The Ugly Beginning of Dodger Stadium Provides Important Property Rights Lesson

Los Angeles Dodger Stadium

Los Angeles Dodger Stadium

Game three of the National League Championship Series will be played tonight at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. TBS play-by-play announcer Ernie Johnson and others often interchangeably refer to Dodger Stadium as Chavez Ravine. But they don’t explain the stadium’s ugly beginnings.

Two miles from downtown Los Angeles, Chavez Ravine had been used in many ways over the centuries, but in the 1940s and 1950s it was a thriving Mexican-American community. Many of the residents’ parents had fled the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The people were poor but had a great sense of community and pride in their homes.  The ravine became home to three neighborhoods, described by Don Normark as a “poor man’s Shangri-la” in his wonderful photographic chronicle of daily life in this close-knit community. Sadly, this idyllic scene did not last.

With the lure of a $110-million grant from the new National Housing Act in 1950, the Los Angeles Housing Authority began buying homes in the ravine to make room for a housing project. Most people sold and left when they were told to go. The homes of those who refused to leave were condemned as “urban blight,” and the city seized homes using eminent domain. Here the story takes an interesting twist.

In June 1953, Norris Poulson became mayor, running on a campaign to end “federal domination of the city.” He renegotiated the housing-authority contract to stop the Chavez Ravine housing project. In August 1953, the housing authority sold Chavez Ravine to the City of Los Angeles on the condition the land be used for “public purposes only.” At the same time, wealthy lawyer Walter O’Malley was in a fight with New York City officials to build a new stadium for his Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team.

In early 1957, Mayor Poulson and city and county officials met with O’Malley to offer him Chavez Ravine.  The city council transferred it to the Dodgers later that year.  On May 8, 1959, the Arechiga family was the last to leave the ravine.  Television cameras showed cops kicking in the front door of the home where they had lived for 36 years, carrying a struggling woman down the stairs.

A bulldozer later leveled the home. The mayor’s plan replaced federal domination with local domination. Construction began on the “public purpose” of a privately financed stadium for a privately owned baseball team. This transfer of private land to a private businessman was allegedly to cure urban blight. But one man’s blight can be another man’s home.

The seizure of private land by local politicians in order to transfer it to private developers—as happened in Chavez Ravine—has become even more common today because now under federal law local officials don’t even have to make a blight determination. Under the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London (2005), city officials can now grab land because they supposedly know best how to provide such “public benefits” as economic development, job growth, or higher tax revenues. (See Bruce Benson’s book on this subject published by The Independent Institute.)

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, now retired, argued that this arrangement puts the powerless at greatest risk: “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process,” she wrote.  “As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”

Kelo opened the floodgates for land grabs targeting the disenfranchised and poor. The politically connected take land and homes using some ginned-up rationale of “public benefit,” burdening poor and immigrant residents with evictions and dislocations. This is the painful lesson that should have been learned from Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium more than 50 years ago, but has yet to be learned.

Private developers should acquire land for private use the old-fashioned way: buy it from its rightful owners at a price agreeable to both sides.

Lawrence J. McQuillan is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute. He is the author of the Independent book, California Dreaming: Lessons on How to Resolve America’s Public Pension Crisis.
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