“Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers,
and the Lives Caught in Between”
The publishing info:
Released March 24
The review in 90 feet or less
We can reach out and grab this book that came out 20 years ago by photographer Don Normark, who had walked the hills of Los Angeles 50 years prior to that, in the late ’40s, and said he had discovered this place he called a “poor man’s Shangri-la.”
When musician Ry Cooder did a 2005 concept album called “Chavez Ravine,” he used that phrase as the title of one song.
That’s in Chapter 67 of “Stealing Home.” But before we get there, today, we have to acknowledge these truths to be self evident:
Chavez Ravine is a different kind of Shangri-la.
Chavez Ravine may have a Wikipedia page, but it isn’t marked on any L.A. map. Chavez Ravine has no geographic boundary.
Chavez Ravine is “a place, but it isn’t,” Eric Nusbaum writes in the intro. “It is really a code word for the mysteries and pleasures of baseball. It is the metaphysical plane upon which Dodger Stadium exists, slightly outside the realm of daily life in the city. It is a state of mind. It is a vibe. …
“The real history is less like a fable and more like the story of a crime that Los Angeles perpetuated on itself.”
Let that soak in like a long, muddy rain delay.
What is on a Google map, however, is a nub of Malvina Avenue that still exists going up into the Los Angeles Police Department Academy, right off Academy Road. It’s like an appendage.
There are things we know, and things we think we know about this area. There’s the famous array of photographs showing Abrana Archiga’s family being physically taken away from 1771 Malvina Avenue, a home she and her late husband had built in 1922. Online photo archives are full of these shots taken by newspaper photographers at the time.
And now that house is “buried somewhere underneath the distant parking lots of what is now Dodger Stadium,” writes Nusbaum. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. But it is.”
This is one of several entry points Nusbaum uses to re-introduce many of us to a story that’s been told in various ways, on various platforms, but perhaps not so much from this narrative.
As we have been conditioned, Chavez Ravine can sound like a great place that Vin Scully and others have described to us “in a sort of sweet, folksy way … when Vin Scully says something, it is like God speaking. His voice is ambient in the Southern California air. It is the voice inside your head.”
Perhaps Dodger Stadium is really “a heightened sense of being that you achieve when you visit,” complete with palm trees, and great sunsets and the San Gabriel Mountains … It’s not much different from the game itself, created from mythology by Abner Doubleday and Albert Spaulding, conjuring patriotism and capitalism into ingenuity.
But in L.A., the nasty history shouldn’t be covered over by dirt. And Nusbaum excavates it in a distinct, proficient and prolific manner.
Officially, we learn again that Chavez Ravine, named after a developer Julian Chavez (who didn’t even own that piece of land, but some others by the nearby Los Angeles River), came from an area assigned by the Stone Quarry Hills back in the early 1900s that was actually parts of five sections. It was never a community, per se. It now is something to generically covering what was once the neighborhoods of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop.
Neighborhoods that are long gone. Under asphalt, through many people’s faults.
“They were erased,” Nusbaum adds. “First, they were physically erased by powerful forces beyond the control of their residents. Then they lost their names: They became part of Chavez Ravine.”
And in those first few paces, the history lesson begins. Far from an academic lecture forcing the reader to trip over footnotes, citations and other pebbles in the way. It’s a non-fiction story as accurately portrayed as research allows and human empathy preserves.
Why was it this parcel of land used for the stadium, which opened in 1962? What was it originally intended to be? Why didn’t that happen? Each chapter is important in laying the concrete foundation for what came next.
To Nusbaum, it circles back to the importance of a man named Frank Wilkinson – someone who spoke to Nusbaum’s Culver City High School in 2002 at an assembly and flat-out said: “Dodger Stadium should not exist.”
Nusbaum adds: “There are a million reasons why, yet all those reasons are precisely what give the stadium its power.”
The heroic work of this victim of the Red Scare that who died at 91 in 2006 is the real prize find and personal link in this path, as Nusbaum says his intent is to “provide an intimate look at the journeys and motivations of its principal characters and a sweeping impression of a city and the two countries to which is belonged.”
He feels, and really is, uniquely qualified as a journalist who has worked in the U.S. and Mexico, a native Angelino who believes the story of my city “has too often been told through the gaze of writers perched firmly on the East Coast and peering west as if through a pair of binoculars,” and his desire to work on this ever since that day Wilkinson visited his school.
“The story broke my heart. I struggled to reconcile that Dodger Stadium … which was a source of pain to so many people. … For all its magic, Frank Wilkinson was right: Dodger Stadium should not exist. This book is my attempt to tell the story of why it does.”
It breaks your heart and opens your eyes in the same organic time frame, moved along as well by the fabulous black-and-white dot illustrations by Adam Villacin add to the grit and soul. No photographs are needed as these add to feel of a novel and create an emotional attachment.
