Whose Utopia Gets to Be Built?: An Interview with Eric Nusbaum

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THE STORY OF Chavez Ravine, the hilltop neighborhood that was destroyed first with a promise of public housing projects, and then sold to build Dodger Stadium, is a well-known local civic shame. In his first book, Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between, Eric Nusbaum fills in the details of the story by closely tracing the stories of the characters involved; from the Aréchiga family, the last family to be evicted from their homes in Chavez Ravine, who only wanted to live in peace in their slice of utopia, to Frank Wilkinson, a Westside L.A. rich kid turned fervent public housing activist and politician who fought to build a public housing utopia in place of the communities of Chavez Ravine, to Walter O’Malley, the visionary New York owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who dreamed of building the perfect stadium of the future for his beloved game of baseball.

Throughout the book, Nusbaum contextualizes the characters’ stories by illuminating the historical forces that put the tragedy into motion; from rising racist backlash against immigrants, to the Red Scare’s fight against leftists, to Los Angeles’s civic hysteria for the prestige of big sports games, and, of course, the history of baseball and how the Brooklyn Dodgers came to be the Los Angeles Dodgers. This chain of events still reverberates through the families involved. LARB contributor Sam Ribakoff talked to Nusbaum over the phone from his recently adopted home in Tacoma, Washington.

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SAM RIBAKOFF: Why retell this story now?

ERIC NUSBAUM: I think it needed to be told again. The one thing that I think was missing from other retellings of the story was the stories of people whose lives were affected. I think the story came to be seen as either symbolic of the corruption of L.A., or the future of the Chicano movement, but the people involved had been lost as individuals with actual agency. The more I got into it, I thought that had to be the center of it.

The book is structured where the stories of the Aréchiga family are told parallel with Frank Wilkinson’s story and eventually Walter O’Malley’s story. Can you talk about coming up with that structure?

I’m a writer, and you know that a story works as well as its central characters. I became interested initially in Frank Wilkinson because of his literal presence in my high school auditorium, that’s what started the journey of the book, but as I was doing more research I found the Aréchiga family was so regularly shown and talked about, but always sort of left at written about in a few paragraphs. Like you can read about their eviction in a lot of books about L.A., but you don’t hear their story beyond that, and that felt kind of wrong to me. Their story hadn’t been told. Why did these people choose this place, and what led them to be the last family to be evicted from their homes? How were they different, or not different? What circumstances led them there? I thought I wouldn’t be doing the book right if I didn’t investigate that. So I interviewed some of Abrana Aréchiga’s grandchildren, and a bunch of her relatives and family friends.

Had anybody ever interviewed them before?

Here and there. The family is really spread out, and a lot of family members don’t want to talk about it. It was a really traumatic event for the family. It really messed up the family in a lot of ways. Being evicted on live TV is not something you want to happen. Being forced out of your house and having to move to another community where you don’t know people, and there isn’t the same kind of tight-knit community, it was kind of like a diaspora for the families that were evicted, or families that were forced to sell their homes in Palo Verde [a neighborhood of Chavez Ravine]. People might say that’s silly, and plenty of those families are doing fine, people are resilient, and people are different, but I think the legacies of those evictions and the construction of the stadiums, and the housing thing, are still up for debate especially by those families.

How so?

Like there are members of those families that want to talk about the evictions in terms of contemporary politics, like displacement in L.A. and tenants rights and things like that, there are also members of these families who say, “This is something that happened a long time ago, it’s not worth harping on any more. We need to live and be happy and know that we survived and are still here,” and that’s a really valid thing to say too. It still resonates, and it’s a thing that people still live with, one way or the other. There’s pride, and those communities were really, really tight. That pride has carried over, despite everything. It’s really incredible.

Was there also some trauma in the Wilkinson family when you talked to them?

That’s a whole other thing. You can read about the children of communists in the ’50s in L.A. and across the country. There’s a lot of commonalities with children of parents who are a lot more attuned with their political movement than their children. It’s tough to see your father dragged in public every day. It’s tough to have your father prioritize his career over you. Frank Wilkinson ultimately went to prison to fight HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee], and that’s pretty heroic, and pretty instrumental in the end of HUAC, but he also went to prison and left his kids without a father, and his wife without a husband, and without an income, and that’s a choice that had consequences.

