged eviction of residents from the land on which the stadium was to be built. The battles took place in City Council chambers, at the ballot box, in newspapers and over the airwaves, in the courts, and sometimes in the streets. In the end, Dodger Stadium was built. But the arguments surrounding it did not end on that gala opening day. The questions it raised about the relationship between public and private power, the respective roles of urban core and periphery, and the modern identity of Los Angeles itself would remain long after April 10, 1962. Dodger Stadium was not the only venue on which the battle between differing visions of the city was contested. But as one of the very first such battlegrounds, it holds both tangible and symbolic importance. If the questions Dodger Stadium presented to the citizens of Los Angeles have not been answered definitively in the succeeding five decades of the city’s history—and they have not—here is where they began. It is where an understanding of Los Angeles as a modern American city begins as well.

The struggle over Dodger Stadium made for unlikely political allies. In part this can be attributed to the vagaries of Los Angeles’s nonpartisan electoral system, which blurred party distinctions in the minds of voters. But it was also a product of differing views of the city’s identity and destiny, which crossed lines of race, class, and ideology and brought strange bedfellows together. Opposition to the Dodger contract united a white conservative Republican small businessman and a Latino liberal Democrat on the Los Angeles City Council. Among the contract’s most ardent supporters were the city’s mayor—the classic representative of business-oriented “Downtown” Republicanism—and a Jewish left-of-center Democratic councilwoman from Downtown’s rival power center, the Westside.[1]

What drove proponents and critics of the 1957 City Council ordinance providing for the transfer of publicly owned land at Chavez Ravine to the Dodgers for the construction of Dodger Stadium were as much cultural visions as political ones. Dodger Stadium became the locus for an argument between those who envisioned Los Angeles as an everyday city of neighborhoods and services and others who saw it as a modern, growth-focused city with a vibrant central core featuring civic institutions that announced themselves to the nation and world.

They also disagreed over the role of the state in the life and culture of Los Angeles. Again, Dodger Stadium crystallized the differences between growth advocates who believed it was appropriate to offer state resources to private businesses that promised to generate taxable revenues and public benefits for the city—in addition to the substantial profits envisioned by their owners—and those who opposed public sector gifts to entrepreneurs which made the rich even richer. What kind of city would Los Angeles be? One built around the provision of basic services to communities and average citizens? Or a city with global dreams and the physical structures to match them? The battle over Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles’s first truly modern entertainment venue, would be crucial in answering these questions.

The issues of where to build the Dodgers’ new ballpark, who would build it, and who would pay for it thus extended beyond sports and into the bloodstream of the city as a whole. Dodger Stadium, perched on a hill only a mile from City Hall, would be the most significant addition to the downtown area in decades. By 1957, the year of the Dodgers’ arrival, downtown Los Angeles was a work-and-flee zone, a place in which white middle-class Angelenos earned a living by day and then abandoned at night. The city’s business establishment, notably the Chandler family of the Los Angeles Times, owned a substantial amount of real estate in the downtown area, and thus had much to lose from declining property values there; between 1920 and 1950, downtown’s share of the city’s retail trade had dropped from 90 percent to 17 percent.1

Bunker Hill, downtown’s main residential neighborhood, was home to a diverse working- and lower-class population. Municipal government officials, headquartered in the adjoining Civic Center, and downtown business and professional leaders, from their nearby offices, regarded Bunker Hill as an embarrassing eyesore. They viewed Dodger Stadium as the first step toward the revitalization of downtown, which they envisioned in the image of more established cities—New York, Chicago, and even San Francisco, Los Angeles’s rival to the north. These downtowns combined commerce, culture, and leisure. They also offered close-in residential neighborhoods—Greenwich Village, the Gold Coast, Nob Hill—that permitted middle- and upper-class white urbanites to enjoy the richness of downtown metropolitan life. Supporters of the Dodger Stadium project filtered their hopes for Los Angeles’s new downtown through this lens of cosmopolitanism.

But their opponents feared the implications of a revitalized downtown for their own Los Angeles. In the neighborhoods on the city’s peripheries, the defining issues were more practical and prosaic. They concerned basic services—roads, schools, sanitation, police, and housing. Here there were no great visions for Los Angeles’s downtown, only worries that their needs and their neighborhoods would be sacrificed in the name of downtown’s rebirth. Dodger Stadium, which in their view exacted an extraordinarily high price in diverted public resources, epitomized that unjust sacrifice. The battle against the construction of Dodger Stadium symbolized the revolt of the margins—geographic, social, economic—against perceived centers of power and, indeed, the idea of a center itself.

In keeping with the breadth and complexity of the alliances for and against the stadium, the term “margins,” as applied to Dodger Stadium opponents, took on a similar multidimensionality. It included both racial and ethnic minorities in positions of social and economic disadvantage and those we are less accustomed to view as marginalized—white middle-class homeowners and apartment dwellers residing in peripheral areas of the city. These Angelenos felt cut off from the downtown area in the literal sense, living miles away with little geographic connection to it. But they also felt disconnected from what that area represented: the wealthy, the powerful, and the insiders whose successes and privileges seemingly had come at their expense.

