Echo Park Holiday Gift Guide: Chavez Ravine, 1949

Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story

If you have lived in Echo Park for a serious length of time, you probably long for some kind of time capsule, one that holds dozens, maybe even hundreds, of photographs of our neighborhood: its people, its buildings, its landscape, its mementos. Those images would reveal the things that have disappeared over the decades that we can’t quite remember clearly or missed out on entirely.

Chavez Ravine, the area next to Elysian Park where Dodger Stadium now stands, was obliterated in the 1950s. But it has lived on as a sort of symbol of the cruelty of mid-20th century urban renewal. Fortunately for L.A., a time capsule from that community does exist, one created by a 20-year-old from Seattle.

In 1949, photographer Don Normark spent months taking pictures of the working-class, largely Mexican-American neighborhood of Chavez Ravine. The already talented photographer, who went on to work for Sunset Magazine and other publications, had no idea at the time that the village of around 300 families would soon be erased. In 1997, Normark showed a stack of 100 photographs to the former denizens of Chavez Ravine, allowing them to reacquaint themselves with a neighborhood that lived only in their memories.

The result was Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story, a captivating book of interviews and black-and-white photos on the neighborhood that was razed, first to make way for housing projects, then a major league sports stadium.

The images in Chavez Ravine, 1949 show slices of life: a goat grazing on a hillside; a schoolgirl in her confirmation dress; a man repairing a tire; children outside Palo Verde School, which was shuttered and then entombed in dirt, covered up completely as Dodger Stadium was constructed.

Chavez Ravine, 1949 can be bought or ordered from such booksellers as Stories in Echo Park and Skylight Books in Los Feliz.  For those looking to delve deeper, there is a 24-minute documentary available on DVD, which has appeared previously on public television.

Also available is Chavez Ravine: A Record by Ry Cooder, the album that serves both as a tribute to the neighborhood and a trip through 1950s Los Angeles — the Red Scare, UFO sightings and the characters that populated the city: real estate developer Fritz Burns, architect Richard Neutra, LAPD Chief William H. Parker.

Released by Nonesuch Records, Cooder’s 15-track album features a wide range of musicians and performers from East Los Angeles and elsewhere. Its songs are in English and Spanish, recreating the stories about the neighborhood swept away, first to make a (never built) public housing project, then a major league stadium.

On his record label’s web site, the guitarist, singer and composer said he misses aspects of old L.A. — “the texture of certain older neighborhoods, like Bunker Hill, a rural feel in urban places, like Chávez Ravine and the timbre of life there, and just peace and quiet.”

Finally, Cooder also explores the city’s past in “Los Angeles Stories,” his first collection of fiction. The tales are set in the 1940s and 1950s in some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. As he promoted the book last year, Cooder mused on the way things rapidly disappear in L.A.

“I don’t know any place as susceptible to this as Los Angeles,” he told the L.A. Weekly. “You can go away for two weeks or five days. When you come back, it’s ‘Where did that corner go? Where did that tree go?'”

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