By Kyle Warfield / @kwarfield
As we know, sports is big business. It’s huge. Dinosaur huge. Everest-the-mountain-not-Everest-the-vocational-school huge.
Every year, billions of dollars are pumped into an ever-growing industry that rewards cities across the country with high-level professional competition that doubles as family entertainment and a community rallying point. Logos become ubiquitous; the Boston “B,” Cincinnati “C” and Olde English “D” are universally recognized as symbols for the cities they represent, even among residents who couldn’t care less about baseball.
You heard Jay: “Shit, I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.” And don’t get me started on the “LA” emblazoned on the front of Dodgers’ apparel.
Actually, on second thought, let’s start right there.
See, while sports teams ostensibly compete as representatives of their respective locations, they go deeper than that. They often provide a sense of identity and identification for the residents of those cities and communities. Take Kansas City, for example. With only the Royals and the Chiefs to cheer for, I dare you to watch footage of the Royals’ run to the 2015 World Series title and suggest that fans and citizens alike don’t identify completely with the royal blue and white “KC” just as much as Philadelphians do with their script “P.” There’s something about sports that makes pride unmistakable and obvious among almost everyone.
In 2016, the NFC West will be the latest conference in major sports to undergo a bit of an overhaul, as the NFL has approved the movement of the St. Louis Rams (back) to Los Angeles beginning this coming season. After months and months of wrangling, Rams owner Stan Kroenke presented to the league a plan to move his team to a 60-ish acre plot in the suburb of Inglewood in order to create the Los Angeles Entertainment Complex/City of Champions Stadium on the grounds of the now-closed Hollywood Park Racetrack and Casino. The proposal even includes an option for the possibly relocating San Diego Chargers to join the Rams in L.A. and share the facility if there is no agreement for a new stadium in San Diego by Jan. 15, 2017. As of now, the teams share an agreement in principle to operate jointly out of the new stadium and bring two NFL teams to Los Angeles.
Now, all of this is fine and well. Money is flying all over the place, and thankfully for the League and the Rams, the parcel of land that Mr. Kroenke bought happened to be open, unused and because of its prior use has a minimal impact on current communities in that it does not require the immediate movement of people to create space.
But that’s not always the case, and Los Angeles need only look to its own history to see the devastating effects that an encroaching million-dollar machine can have on the folks who already occupy the land.
Ideally, when a sports team seeks to relocate — or even wants to build a new arena in its existing market — plans are drawn up to use tracts of land that are either uninhabited, unused or unusable in their current state. With only purchase deals to be negotiated, it’s far easier to convince a populace to spend money (if and when public funds are used … which happens a lot) to build on an open plot rather than tear down existing housing or build on land that is better suited for dwellings than an events space. But back in the 1950s, when the Brooklyn Dodgers were relocating to Los Angeles, that was not the case.
This story has two parts. Both are equally important and, when put together, create that unshakably queasy feeling in your stomach as you think about the logistics.
The battleground is a semi-rural area north of Los Angeles known as Chavez Ravine, a collective of three neighborhoods — La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop — that in the 1940s was home to a largely poor, agriculturally based, independent and self-sufficient Mexican-American population of roughly 1,800 families. Due to the economic makeup of the area, Chavez Ravine was targeted by the National Housing Act of 1949, a law enacted to give local governments incentive and authority to turn blighted areas into affordable housing projects.
Through the exercise of eminent domain — a property law doctrine that allows for the taking (with “fair compensation”) of private land by a government or its agent for public usage — and through voluntary sales by Chavez Ravine residents, the City of Los Angeles purchased the land in 1949 and cleared the area of its homes and residents by 1953. The hook: The land would be redeveloped and repurposed as a public housing development, Elysian Park Heights.
Yeah, that shit never happened.
What did happen is that, after a new, conservative mayor was elected in 1953, the Elysian Park Heights plan was killed — the misguided belief that the NHA was nothing more than a socialist plot in the height of McCarthyism. In its wake was left the remnants of Chavez Ravine, which included a tiny number of holdout tenants and a cloud of dust. Because of its use of eminent domain authority to purchase the land, possible usages were still limited to “public purpose,” but for years the land lay dormant. Worse still, the displaced Mexican-American former residents who were promised housing in the form of Elysian Park continued to languish, with no home in which to return.
Enter Walter O’Malley and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The second part of the story (forget the politics that surround the actual move of the Dodgers from New York to California; this is just about their finding new digs once the move was complete) took shape when O’Malley announced the movement of the team at the end of the 1957 season — he did so without a stadium deal being in place. Though offered a number of different locations, O’Malley eventually set his sights on Chavez Ravine as his ideal home for his team, and in 1958 — still without a location secured — the city approved the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles.
To recap: The Dodgers are now in L.A., Chavez Ravine is mostly cleared but still must be used for a “public purpose,” and the land is still owned by the city. Now, please explain to me how a baseball stadium is considered a public use when the land is being sold to a private owner to do construction and to house his privately owned baseball team in order to make said private owner rich.
In the end, the land in Chavez Ravine was conveyed to the Dodgers for a nominal fee. The battle between the poor residents of Chavez Ravine and the City of Los Angeles reached its tipping point on May 8-9, 1959, as the last residents of the neighborhood were forcibly dragged from their homes and arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, famously captured by news media and broadcast across the city. One infamous holdout remained, living in a tent beside the remnants of his family’s demolished home, eventually relenting and accepting a settlement offer from the government. Chavez Ravine was finally “free.” Though playing their first few seasons in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, construction began on Dodger Stadium in 1959. Opening in 1962, the team moved into its new home and hasn’t looked back since.
From poor, immigrant community to vacant land to baseball stadium (read: mecca) in 13 years and, somehow, the only people who got what they were promised out of the deal were the Dodgers. Animosity and distrust remain to this day among many of the former residents and their descendants, and rightfully so. Imagine how they must have felt during “Fernandomania” in 1981.
Of course, this isn’t just limited to “ancient” history (let me introduce you to the Brooklyn Nets, New York Islanders and the Barclays Center). The narrative just repeats — Miami, D.C., Detroit. Dozens of communities have either already been impacted or are at the mercy of plans drawn up to disrupt the lives of hundreds of residents all in the name of sport. And that’s just contemplating the physical movement of people (with and without fixed addresses). What about parking? Transit? Increased traffic? Ecological harm? And who’s paying for all of this?
Trust and believe that we here will dive into the effects that franchise relocation has on the city being left in the dust, as residents watch millions of dollars walk out — or drive out in the middle of the night — because of decisions made by an elite few (see, also, Seattle, Indianapolis, Vancouver, Quebec City, Los Angeles … again). But the story of Chavez Ravine and the L.A. Dodgers is a necessary one to tell. It reminds us of the true cost, beyond the figures floated around by ESPN and Forbes, of each dollar generated by sports in this country: the human cost, often lost in the atmosphere, and all but forgotten once the ticket gates and turnstiles open.
(Ed's Note: This article was originally published at Flournoy Over Riley on March 21, 2016 and is being syndicated with permission.)
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