MAY 16, 2017
BRINGING THE RAMS BACK to Los Angeles took decades, but I had no idea about the bruising five-year battle waged by Walter O’Malley to build a new home for the Dodgers in 1962. Jerald Podair’s new book arrived just as the Dodgers opened their new season at the stadium that engendered such controversy.
I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles, but there were a few things I knew about the Dodgers. I knew they moved to the city from Brooklyn and that they had a big group of stellar players, like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Willie Davis. And after I moved to Los Angeles in 1991, I caught wind of the dislocation of Mexican-American families whose homes were razed to make way for the new stadium. But I didn’t know that O’Malley had made the decision to move his team and pay for the construction of a new super-stadium after visiting the city on three occasions. Nor did I know that the actual displacement of all but a handful of residents of Chavez Ravine occurred 10 years prior to the building of Dodger Stadium, when homes were cleared for a large public housing project that was never erected because of a Cold War protest against “socialized housing.” I was also surprised to learn that the Arechiga family, which had made front-page news after they moved into a tent across the street from where their house was demolished, quickly becoming the poster-family for the anti-stadium forces, actually owned seven other homes in the city, including one within walking distance of their tent. And it was fascinating to discover that the controversy over the stadium created a peculiar political environment, in which Sam Yorty — a politician described by Podair as “always on the fringes of power, perennially underfinanced, dismissed as a small timer, an opportunist, even a crank” — could topple a standing mayor backed by the Downtown elites, organized labor, the Los Angeles Times, and the Republican Party.
The book’s subtitle may be a bit of a stretch. For Podair, the battle for Dodger Stadium raises important questions about “the relationship between public and private power, the respective roles of urban core and periphery, and the modern identity of Los Angeles itself.” The battle over Dodger Stadium produced contradictory views of what the city should be. O’Malley’s supporters wanted the stadium to help revitalize a stalled Downtown and add to the cultural amenities that might push Los Angeles into the ranks of a modern city. They argued that since the team-owner was covering the cost of building the stadium, unlike other Major League stadiums built in the 1950s and 1960s, the increased property and sales tax revenue and job creation would more than compensate the city for offering land at a reasonable price. Opponents cared less about Downtown civic monuments and more about schools, public safety, and clean streets in the peripheral areas where they resided. They opposed the use of public funds to build the stadium (just as they had opposed public housing in Chavez Ravine a decade earlier), but they also opposed helping O’Malley build a stadium that would result in his financial gain.
We follow O’Malley as he “runs the bases,” trying to bring the Dodgers to Los Angeles. In order to step into the batter’s box, O’Malley had to reach an agreement with Mayor Norris Poulson, a former Republican congressman who’d been elected in 1953, and Roz Wyman, a liberal Westside Democrat who had campaigned to bring a Major League ball club to Los Angeles. At first base, O’Malley faced a divided City Council with opposition led by Councilman John Holland, a fiscal conservative from the white home-owning residential area of Eagle Rock, and Edward Roybal, a Mexican-American councilmember from Boyle Heights. After a long, contentious debate and a telephoned bomb threat, three undecided councilmembers agreed to support the Dodger deal and the motion passed by the slimmest possible margin. Getting to second base was even more challenging, as O’Malley now faced something he had never confronted in New York: a popular referendum to determine whether or not the voters of Los Angeles would support the deal. Proposition B brought out the armies on both sides, illuminating the multiple constituencies and unlikely alliances created by the controversy. Dodger backers included the Downtown business leaders, liberals from the Westside, much of Hollywood, the AFL-CIO, the Los Angeles Times, Latinos, and African Americans. Opponents were largely the sons and daughters of a group that Louis Adamic, Nathanael West, and Kevin Starr had earlier referred to as “the Folks”: thousands of Midwesterners who arrived from farms and towns and brought their fiscally conservative and Protestant values with them. They lived in modest homes in the Valley, tract houses near the airport, and the bedroom suburbs of Highland Park and Eagle Rock. They were against taxes and spending, and suspected that the Downtown elites were lining their pockets at the expense of taxpayers. A raucous campaign ensued. In the end, Proposition B was approved with slightly less than 52 percent of the vote. African-American and Latino voters moved O’Malley to second base, offsetting heavy losses in the largely white San Fernando Valley. Third base was a trip to the California Supreme Court to beat back another legal challenge. When the US Supreme Court declined to review the case, O’Malley finally reached home plate.
O’Malley built Dodger Stadium as a state-of-the-art ballpark, and its success prefigured other Downtown monuments, such as the Music Center and the Bunker Hill redevelopment. Still, the connection between Downtown and the stadium, designed in the automobile age and surrounded by a sea of parking lots, remained tenuous. And the Downtown revitalization favored by the Dodger Stadium supporters, despite impressive high-rise projects backed by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), sputtered in the 1970s and 1980s. As Christopher Hawthorne noted in his Los Angeles Times review, the real question about the relation of Downtown development and Dodger Stadium “is how much the ballpark is really of as opposed to merely near downtown.”
City of Dreams offers an L.A. version of a larger dilemma facing American cities: how to reconcile private gain in Downtown centers with public good in the city as a whole. Podair’s narrative begins in the mid-1950s, but he might have consulted Robert M. Fogelson’s seminal study of 1967, The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930, for an explanation of why Angelenos were unable to unite around O’Malley’s visionary project. In Fogelson’s view, “There was […] a more profound reason why the people of Los Angeles were unable to reconcile their ambitions for a great metropolis and their vision of the good community. They were severely handicapped by a chronic nostalgia for a bygone world.” That chronic condition continued long after Dodger Stadium was completed, as evidenced by the Council ordinance that capped the amount of money that could be spent by the CRA in Downtown, the opposition to the Staples Center, the succession referendum in the San Fernando Valley, and the recent anti-development referendum, Proposition S. Given the current scourge of homelessness and the mind-boggling shortage (and thus high cost) of non-luxury housing, how might Downtown Los Angeles have developed if the expansive public housing plan designed for Chavez Ravine by Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander had actually been built 10 years before O’Malley brought the Dodgers to L.A.? Maybe the Dodgers should have ended up in Inglewood.