Well, that’s a good place to take the poor people on Bunker Hill and put them with additional poor people in better-quality housing.
— Robert Evans Alexander, chief architect of the Elysian Park Heights public housing project
Racism can take many forms
This story is but one example of how an inherent racism can be expressed, perhaps even unconsciously. Robert E. Alexander was interviewed in 1986 and 1987 by Marlene L. Laskey as a part of the Oral History program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The transcripts of Alexander's oral history comprise some 769 typed, double-spaced pages in two volumes that were published in 1989. Much of the material refers to Alexander's career as an architect; but there is a portion that refers to the Elysian Park Heights public housing project that was originally proposed to be built in the area improperly known as 'Chavez Ravine' — the overwhelmingly Mexican and Mexican-American village in the Stone Quarry Hills that included the three neighborhoods of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop.
Robert Alexander's words speak for themselves, and they speak volumes.
Laskey: "What was the site like? You might talk about what Chavez Ravine was in 1950.
The following is Alexander's response in its entirety.
Well, it was a ravine and a series of subsidiary canyons that came into the ravine. It was a high-class slum area. That is, if you were from Brooklyn or Manhattan you might not conceive of it as a slum, because it was all one-story shacks, but it was packing cases, people living in old chicken coops. It was squalor of the worst kind. But, you know, children growing up in that area must have had an enchanted life, in a way. I mean, they were surrounded by Elysian Park. Their ravine itself had not very many trees in it, but it was country living, as if it was a little place in Mexico. It wasn’t all that bad from the standpoint of living conditions. From the standpoint of sanitation and so on, not too hot. The housing was not the greatest. There was no toilet or bathtub in every unit, you know. The housing criteria devised by the census bureau to define whether the housing was safe and sanitary, as they say, don’t tell the whole story. In a way it was an idyllic situation, in spite of its squalor.
Before we deconstruct Alexander's confused and convoluted description of the village, keep in mind the image above, which dates from 1950, shortly before the evictions began. The photograph was taken from above the Police Academy, looking South toward La Loma.
... it was a ravine and a series of subsidiary canyons that came into the ravine.
Like so many both before and after him, Alexander belies any real understanding of the geography of the area. There were five ravines in the Stone Quarry Hills: Chavez, Sulphur, Cemetery, Solano, and Reservoir. Palo Verde was in Sulphur Ravine and on the loma between Sulphur and Cemetery Ravines; Bishop was situated entirely in Cemetery Ravine; and La Loma took its name from the loma on which it sat, between Cemetery and Solano Ravines and adjacent to the contiguous, neighboring community of Solano. None of the ravines in the Stone Quarry Hills could properly be called a 'canyon', despite the fact that they were sometimes referred to in that way. But Alexander was not alone in his lack of understanding of the geography; Frank Wilkinson, Harold Holtzendorf — even Don Normark and later, Ry Cooder — were not entirely clear on the geography.
It was a high-class slum area. That is, if you were from Brooklyn or Manhattan you might not conceive of it as a slum, because it was all one-story shacks, but it was packing cases, people living in old chicken coops. It was squalor of the worst kind.
Here, Alexander is comparing the village in Chavez Ravine with the high-density tenements found in some East Coast cities like New York, Boston, and even Chicago.
But this is where Alexander stumbles once again. He describes the housing as "... one-story shacks ..." that were constructed of "... packing cases, people living in old chicken coops ...". But take another look at the photograph, above. Of the many homes in the photograph, one sees neither packing crates nor chicken coops; nor, for that matter, are all the homes single-story — there are at least a half-dozen multi-story homes in this photograph alone. Most of the homes appear to be made of stucco on the outside, with porches and windows. There are paved streets, gardens, and trees.
Alexander then goes on to describe his opinion of life in the village.
But, you know, children growing up in that area must have had an enchanted life, in a way. I mean, they were surrounded by Elysian Park. Their ravine itself had not very many trees in it, but it was country living, as if it was a little place in Mexico. It wasn’t all that bad from the standpoint of living conditions.
So what does Alexander think of life in the village? He doesn't seem to know what he thinks.
Was it a slum? And what, exactly, is a slum? Lacking any legal or statutory definition, the term slum then is defined only in the eye of the beholder and becomes subject to the prejudices of the person who uses the term. But it can — and is, and was then — wielded like a cudgel and applied to any area that the Anglo city planners wished to destroy. The racist overtones of that process fairly scream at us today.
Alexander's final statement is a combination not only of his own prejudice, but also of his confusion; he doesn't really know what he thinks ... nor do we have any idea from his description.
In a way it was an idyllic situation, in spite of its squalor.
"... an idyllic situation, in spite of its squalor." If life in the village constituted an idyllic situation, then why was is necessary to destroy it? Was it racism? White privilege? The power of a dominant culture to make decisions for a disenfranchised, minority culture?
We do not know; but Alexander's confused, convoluted description of life in the ravines has value, if only to serve as a bad example.
About the Author
Bouett is a retired research scientist and registered professional
engineer who now conducts historical and genealogical research
full-time. A ninth-generation Californian, he is particularly interested in the displacement of the nearly 1,100 families that lived in the Chavez Ravine communities of la Loma, Palo Verde, and Bishop to make way, ultimately, for the construction of Dodger Stadium. His ancestors arrived in California with Portolá in 1769 and came to Los Angeles with the founders on September 4, 1781.
"Thank you for such an informative site which highlights the plight of those relocated from Chavez Ravine. My stepfather was a happy child growing up in the Palo Verde area. He had many stories about living in the area and working at the [Ayala] store."