In the book, you talk about Frank Wilkinson’s quest to build extensive public housing by destroying Chavez Ravine. After the plan is scrapped by the L.A. City Council and Wilkinson is caught up in the Red Scare and outed as a communist, you say something to the effect of “this was the end of public housing in L.A.”

Yeah, that’s probably true. I mean, there were public housing projects on the East Coast and the Midwest, but I’m not a public housing expert, I really wanted to center the book in L.A. I will say as we’re thinking about housing and homelessness, it is really interesting to read the parts of the book that deal with public housing. These are explicit things that our country explicitly dealt with 50, 60 years ago, and now we’re reliving it. Now we’re talking about high density housing, but 50 years ago they were talking about clearing entire neighborhoods to build public housing. Now things are a lot more muddled, back then, things were a lot more stark, they felt a lot heavier back then to people because of the way a lot of competing policies agendas had such starkly different visions, whereas now they’re a lot more blurred together, and I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. I think it makes it a lot harder for people to talk and think about now.

It’s also a story of whose utopia gets to survive or be built.

I like that. Ultimately it was Walter O’Malley’s. O’Malley wasn’t an L.A. powerbroker. He didn’t cause public housing to die.

The way you write about it in the book is like he didn’t even think about it.

Right. He might have known about it, but that wasn’t his fight. He wasn’t a part of it. He was smart and savvy enough to capitalize on it after the fact. He was smart enough to get a great deal. That’s really what he did, he made a great deal with the city of L.A., and his utopia got to be built. He saw a future for professional sports that I don’t think any other owner of a sports team in America saw. It’s easy to say that owners are bad people and they don’t care about people, and in many cases that’s fair, but Walter O’Malley, I think he did care about people, maybe not the right people, but he definitely understood the meaning of sports to people that I don’t think many other of his contemporaries did. He understood the economic and civic potential of sports in a way that none of his peers did.

The way you write about it in the book, it seems like he really did love Los Angeles though.

Yeah, I think he did. Look, he built the stadium in Chavez Ravine because that’s where he got to build it. He had a singular vision of what he wanted the stadium to be. He really wanted to build it in New York, in Brooklyn, but that was not possible, so he found greener pastures, but I think he really did love L.A., it turned out to be the perfect place for his vision.

Now in L.A with the Olympics coming, there’s a big movement growing against publicly funded sports projects, like the NOlympics movement, and with the price of housing intertwined with the homelessness epidemic there’s a lot of people calling for the return of public housing projects, two things that are obviously big parts of the book. Was that on your mind while writing this?

It’s stuff on my mind, but I chose not to engage with stuff beyond like 1962. I’m glad that stuff came up, it’s really relevant to stuff happening today, but I didn't think there was a way to talk about it in the book that didn’t seem like a stretch, or didn’t seem like I was preaching, or finagling politics into a very personal story. Obviously this is stuff that people are talking about. You see it in Inglewood where families are being displaced, and the neighborhood is changing, and people who didn’t care about the community before now are suddenly very interested, and very financially invested, and a community that’s changing. I think if you talk to the people on the ground in Inglewood they’ll say that it is not changing for the better, or at least some people. There’s a cost to these things. Does L.A. need three giant stadiums? I don’t think so.

This story, or taking water from Owens Valley, or the destruction of the Bunker Hill neighborhood, are the stories that people see as pinpointing “the downfall of L.A.” But the way you write about this story you see that everybody involved had some sort of decent intentions in what they were trying to do, but they didn’t recognize or even see each other.

Yeah, I think so, and that’s something I discovered through doing a lot of research. Owens Valley, Bunker Hill, these are stories with good people and bad people involved, and a part of what makes this story interesting, and I think indicative of L.A. and its history, is it’s not so clear cut. You can argue that Frank Wilkinson is a hero, and he was a hero in a lot of ways, but he was a villain to the families of Chavez Ravine. Even Walter O’Malley was a hero in a way. He brought a beloved institution to the city. He built, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city [Dodger Stadium], that makes millions of people happy, but you can definitely tell why he can also be seen as a villain. It’s really complex. I will say though that I don’t think the families that lived in Palo Verde, La Loma, or Bishop [neighborhoods in Chavez Ravine] were villains, they’re victims. They’re victims that didn’t do anything wrong and who suffered under the inequities of a city that didn’t care about them.

