Culture Clash, the Latino comedy group that wrote and performed Chavez Ravine, looks to be having a wonderful time telling a forgotten bit of Los Angeles history at the Mark Taper Forum. The question is whether the show will have meaning for audiences outside of Southern California? It is not such an easy question to answer.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers were still the Brooklyn Dodgers, and before most Angelinos were even born, Chavez Ravine was a canyon with small villages of Mexican immigrants dotting its hillsides. To hear Culture Clash tell the story, although these were very poor, substandard, often dirty communities, they were vibrant through the early 1950’s.
Frank Wilkinson, a young man from Beverly Hills, became the head of the Los Angeles City Housing authority. With his new social awareness Wilkinson envisioned giving the people of the canyon public housing that would be beautiful and sanitary. Apparently without any community input, he engaged the architect Richard Neutra who drew up plans in his characteristic flat roofed, clean lined modern style. Neutra included one high rise, but nowhere for a family to have a small garden. A utopian dream of the noblesse oblige, out of touch with the sensibilities of the barrio.
Wilkinson promised the scattered residents that as soon as the project was done they would be given first rights to the apartments. With payments for the land taken this was a deal that appealed to many young residents who wanted more of the American dream for their children. Among the older residents who were more attached to their native culture, the breaking up of the existing communities, with their flavor of the old ways, was not to be tolerated.
Before the struggle that would likely have ensued over Wilkinson’s plan, the Dodgers were enticed to relocate by the then mayor and City Council who offered the city’s financial backing to acquire and develop this huge tract of land adjacent to downtown and the first of the many freeways that were to define the Los Angeles landscape.
This all took place at the height of McCarthyism, Before residents could properly consider the new proposal, the corrupt government used Red scare tactics to hobble Wilkinson’s plan, impugning his character by organizing the Committee Against Socialist Housing. This led the State Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate the Housing authority . That was the end of Wilkinson’s utopian dream. Like so many others of the ‘50s who refused to sign loyalty oaths or name names, Wilkinson was a broken man. The Dodgers immediately came in with large checks for the remaining land and most of the remaining residents happily took the offers. A few die-hards vowed to resist, but one by one, they capitulated in the face of the financial lure. It was a bitter fight to the end, with the last family, the Arechigas, alone remaining. Aurora Arechiga, who had vowed she would have to be carried out, made good her promise and the bulldozers were only 10 minutes behind the sheriffs. It’s the stuff of good drama, then and now.
Culture Clash manages to tell this story even handedly and to be highly entertaining. Their music communicates the vibrancy of the Latino communities. They bounce around the stage changing wigs and accessories to portray many characters with humor that is without condescension. No one gets off looking too good. Only the corrupt mayor looks really bad. Wilkinson is seen for what he was, a do-gooder with a vision who did not stop to ask: what do the people want, what makes this community something so treasured? The resistors are the sentimental favorites, but the flaws in their thinking are obvious, too. Their sentimentality ignored the fact that the area was rat infested, a fire trap, and that the schools were below the standards of the rest of the district. A recurring character is Dodger pitcher, Fernando Valenzuela, the hero of the very community that was ousted from Chavez Ravine to make way for the Dodgers.
All of this story is effectively interlaced with lively Latino music, both new and old. The problem is not so much that this is a real story pertaining to a local event, it is that the story telling goes on for much too long. At two and a half hours many in the audience stop caring. Displacement of communities for business, the yearning of immigrants for something that reminds them of home is almost universal. McCarthyism infected America in general. Political expression without tirades and browbeating is refreshing. But, like an unending story in the New Yorker magazine, too much of a good thing is too much. Edited down by a good 45 minutes, Chavez Ravine could appeal to both local and non-local audiences.