Inspired by Eric Nusbaum’s Stealing Home

I was born in El Salvador in 1980 and came to Los Angeles when I was eight years old. I fell in love with baseball instantly. My first visit to Dodger Stadium is firmly planted in my brain. I went with my cousin and our uncle to a Saturday afternoon game. Upon entry, I got a free baseball helmet. I had a smile on my face that only grew larger when I stepped onto the stairs of our section to make our way down to the seats.

I didn’t know it then but the field at Dodger Stadium opens up like no other. Perhaps it’s that you make your way down to the field rather than up to your seats. Perhaps it’s the palm trees, mountains, and clear skies visible beyond the stadium. Either way, it feels as magical today as it did when I was eight. We sat in the turquoise seats just under the upper deck section. The grass was the greenest I had ever seen and the players were on the field playing catch like children on a weekend afternoon just below at Elysian Park.

As I got older, my fondness for baseball, the Dodgers, and Los Angeles continued to grow. The story I eventually learned was that the Dodgers and the city of Los Angeles worked together to force out the citizens who lived on the land where Dodger Stadium now stands. I knew most of the people living on that land were Mexican immigrants or children of immigrants. I knew because of those events, Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles were unable to cheer for the Dodgers for years. I knew Fernando Valenzuela was a big reason that changed. Even knowing the background, I never felt as close to the events and the people of the area as I do now after reading Eric Nusbaum’s book, Stealing Home.

Stealing Home by Eric Nusbaum

It’s not always easy to see how one event or the life of a single person can create something larger as it unfolds in real time. The way Stealing Home separates the overarching storyline replicates this. Each chapter of the book is disconnected from the previous one and focuses on a different character going through their own journey. As you read on, the chapters are pieces of a larger puzzle; each character playing a role in the construction of Dodger Stadium.

While there are many people involved in the saga that ultimately brings the Dodgers to Los Angeles, Stealing Home centers around three main figures: Abrana Arechiga, Frank Wilkinson, and Walter O’Malley. They did not know each other on a personal level but their lives are forever intertwined with Los Angeles, the city’s deep connection to the Dodgers, and Dodger Stadium.

Most of the time I skip the preface of every book and go right to the first chapter of the actual story. Stealing Home is different. It kicks off with a quote from Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo and from that point, the book beckons you to read every word.

This town is full of echoes. It seems like they are caught in the cracks of the walls, or under the stories. When you are walking, it seems like they follow your steps. You hear crackling, and laughter. Some laughs are quite old, as though they are tired of laughing. And voices that are worn out from being used so long. You hear all this. Someday the time will come when these sounds fade away.

Juan Rulfo

Hidden in the Heart of the City

If you live in Boston, you pass Fenway Park often. The same is true of Wrigley in Chicago, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Oracle Park in San Francisco, and many other major league parks. Dodger Stadium is unlike those parks. One could live in Los Angeles and never see Dodger Stadium up close if they have no interest in baseball. It sits atop a hill within a 600-acre city park. On the south and west, the multiple parking lots separate the stadium from the rest of Elysian Park like a moat. The 110 and 5 freeways slice Elysian Park from the rest of Los Angeles on the north and east. Cars in the crawling traffic can spot the lights of the stadium if they look up the hills.

Dodger Stadium is only about two miles away from the buildings that make up the Los Angeles skyline. In any other town, it would be considered part of downtown. But in Los Angeles, a city made up of neighborhoods spread in every direction and a center fractured by concrete—encased rivers, bridges, freeways—Dodger Stadium lives in total seclusion in the heart of the city. One must wish to find it in order to see it.

And this is the way the hills of Elysian Park have always been. Long before Dodger Stadium existed, it was a hidden neighborhood. Actually, as Nusbaum points out, it was three neighborhoods: Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop.

The roads in Elysian Park were mostly dirt. The city ignored those hills. This is where Mexican immigrants and others unable or unqualified to live elsewhere went to start a home. The city was all too happy to ignore the areas. Without their knowledge, the communities thrived. They purchased land legally, built homes with their own hands, and raised families. Their families redefining what it was to be American while the white majority in control of the city ignored them. From atop those hills, the people could see the growing city. They were in the heart of the city while the city shunned them. They looked down on the city from the hills while the rest of the city looked down on them.

The communities were in Los Angeles, but they were invisible: both physically, tucked away into the hills, and metaphorically. They were places that white city leaders preferred to just ignore. The population was about 85 percent Mexican or Mexican American; beyond that was a diverse smattering of African American households, white households, and immigrants, mostly from Europe.