But that’s exactly what it was, these people couldn’t see past each other. A lot of people thought they were doing the right thing, but sometimes they definitely weren’t, or even when a right thing did happen, it came at a cost.

Do you think the destruction of Chavez Ravine is kind of a psychic trauma for the city of L.A., or more of a personal tragedy haunting the families involved?

Both. It’s a tragedy in many ways. I think Dodger Stadium is a wonderful place, and that’s part of what gives the story so much power. But I think if these people were evicted from their homes, and we got like a cemetery which was one of the options, or a trade college, I don’t think we would be talking about it. This is the story of three communities being evicted, and then those communities being sabotaged by the Red Scare and the powers that be, and then a baseball team buying it from the city and then creating a beloved architectural monument for the city. It’s more than a story of the people involved, it’s a story of the city. I think I say it in the book, but it is the defining story of L.A., or America, or some shit like that. Maybe it’s hyperbolic, but I do believe it. It’s almost like a primordial story about cities, and I think that’s why it resonates so much with people.

There used to be this really good Lalo Alcaraz animation online about Chavez Ravine that seems to have totally disappeared from the internet, but the narrator of the piece between each section would say something like, “It’s for the good of the people.”

That’s a good phrase. That’s what Frank Wilkinson and Walter O’Malley said, that’s what the city council said when they killed public housing, that's the argument that everyone made. But, you know, it’s self-serving to say you know what’s good for the people.

Yeah, it’s also a story that illustrates where we are today. The story of a community being destroyed for a public good that then gets transferred to a private company that then creates a private good that becomes a quasi-public good.

Yeah, pretty much. You look at it from a different perspective and it’s like, the city took houses from people and created a stadium over them, that’s extremely fucked up, from either a progressive or conservative viewpoint, but it’s a lot more complicated. The baseball stadium is one of the most beloved spaces in the city, which makes the history interesting in a different way. What I was interested in talking about in the book was the intersection of these giant historical forces, you got the Red Scare and public housing and war and immigration, and then baseball as a rising force in America and these people who find themselves stuck between these giant boulders of history.

So about baseball, because you know you are going to be interviewed by more nerds like me who don’t know anything about baseball …

I appreciate that actually. I was concerned that it would be tagged as a baseball book, when it’s not really a baseball-first book. I kind of wanted to make the book interesting for people that don’t like baseball, but also for those that do. I think it was important to me that people that read the book understood that the rising place of baseball and the needs and desires of the city of L.A. sort of crescendoed at the same time. There is this peak of interest right at the turn of the century in baseball as the national pastime. It was the biggest entertainment in America, and L.A. is booming at the same time. I think I say in the book that they kind of need each other, and it sort of just worked out that way.

One thing I couldn’t tell from the book is if you actually like the Dodgers or not?

Oh yeah, I love the Dodgers. It’s a love that’s complicated, for sure. I think that an unexamined love is boring, and you have to be able to criticize the things you love. It’s kind of like being a religious person interrogating their own faith. Being a Dodgers fan in Los Angeles is kind of akin to being religious.

Do you buy that Dodger’s Stadium is the civic center of L.A.?

Yes, but with a caveat. It’s getting harder and harder to get there due to rising costs and increased traffic. Going to a Dodgers game used to be a lot more affordable, and that’s because of Walter O’Malley.

And harder for you especially because you moved to Tacoma, Washington, right?

Yeah, I just moved from Los Angeles to Tacoma.

I was raised in Long Beach, and I lived in Los Angeles up until a few months ago. Was this book also a kind of way to say goodbye to L.A.?

No. Well, it is now, but I didn’t think I would be moving here when I started to write it. My wife’s from Tacoma, and we figured we’d have to live in one place or the other. I like it up here, but of course it’s very different, and I miss it. I miss home. Hopefully you can tell from the book that I love L.A. It’ll always be home. It’s always going to be there for me. I hope, one way or the other.

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Sam Ribakoff is a journalist and documentary filmmaker from Long Beach, California.