What is justice for families evicted from Chavez Ravine?


The Chavez Ravine Accountability Act would force the City of LA to investigate whether hundreds of families qualify for monetary reparations decades after being displaced by the construction of Dodger Stadium. Graphic credit: Gabby Quarante/KCRW.

Carol Jacques sometimes wonders what her childhood home in Chavez Ravine would be worth today if Los Angeles hadn’t used eminent domain to evict her and her entire neighborhood in the early 1950s.

“I believe had we been allowed to stay there, we would have developed much like Echo Park,” Jacques says.

Her immigrant grandfather began building his three-bedroom home in the picturesque canyon a full half-century before it became the site of Dodger Stadium. Jacques, 81, was a child when her family was forced to sell that home to The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA)  and move away, to make room for a public housing development.

“I was almost 9 years old,” Jacques says. “I had a brother that was sick. We moved in September, and he was gone from leukemia by December. So for me, the trauma was intensified.”

Now state lawmakers are considering a bill that would force the City of LA to investigate whether hundreds of displaced families like hers qualify for monetary reparations. But many members of those families say AB 1950, the Chavez Ravine Accountability Act, needs more work.

“I'm not against monetary reparations,” says Jacques. “I'm against the way the bill is written. The bill is just too broad in terms of what it wants to do.”

The legislation would require LA to assemble a nine-member task force to assess the value of lost property, determine which displaced families and descendants qualify for monetary compensation, and track and share that information in a public database. The bill also requires the city to construct a permanent memorial recognizing displaced Chavez Ravine families.

A fiscal analysis by the Assembly Appropriations Committee found that the effort would likely cost the City of LA at least tens of millions of dollars to set up the task force, database, appeals process, and public memorial. The city would incur even more costs actually paying out the reparations. 

Jacques worries the plan will cost taxpayers millions before a single penny reaches anyone. 

“We know who we are,” says Jacques. “We don’t need to pay lawyers and city employees to look for who deserves this and who doesn’t.” 

The bill proposes either cash payments for former Chavez Ravine property owners and their descendants based on the fair market value of their home at the time of sale (adjusted for inflation), or the transfer of city-owned land the same square footage as property lost. The legislation would also require LA to offer some form of compensation for displaced residents who were renters in Chavez Ravine but did not own property. 

The proposed legislation marks the first state-level attempt at government accountability for this displacement, which has been widely documented and sometimes mythologized. Activists’ calls for justice in Chavez Ravine have gained more momentum amid a larger land-back and reparations movement statewide. 

“It’s never too late to correct an injustice,” says Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, the bill’s sponsor. “It’s going to take everybody coming together, recognizing what happened to these communities, and doing right by these families who were robbed of their opportunities at home ownership and generational wealth.” 

This hillside view shows Chavez Ravine in August 1951. Photo credit: Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection/The Regents of the University of California (CC BY 4.0).

The reparations bill estimates as many as 1,800 families owned or rented property in three Chavez Ravine communities known as Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. Most of the families were Mexican American, and many had owned property for decades.

“What my mother was, and what many of our parents were at that time, they were Mexicans and they were Americans,” says Carol Jacques. “They went to World War II to fight fascism. They did the jitterbug. We were very much tied into the majority society, but people didn't know that.” 

In July 1950, the City of LA Housing Authority mailed letters to each of those families, telling them to leave so that the 300-acre neighborhood could be redeveloped into a massive public housing project called Elysian Park Heights. Residents were promised relocation expenses and first priority to move into one of the 3,300 planned units in an ultramodern neighborhood designed by architect Richard Neutra. 

“After numerous hearings in City Hall, people agreed to leave under the belief that they would be able to come back within one to two years into these new modern housing facilities,” says Eric Avila, a professor of history and Chicano Studies at UCLA. 

Most of the families sold their homes and moved away in 1951 and 1952. Many are believed to have accepted below-market cash offers, something else AB 1950’s proposed task force would further investigate and publicly document. 

In 1953, political winds shifted. Republican Norris Poulson won his bid for LA mayor in large part by campaigning against public housing. He scrapped the plans for Elysian Park Heights, and the city purchased the land back from the Housing Authority. 

For several years, Chavez Ravine sat mostly vacant. Then Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley purchased the land in 1958 and agreed to build a new showpiece baseball stadium on it. In May 1959, the last remaining holdout families were evicted and their homes bulldozed as TV news cameras rolled. Months later, O’Malley would break ground on his ballpark.

A person gets evicted from their home in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, May 1959.  Photo credit: Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection/The Regents of the University of California (CC BY 4.0).