Eric Nusbaum, Stealing Home, p. 40

The Assaults of 1943

If the residents of these neighborhoods began to do enough to get noticed, they were usually pushed back into obscurity with force. One example of this began June 3, 1943. World War II led to acceptable acts of hate and racism masked as patriotism. Wars tend to do that. The neighborhoods in Elysian Park had a police academy just north and a Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Armory to the south. In the words of Nusbaum, on that night and the next four, “sailors spilled out of the armory on Chavez Ravine Road in a convoy of taxis and into the streets of downtown and East Los Angeles, though not Palo Verde itself.”

Former Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Armory. Later renamed Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center. Now serves as the a Fire Department Training Center.

The sailors came down with bats, clubs, and any other blunt objects they could find. As the violence continued, they were joined by off-duty police officers and civilians. They initially went after Latinos in zoot suits out for the night. Zoot suiters were beat down and often stripped of their clothes. Soon, the mob was beating Latinos anywhere they found them and eventually went after African Americans and other people of color. It was an all-out race war, an attack on anybody who was not white. The name forever attached to the heinous event is the Zoot Suit Riots.

Police Academy in Elysian Park

The people received no help during this week. Immigrants were trying to come out of the shadows, out of the secluded hills, and the city was determined to push them back into hiding. The Los Angeles Police Department watched everything unfold. When a beating was over, officers arrested each victim rather than the perpetrators of the crime. And each day the Los Angeles Times celebrated what was happening as if the sailors were cleaning up the city. One of the chapters in Stealing Home outlines the assaults of that week through the eyes of residents of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. Vincent de Nava’s journey home is particularly poignant.

The story of Vincent de Nava took on a kind of fable quality: he was caught downtown by sailors from the armory and stripped of his suit and beaten and bloodied. “They tore him right up,” said Gene Cabral. They took his pants and everything. To get back home to Palo Verde, he had to get around the armory itself. He ripped a sheet off a clothesline and wrapped himself in it. He climbed through the hills and scrambled up over scrubs and bushes, dodging cops and sailors, humiliated but alive.

Eric Nusbaum, Stealing Home, p. 110

Elysian Park Heights

People outside Elysian Park failed to see the citizens of Palo Verde, Bishop, and La Loma as real people. The privileged often fail to see those who have fled war, poverty, and traversed deserts and many dangers in hopes of something better. The people in Elysian Park had something to call their own. They mostly kept to themselves and the people of their neighborhoods because they felt comfortable that way. They had jobs that didn’t pay much but were enough to feed their families. They had left circumstances that were much worse. Their kids had better opportunities to succeed because of their parents’ sacrifices. This was their American Dream.

Those who didn’t live in the hills of Elysian Park could not see how they could be anybody’s idea of a dream. To them, these were slums that needed to be replaced by something better. One such person was Frank Wilkinson. Wilkinson was not a bad person. In fact, he was a visionary who wanted to eliminate poverty in Los Angeles and felt he knew how. His vision was to build housing designed to hold families of all sizes, races, religions, and incomes. He believed subsidized housing projects were the solution to fix the housing problems of the city and create a future where everyone lived in housing that gave them what they needed with rent based on their income. Those with more means, paid a bit more to help those with less and everyone had a place to live.

Wilkinson believed he was out to help the people of Los Angeles. His fault lay in the inability to understand the very people he felt needed the most help. In his eyes, the hills atop Elysian Park would be the perfect place to erect a massive housing project and the people currently living there would gladly sell their property and step aside for the construction of the Elysian Park Heights housing project.

Wilkinson failed to see the pride people had in the houses and communities they built. Many in Palo Verde, Bishop, and La Loma firmly opposed Frank Wilkinson’s vision. They loved their homes. They raised their kids there, and their kids raised their own kids there. They fought for the improvements of the communities. They had a church, a school, they pushed to have a reluctant city build a playground. In their eyes, the city ignored Elysian Park for so long as they cultivated it into their home and now, the city was coming to take it all away from them.

When it happened, the people were not given a choice. They received letters in the mail from the Housing Authority telling them what they were to do, not asking if they were interested in moving away. This is an excerpt of that letter:

Within a short time surveyors will be working in your neighborhood. Later you will be visited by representatives of the Housing Authority who will ask you to allow them to inspect your house in order to estimate its value. Title investigators will also visit you. You should be sure that any person who comes to your house has proper identification.

It will be several months at least before your property is purchased. After the property is purchased, the Housing Authority will give you all possible assistance in finding another home. If you are eligible for public housing, you will have top priority to move into any of our public housing developments. Later you will have the first chance to move back into the new Elysian Park Heights Development.

The erasure of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop had begun. Some accepted the news, took their offers, and moved. Some did go into housing projects while others purchased homes in other neighborhoods like Echo Park, Boyle Heights, or Highland Park. Some tried to stick it out to the very end. The best known of the holdout families were the Arechigas.