As Nusbaum reveals, if this all was creating a plotline for a script to be written about what really happened, we’d need to fill roles for people like Walter O’ Malley, the Arechiga family, Willie Davis, Duke Snider, the Cabral family, Norman Chandler, Clifford Clinton (who started Clifton’s Cafeteria), Ed Davenport, Victoria “Tolina” Augustain, Councilmen John Holland, Ed Roybal and Roz Wyman, Howard Holtzendorff, Joseph McCarthy, Monsignor Thomas O’Dwyer, Jorge Pasquel, Emil Praeger, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and maybe even a lawyer named Phill Silver.
It will also make you think more than twice next time you enter or exit the ballpark when things get back to playing the 2020 season. As you cut through traffic and head down Bishops Road to get to Broadway and escape through the gates of Chinatown. As you maneuver through Boyston Street to enter through Gate C. As you cruise Solano Avenue or Solano Canyon Drive to find a parking spot near the Police Academy. As you go down the Golden State Freeway and look north to the L.A. River. It’s all still there. Echoing.
A Q&A with the author
From his home in Tacoma, Wash., the L.A. native — born in West Hollywood, grew up in Culver City, came back to live here when his wife went to grad school at UCLA — Nusbaum explained how difficult it was to get any publisher on board with this project.
“They thought it was too esoteric, no one would care outside of L.A., but that’s what a book like this faces from those who decide things on the East Coast,” said Nusbaum. “I had been working on a different project, about the history of Los Angeles freeways and did a proposal. The editor liked it but wasn’t sure, but it happened to be they were looking for a ‘Dodger book’ at the time, so I had this one.”
As Dodger Stadium continues a reconstruction project to expand the pavilion seating and create a “front door” to the place, Nusbaum thought the timing was also perfect for the city leaders and team owners to reconcile this history. He explains more:
As you kept pulling out information about on this mountainside, did that compel you to keep digging deeper and deeper? What caused you to stop and then start on this story?
It was hard to stop digging, to be honest. I was researching up until the very end of writing. I don’t think you ever reach a point where you know everything about a subject. But you also make choices when you’re writing a book — and I think a lot of the toughest choices are about what not to include.
Can you blame a Vin Scully or others for giving “Chavez Ravine” a kind of esoteric georgraphic reference considering how people must still feel as they drive up the hill into the parking lot and see this stadium unfold?
I will definitely never blame Vin Scully for accurately describing Dodger Stadium! Dodger Stadium is idyllic. What was he supposed to do? Pretend the Dodgers were playing in a dump? Walter O’Malley’s whole vision was to create a baseball stadium that was beautiful and magical. He was a visionary, and he succeeded wildly at creating a special place. I think O’Malley was lucky that Vin Scully could translate the beauty — the “cotton candy skies” — to multiple generations of fans. And honestly, I think as fans, we’re lucky we got to have Vin Scully describing the stadium to us, in addition to the baseball that was being played inside.
How much could you and did you draw upon things that have already been written or presented in the media about Chavez Ravine? Were many of those things just background to what you wanted to do with your presentation here?
It was very scary to tell, because it’s been told a lot. I felt I had to prove it was worth giving it another look. At the start of the book I wrote that ‘Stealing Home’ would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the other work on this subject that came before mine. I definitely could not have written this book in a world where nobody else had done research, and thought deeply about these events; if other writers and historians had not interviewed residents from the communities and other key figures involved. In every place I could, I tried to do my own primary source research, and my own interviews. In other places, I tried to rely on first-hand accounts, and sources like newspapers. I also tried to draw my own conclusions about the historical forces and individual actions that led the city of L.A. to essentially replace three vibrant communities in the hills north of downtown with a privately owned baseball stadium. I only hope that ‘Stealing Home’ offers people a chance to access this story in a way that will resonate with them both emotionally and intellectually.
Will you ever think or feel the same way going to Dodger Stadium? Do you feel resentment? Disappointment?
The first time I learned about this story, I was 16 years old and a diehard Dodger fan, and I was absolutely shaken. It was an awakening to learn that something I loved very much could be a source of great pain to someone else. I think that was the moment when my feelings changed the most. So it’s hard to say that all of a sudden, writing the book suddenly changes the way I feel going to games. I still love going to games. But I would also be lying if I didn’t say that getting to know the families whose homes were taken from them didn’t change the way I thought about it. When I go to games now, I have a much more visceral understanding of what used to be where the stadium is. I can feel the loss.
On the flip side, I think I appreciate the architecture and design of the stadium more than I would have before. I think it’s OK to appreciate Dodger Stadium, and I would even go so far as to say that you appreciate it more when you understand everything that it represents. I hope Dodger fans who read the book might take the time to think about it a little more deeply. It’s OK to criticize the things you love.
What if Dodger Stadium did what Petco Park has done – create a museum in the park that shows the history of the land what was once where this stadium rests? Could that be done in a proper way?
First off, that would require Dodgers ownership to formally acknowledge what happened in the late 1950s in LA — something that I think the team and the city government should both do immediately. But it would also require approaching the folks who used to live in Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop, and leveling with them, and getting them on board. I can’t state this strongly enough: it is not up to me whether that can be done in a proper way. In this instance, it is up to the families — Los Desterrados — to decide what is proper.