There were a number of ways to be marginalized in the Los Angeles of the 1950s and early 1960s, and the deal to build Dodger Stadium came to embody the resentments and anxieties of a diverse group of citizens. For Latinos, the construction of the stadium on the site of a long-standing, traditional Mexican American community at Chavez Ravine that had originally been uprooted in the early 1950s for a never-built public housing project engendered strong feelings of disempowerment and loss. The forced removal in 1959 of the last of Chavez Ravine’s families from the land by sheriff’s deputies, televised live across the city, served as an impetus for the political and cultural radicalization of the broader Latino community in the 1960s and beyond. The working- and lower-class residents of Bunker Hill who lost their dwellings to a massive redevelopment project that, like Dodger Stadium, was supported by Downtown political, business, and real estate interests were estranged from power centers whose offices they could see from their own windows. Even the middle-class white homeowners and small businessmen of outlying areas such as the rapidly growing San Fernando Valley had reason to resent the Downtown establishment, which spent their tax money on projects that redirected resources from their neighborhoods.

All of these marginalized constituencies channeled their anger at perceived elites into the movement to stop Dodger Stadium from being built. This anger was expressed variously in racial, cultural, and class-related terms, but its common denominator was a rejection of a government-business nexus of special accommodation that excluded them. It found a voice in an anti-stadium movement that would employ a citywide referendum, a series of taxpayer lawsuits, and acts of civil disobedience against a stadium that had come to embody a vision of a modern Los Angeles from which they also felt marginalized.

The term “modern,” of course, can carry a host of meanings, some so theoretically dense as to render them almost useless. Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s was a rapidly growing metropolitan area with an ambitious civic and business class eager for it to shed its provincial reputation and take on the attributes associated with the modern and with the more established American cities to which its members aspired. These included civic edifices and cultural institutions situated in vibrant and sophisticated central core areas. Their understanding of modern was thus somewhat derivative, based as it was on what other cities had achieved. It can be argued, of course, that the modern encompasses more than buildings arrayed around a newly reconfigured downtown area. But civic leaders, be they businessmen or elected officials, are rarely theoreticians or philosophers. They live in the world of the possible and the tangible, and define ideas through what they can see and touch. For Los Angeles’s political and economic leadership class, this meant physical structures, of which Dodger Stadium would be the first to appear.

Realizing the desire of Los Angeles’s leadership class for the city to be modern, to possess what New York, Chicago, and San Francisco already had, would come at a cost in spending, tax revenues, land, housing, and broken community bonds. These costs would largely be borne by others, notably minorities and working- and middle-class whites who opposed Dodger Stadium and with it Los Angeles’s rise to modernity. Their vision of a workaday city that provided basic services for its neighborhoods was at odds with the grander dreams of the modernists. The struggle over Dodger Stadium between 1957 and 1962 was their battle as well.

Dodger Stadium was the type of entertainment venue that modern cities possessed. It was the kind of civic venue that modern downtowns possessed. Los Angeles voters had rejected a proposed bond issue for a municipally constructed baseball stadium in 1955. The only viable alternative was a privately financed ballpark built by the owner of an existing major league team willing to relocate. By October 1957, Los Angeles had that owner and team, in Walter O’Malley and the Brooklyn Dodgers. But O’Malley did not have the financial resources to build a stadium without at least some form of government assistance. He would require a favorable land deal, with property made available at a price he could afford. He had left New York, his lifelong home, because municipal officials there had refused to take steps to allow him to build on the ballpark site he favored. Chavez Ravine, the site O’Malley desired in Los Angeles, was owned by the city. If city officials offered this property to the Dodgers on favorable terms, the new stadium could be built and the city of Los Angeles could have its first modern icon.

But was it fair for the city to make what some viewed as a gift of valuable land to a private businessman to use for his personal benefit? One that would, moreover, enhance real estate values in the adjoining downtown area, rewarding business elites such as the Chandlers? And one that would inevitably siphon off resources that could have been used to pave a road in a San Fernando Valley neighborhood or build a school in East Los Angeles? The battle over Dodger Stadium was thus a debate over whether Los Angeles would become a modern city of grand civic monuments and a vital downtown or a decentered city of functioning neighborhoods and communities. When Walter O’Malley made the decision to move his team to Los Angeles, a city he had visited only three times in his life, he did not intend to animate such a debate. He wished merely to build a baseball stadium. But however inadvertently, he made that stadium the center of a struggle over the future of his adopted city, one that would shape its identity for decades to come. This is the story of that stadium and that struggle.

About the Author

Jerald Podair is professor of history and the Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is the author of The Strike That Changed New York and Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer.


[1]* The term “downtown,” as used in this book, refers to its geographic area. When capitalized as “Downtown” it denotes a locus of political, economic, cultural, and social power in the affairs of the city of Los Angeles.