“That scene of eviction really hit a nerve with the Mexican American community,” says Avila. “The spectacle of elderly grandmothers being carried out in their rocking chairs. And what made it even worse is that there was a crowd of Dodger fans who were actually cheering, waving Dodger blue flags, because they knew that this made it official.”

The reparations bill would ask taxpayers to contribute, but doesn’t suggest the Dodgers have any financial responsibility to displaced families. The Dodgers aren’t even mentioned by name, referred to only as “the private entity” who “built a sports stadium and parking lot on the site.” 

That bothers some of the effort’s would-be supporters.  

“You cannot have credibility without accountability,” says Vincent Montalvo, a descendant of a family displaced from Palo Verde and the co-founder of nonprofit group Buried Under The Blue

For years, Buried Under The Blue has been raising awareness about the legacy of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop and pushing for reparations on social media. Now, Montalvo and team are withholding support for the state’s Chavez Ravine reparations bill until it does more to hold the Dodgers accountable. 

“How can we sit here knowing that the Dodgers were involved, and this bill is completely sanitized of them?,” says Montalvo. “If they benefited from it and continue to benefit, then why can't that benefit come down?”

Four generations of Montalvo’s family lived in Palo Verde, beginning with his great-grandparents.

“They came from Mexico because of the revolution,” Montalvo says. “And when they got here, they were able to purchase. This was unheard of at that time. Some of these families had early real estate portfolios which today would be worth millions and millions of dollars.”

Kamren Curiel’s family sold two homes they owned in Chavez Ravine in 1952. She says the reparations bill is a great first step towards justice for her family, but she also wonders why the Dodgers organization isn’t paying up. 

“The Dodgers may not be directly responsible, but also there has to be a level of acknowledgement that this is a billion dollar corporation that's profiting off our people,” Curiel says. “That makes me very angry.”

Carrillo says she understands the community’s frustration, but doesn’t hold the baseball team responsible for the damage done 70 years ago.

“The Dodgers certainly became the beneficiaries of a newly elected city council, a new mayor, a different approach to what was already promised to the communities,” says Carrillo. “The descendants of those families have mixed feelings towards the baseball team. But at the end of the day, it was the City of Los Angeles that made the decision to not move forward with housing and ultimately break their promise.”

Eddie Santillan poses outside Elysian Park Recreation Center, beside a historical marker honoring Eddie’s late father and ‘Los Desterrados’ founder Lou Santillan. Photo by: Aaron Schrank.

Each summer for the past 50 years, a small group of former Chavez Ravine residents have gathered for a picnic in Elysian Park, to share photos, stories, and memories of the communities they lost. They call themselves “Los Desterrados” – “the uprooted.”

Eddie Santillan’s dad Lou Santillan started this tradition after his family was forced to sell their home here in the early 1950s. Lou passed away in 2014, and Eddie has been organizing the get-together since. 

As he stands near a historical marker bearing his dad’s name, Santillan says the current California proposal to try to compensate families like his is unexpected.

“It came out of left field,” Santillan says. “If it happens, it happens, and we'll get in line and see where we stand. But my dad's thing has always been about getting the communities together and giving them a good place to meet and reminisce about the good old days.”

Santillan’s dad used to tell the family that his umbilical cord was buried under the third base of Dodger Stadium, and that he’d get a pain in his stomach any time runners touched third base. That hasn’t stopped Santillan from taking his own kids to games.

“One time I told my dad, ‘Dad, you know I like the Dodgers, right?’ He's like, ‘Yeah, well, it's still America, right, Ed?’” Santillan says. “It was a love and hate relationship, but I have nothing against them.”

Carol Jacques, also a member of Los Desterrados, doesn’t blame the Dodgers for her family’s displacement. 

Legally, the Dodgers had nothing to do with it,” Jacques says. “They are living on land that we were on before, but all of us are living on land that belonged to others before. So do they have a moral responsibility? That would be up to them, but legally they have no responsibility whatsoever.”

While neither are lining up to support the reparations bill, both Jacques and Santillan do appreciate the proposed law’s calls for a permanent public memorial. They’d like to see it constructed near their picnic site in Elysian Park. Their group has been pushing for years for some kind of public history display.

Our ancestors were full participants in the building of Los Angeles in the first half of the 20th century,” says Jacques. “We've continued to be participants, but we're not recognized. We're invisible. And when you have a memorial, it continues to put faces and names to those people, and that's a good thing.”

AB 1950 passed through the Assembly last month and is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing later this month. Whatever happens with the bill, Santillan hopes the effort will bring more people out of the woodwork to share the history of these uprooted communities

“I really don't care which way it goes right now,” Santillan says. “If it sits in Sacramento, fine. If not, we're still going to be here.”



Aaron Schrank