What else have you found in your research post-writing that could be added to future editions or be used elsewhere to add even more context and texture? What’s been some reaction to this so far?
I’m not sure about future editions, but I will say that it’s been fascinating to watch the stadium and arena drama unfolding in Inglewood in the course of reporting, writing, and now publishing this book. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
As for reactions, I’ve been surprised to learn how few people outside of L.A. know the story. People seem to only be aware of the story of the Dodgers moving west from a New York or Brooklyn perspective. I’m hoping we can change that.
So, as you see what’s going on Inglewood with the new SoFi Stadium for the NFL and how it affected that neighborhood, you saw how Staples Center was built 20 years ago and revived that part of downtown L.A. Is gentrification is a new red-flag word that wasn’t used in the 1950s when Dodger Stadium was built?
It’s not a perfect analogy here. Dodger Stadium was so sprawling. It took decades for this to play out. In terms of what a city prioritizes and who has the power to make things happen, that hasn’t changed. I read now a days in the L.A. Times about city council members taking bribes from real estate developers. It reads like something out of the 1950s. A lot of this is a hard thing to stop or to mitigate. I’m not a policy person. But it is unfair for people come into your community and raise rents and make a neighborhood you were comfortable in now be uncomfortable. I think that happens all over all L.A. and in every city eventually.
How do you think this book will be received by fans? Will they look at the stadium and maybe be more enlightened, tell their kids about its history?
I don’t think you have to hate the Dodgers because this happened. I don’t hate the city of L.A. because it happened — and you could argue that the city is the most responsible party. It’s complicated. What happened was wrong, but I don’t think that knowing it was wrong is a bad thing. It’s good for people to talk about all this. Talking about it, and thinking about it should strengthen the bond between the city and the franchise and the people of LA. This story is emblematic of how L.A. grew. I don’t believe that the Dodgers or the city should shy away from the truth, even if it’s messy.
How it goes in the scorebook
A steam shovel full of accolades are in store for this excavation project of historic importance. For as many “average” to “good try” baseball books we come across over the last 10-plus years in this series, when somethings knocks you sideways like this with more depth and perseverance and a cause, it has to be lifted higher and championed. This is one of them.
To prove this story is never far from the soul of those who know Southern California’s history, those natives skeptical of mythology and seeking some truths after 60-plus years, we present this Jan. 26 letter to the editor posted in the L.A. Times that went like this:
“I have had it with some of the Dodger faithful demanding that their team be awarded the 2017 World Series title because the Houston Astros cheated. Nothing in life is guaranteed, even if you take away one team’s ability to cheat.
“But if we want to talk about cheating, let’s go back to before 1962 and revisit the land grab by the city of Los Angeles so the Dodgers could build their stadium.
“The land on which Dodger Stadium and the surrounding parking lot sit was cleared because the city cheated people out of their homes. There are pictures of young men being dragged out of their homes by police and mothers being arrested as their young children look on. When the last member of a family was thrown out the door, the bulldozers would move in.
“I believe that cheating scandal trumps every argument for the Dodgers deserving anything, let alone an unearned World Series championship. Past misdeeds have a way of coming back to haunt us.”
== Homer Alba, Glendale
Take all that for what it is, visually and all those platforms bring. But the depth is in the research that Nusbaum has here. If you’re into collecting artifacts of the Chavez Ravine area – and if you still choose to call it that – than this book is an essential part of that storytelling now.
== We’ve become used to watching a series on KCET called “Lost L.A.” that takes us back to how places such as Griffith Park or Venice Beach came into being. KCET did its own version of the story closer to what Nusbaum has here, and PBS.org lists references for those who want to read more.
== Back to the beautiful Ry Cooder album, another haunting song called “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium,” with the lyrics:
“Back around the 76 ball, Johnny Greeneyes had his shoeshine stall
“In the middle of the 1st base line, got my first kiss, Florencia was kind
“Now, if the dozer hadn’t taken my yard, you’d see the tree with our initials carved
“So many moments in my memory. Sure was fun, ’cause the game was free
“It was free”
== As recently as 2017, “City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles” by Jerald Podair landed (an L.A. Times review) with all sorts of background on what happened (our review has disappeared from the Internet).
== The official Walter O’Malley website even excerpted parts of it that pertained to those residents who were evicted to make room for the park.
Updated reviews of note
== From Reason.com: “Nusbaum demonstrates the caprice with which municipal leaders used that power, shifting their priorities rapidly from a project aimed at expanding the city’s housing stock to one aimed at assuring its big-league status. Nusbaum employs the well-known story of Dodger Stadium’s origins to craft a compelling social, political, and cultural history of postwar Los Angeles. The result is a cautionary tale about the dangers of eminent domain, and of municipal authorities’ power to reshape communities in the name of grand civic enterprises.”
== An interview with Nusbaum from L.A. Review of Books: “Whose Utopia Gets to be Built.”