Those who stuck around saw it all unfold. As people cleared out, crews would come out to raise the homes from their foundations and take them away to other places—some became props in movie lots. They saw buses of people in suits drive through the neighborhoods learning of the slums so they would back the Elysian Park Heights project. Everything was moving toward replacing the three neighborhoods with one big housing development. But then the story took a turn worthy of any Hollywood script.

The Red Scare

The year was 1952 and Frank Wilkinson’s vision was shot down with ferocity. What put an end to his vision? Communism. Or at least, the supposed threat of it. Fear is a powerful political tool and the fear of Communism was used throughout the 50’s to shape cities all over the country.

If every person has an arch rival, Wilkinson’s would be Fritz Burns. Burns was in the business of selling land. His vision of Los Angeles was one that allowed him to sell single-family homes all around the city. If housing developments became the norm, Burns would have nobody to buy his land and homes. It was time to kill Frank Wilkinson’s Los Angeles.

Burns and allies like the Los Angeles Times, City Council member Ed Davenport, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) went after Wilkinson and his political ideals until the city lost all faith in his vision. By the end, the man’s reputation was ruined and the Elysian Park Heights Development project was abandoned. But what of the land the city had already pried from the citizens of Elysian Park? What of the neighborhoods the city shattered? What of the people the city displaced? Enter Walter O’Malley and the soon-to-be Los Angeles Dodgers.

It’s Time for Dodger Baseball

An afternoon at Dodger Stadium

Major League Baseball (MLB) was for a long time an east coast league. We had the Pacific Coast League (PCL). Los Angeles loved baseball and supported the PCL. The Los Angeles Angels and Hollywood Stars often drew larger crowds than many MLB teams. The PCL wasn’t the most stable league or the best run, but it gave Angelenos their baseball fix.

As the city boomed, it was clear the PCL was not going to be enough. This was a big league town and it needed a big league team. In 1950, the city pursued teams like the Boston Braves and St. Louis Browns but every attempt ultimately fell through. Then the issues in New York began.

Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had been at odds with New York for years. Ebbetts Field was getting old and it was not without its problems. The stadium suffered from obstructed views, it was small for a growing team, and it had no parking at a time when the car was seen as the future of transportation. Los Angeles saw an opportunity and went after it.

The city knew what O’Malley wanted most was land. O’Malley wanted to build a state-of-the-art baseball stadium. In courting O’Malley, Los Angeles officials offered him land in the heart of the city with more than enough space for not only a stadium, but as many parking spaces as O’Malley’s heart desired. Best of all, the land was already cleared out and ready for development. The land was Chavez Ravine.

As far as the city was concerned, even as several residents were holding on and fighting to keep their homes, the neighborhoods of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop were no longer there. What was there was city-owned land designated for a project that would never happen. The decision was all too simple. The future of the city was in the Dodgers and the plan was set in motion.

Walter O’Malley purchased the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL and their stadium (a smaller version of Chicago’s Wrigley Field) in south L.A. from Phil Wrigley. When O’Malley agreed to bring the Dodgers west for the 1958 season, he traded the land where Wrigley Field stood for the land in Elysian Park. All that was left to do was clear out the remaining people, their homes, and start building the new home of the Dodgers.

As for the Angels, it’s worth noting the PCL Angels are not the Angels that play in Anaheim. The Angels of the American League were an expansion team founded by Gene Autry. Autry purchased the rights to the name Angels from O’Malley and the American League Angels were born. The Angels of the PCL gave up the nickname and remained the Dodgers’ minor league team until 2000. That’s when the Dodgers sold the Albuquerque Dukes to Portland, where they became the Beavers.

Once the Dodgers arrived in Los Angeles, it was only a matter of time. The city had made up its mind about the land that used to be three separate neighborhoods. It was destined to become Dodger Stadium. O’Malley did have to fight some legal battles for it but he had the backing of the city, the baseball public, and the pockets to make it happen. Construction began and on April 10, 1962, the Dodgers played their first game in Dodger Stadium and the romance of Chavez Ravine and the Dodgers began.

Cities make sacrifices every day. Los Angeles has often sacrificed neighborhoods and the people within in the name of progress. Most of the time, the neighborhoods sacrificed are already invisible to those making the decisions. There used to be three neighborhoods in the hills of Elysian Park.

This was the great tragic joke of the whole story. Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop would not remain as they were in the hills above downtown. Nor would they be the site of a public housing project. They would not even be the site of a ballpark. They would be, in the end, the site of a parking lot.

Eric Nusbaum, Stealing Home, p. 251

Posted by JG Rochac

2 Comments

  1. […] urban exploration, the book that’s had the most impact on me has been Eric Nusbaum’s Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between. Nusbaum has written for ESPN, Sports […]

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