An interview with Jerald Podair, author of City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles
What drew you to Los Angeles as a historical subject?
I’ve always had the native New Yorker’s outsized pride in his home city, but if New York was America’s city of the twentieth century, Los Angeles may well be its city of the twenty-first. Our national multicultural experiment—one the rest of the world is watching closely—will, for better or worse, play out in Los Angeles. So I became fascinated by the ways in which Los Angeles grew and developed during the twentieth century, especially during the years following World War II, when it began to turn outward toward the nation and world.
I also came to study Los Angeles through the equally fascinating historical figure of Walter O’Malley, who altered the historical trajectories of America’s two most important cities when he moved his Brooklyn Dodgers west in 1957. The New York portion of O’Malley’s story is well documented, the Los Angeles period much less so. O’Malley was strikingly unfamiliar with Los Angeles when he moved there—his total time spent in the city amounted to less than ten days—and he had not anticipated the serious obstacles he would face in building his new stadium. There is a myth, especially prevalent in New York, that O’Malley enjoyed smooth sailing once he arrived in Los Angeles and that the road to Dodger Stadium was an easy one. This, as I discovered, was emphatically not the case. I was drawn to writing about O’Malley and his struggles in Los Angeles as a way to understand the larger story of that city’s journey to power and status in postwar America.
And why Dodger Stadium?
No American sports venue epitomizes its home city as does Dodger Stadium. It would be out of place anywhere else. Dodger Stadium serves as a form of civic glue for a fractured, transient city. The people of Los Angeles disagree about many things, but not about Dodger Stadium. To them, it is an object of pride and fascination. So it seemed to me that Dodger Stadium would be the perfect vehicle through which to tell the story of the emergence of Los Angeles as a modern city through its signature sports venue. I’m always telling my students at Lawrence University to take a smaller (but not small) story and use it to tell a larger one. This book is an instance of taking my own advice.
You argue in your book that the battle over building Dodger Stadium was really a battle over the modern identity of Los Angeles. What do you mean by that?
The battle over Dodger Stadium divided the city of Los Angeles in half. Two clashing visions of the city’s future lay at stake. A revitalized downtown—which Dodger Stadium would anchor—was essential to the first of those visions, championed by business interests such as the Chandler family, publishers of the Los Angeles Times, and political elites led by Mayor Norris Poulson. Their Los Angeles was an ambitious city of “no little plans,” with civic institutions that matched its growing economic and cultural power. They wanted a downtown comparable to those in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles’s rival to the north, San Francisco.
But Los Angeles was also a city of what the historian Kenneth Starr has called the “Folks,” white middle class property owners with Midwestern roots who had settled in peripheral areas and who felt little connection to downtown and what it represented. To them, Dodger Stadium was a diversion of taxpayer resources—and the Folks identified very strongly as “taxpayers”—from the basic, everyday functions of government in their neighborhoods: schools, roads, policing, and sanitation. So their more circumscribed understanding of what Los Angeles should be and the purposes it should serve clashed with the vision of those who were identified, both geographically and philosophically, with downtown.
Between 1957 and 1962, Dodger Stadium served as the field of battle between these two visions of Los Angeles’s future. We know of course that the stadium was built, so the advocates of “no little plans” won that round. But even today, the argument over the city’s identity continues. Downtown Los Angeles is a much more vibrant place than it was when the Dodgers arrived in 1957, if you measure by institutions and edifices—museums, concert halls, sports arenas, restaurants, high-end apartments, and office towers—but it still lacks the coherency and depth, the soul, if you will, of more historically established downtowns. It remains a work in progress. And there are still those who, like the Folks who opposed Dodger Stadium in the 1950s and 1960s, view downtown as a drain of resources from their own communities. In many ways, they continue to see downtown Los Angeles as irrelevant to their lives. So in that sense, the argument over Dodger Stadium and the city’s modern identity continues today.
In your book, you discuss the political cultures of New York and Los Angeles in the years following World War II. How did they differ?
I think the very different political cultures of New York and Los Angeles determined that Walter O’Malley would get what he needed—affordable land on which to build his privately financed ballpark—from one city but not from the other. New York’s municipal politics in the 1950s featured a strong orientation toward the public sector and organized labor that, while not necessarily anti-capitalist in nature, did not offer an entrepreneur like O’Malley a particularly sympathetic atmosphere. This meant that when he asked for assistance from New York City officials in acquiring land parcels in Brooklyn that were beyond his individual financial means in order to construct a stadium with his own funds, he was branded—unfairly, in my view—as seeking a “giveaway.” But in Los Angeles, publicly owned land at Chavez Ravine overlooking downtown was made available to O’Malley in exchange for property he owned elsewhere in the city. Los Angeles officials were thus willing to do what their counterparts in New York were not.
In my view, this was because the political culture of Los Angeles—where the statist reforms of the New Deal had less staying power than in New York—was more hospitable to businessmen, especially one like O’Malley whose private undertaking promised to advance the public good. In New York, the focus was almost obsessively on O’Malley’s profits; that the city would benefit from a new Dodger ballpark was deemed of lesser importance. In Los Angeles, the weight accorded these considerations was reversed. In deciding a taxpayer suit seeking to void the Dodger Stadium contract in favor of O’Malley, the California Supreme Court said as much. The Dodgers were permitted to make money on the deal, the court ruled in 1959, as long as there were tangible benefits accruing to the people of Los Angeles. Those benefits—a world-class stadium, not to mention millions of dollars in property taxes paid by the privately held stadium—were enough to justify state assistance to a private entrepreneur. O’Malley moved to Los Angeles for this very reason. Although O’Malley was a businessman and not a philosopher and probably would not have used the term “political culture” to explain his decision to leave New York, this is clearly what he had in mind. Had New York’s political culture been different, he undoubtedly would have remained there. And that would have been Los Angeles’s loss, since along with Walter’s son and successor Peter, the O’Malleys are widely regarded as the best sports ownership group in the city’s history.
Why are Los Angeles politics so difficult to untangle?
One my previous books examined the byzantine politics of New York City, but I can tell you, my hometown has nothing on Los Angeles. For one thing, New York has party identifications. Los Angeles’s nonpartisan system makes it difficult to identify who belongs where. Yes, I knew that say, Mayor Norris Poulson was a Republican (he had served as a GOP congressman) and that Edward Roybal, a Mexican American city councilman who opposed the Dodger Stadium contract, was a Democrat, but there was nonetheless a disorienting quality to the political landscape that made it hard to follow.
Also unlike New York, there were few ethnoreligious identifying markers to guide me. Los Angeles had racial divides, of course, but during the 1950s it was a largely white Protestant city that lacked the deep-seated tribalism of New York. Beyond the Melting Pot, the classic book about the resilience of ethnic and racial politics in New York, could not have been written about Los Angeles. Los Angeles did not have a political machine like New York’s Tammany Hall or even a “power broker” like Robert Moses, who determined what got built in New York during the postwar years. I’m not saying that bosses and dictatorial bureaucrats are good things, of course, but they certainly make a city’s political terrain easier to “read.” Los Angeles’s politics were also relatively decentered, with media taking the place of strong party organizations and referenda (such as the 1958 vote on the Dodger Stadium contract that determined its fate) devolving power to the grassroots.
Approaching Los Angeles, I felt a bit like Walter O’Malley himself, who stepped off the plane from New York in October 1957 to encounter a Los Angeles political landscape with no parties, no machines, no power brokers, no white ethnics, and no center. Disconcerting, to say the least. But like O’Malley, once I got my bearings, I found Los Angeles a fascinating place to be. I feel that the surface of this city’s history has barely been scratched.
How does your book speak to current issues involving public financing for stadiums and arenas in cities seeking to attract or retain sports teams?
When it was completed in 1962, Dodger Stadium was the first privately funded sports venue since Yankee Stadium forty years earlier. Over the past half-century, it has earned a great deal of money for both Dodger ownership and—since it is on the tax rolls—the city and county of Los Angeles. In contrast, municipally financed stadiums invariably fail to recoup their costs in line with their projected timetables. San Francisco’s city-built Candlestick Park, which when it opened in 1960 was compared favorably with the yet-to-be-completed Dodger Stadium, took over 30 years to pay itself off, far longer than expected.
While the costs of private stadium construction are almost prohibitively high today, Dodger Stadium offers a lesson for cities seeking to build sports arenas without saddling themselves with debt or blowing up their budgets: get as much private money as you can. That is easier said than done, of course, because the threat of ownership to leave town or to reject an offer from a suitor city is omnipresent. But private financing beats public spending every time. Walter O’Malley had a personal stake in making Dodger Stadium the cleanest, most welcoming, most efficiently run and most attractive sports venue in America, because it belonged to him. He was responsible for it, good or bad. Around the same time Dodger Stadium went up, the municipally owned Shea Stadium opened in New York to house the National League’s new franchise, the Mets. Arriving well over budget, Shea Stadium was charmless and hulking, with dirty corridors and bathrooms and surly employees. The city of New York maintained it poorly. Unlike Dodger Stadium, no single individual was accountable when things went wrong at Shea Stadium, as they often did. The contrast between private and public ownership could not have been starker.
Another lesson of the Dodger Stadium story is one that many sports economists will dispute, but which I hold to nonetheless: these teams are worth keeping. Something goes out of a city’s soul when a sports franchise leaves. Certainly that was the case in New York, where aging Brooklyn Dodger fans still lament their team’s departure. For all the brave talk about “not needing” a team, after it goes there is an emptiness that even improved municipal bottom lines cannot fill. This is a distinctly non-empirical view I’m propounding, and I’m sure that “the numbers” argue against me, but to cite one example, the last time I was in Seattle I saw “bring back the Sonics” signs in windows, years after their NBA team left for Oklahoma City. Ask Seattle fans—and the city ardently pursued a replacement team a while back—how the money they saved when the Sonics left town feels jingling around in their pockets. It’s cold comfort. They want their team back. Similarly, ask Brooklyn fans what they’d do if they could do it all over again in 1957. The “let them leave” bravado would vanish. They’d want their Dodgers back. They’re baseball fans, not accountants.
Are you a Dodgers fan?
No, I’m actually a lifelong (and long-suffering) fan of the New York Mets, who are the spiritual successors of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team I am too young to remember personally. But studying and writing about Dodger Stadium—for my money, America’s most beautiful ballpark—has certainly pulled me in the direction of its featured attraction. When you’re sitting in the upper deck at Dodger Stadium at dusk on a summer night in LA with the organ music playing and the San Gabriel Mountains beckoning in the distance, it’s hard not to root for the home team.