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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Chavez Ravine

It goes without saying that architecture and urban issues aren't the most appealing topics for musical compositions. There's the occasional techno release, though music tends to deal with intangibles. Love. Loss. Longing.

But Ry Cooder's latest takes the destruction of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Chavez Ravine to make way for a stadium for the transplanted Dodgers as its concept. If the listener is unsure as to Cooder's take on the now historical incident, the cover makes it pretty clear. A stogie-smoking skeleton wielding a tractor that pummels the small houses under a glowing UFO-like object and blood-red background leaves little room for doubt. This is urban and political criticism set to music.

Missing image - cooder.jpg

The ravine sits just north of downtown LA, the stadium and its sea of parking appearing as large as the central business district. From the beginning of the album, we see Chavez Ravine as a working-class neighborhood, a Mexican-American enclave, traits that make it a potentially easy target for outside development.

Before it became the location of a baseball stadium, it was planned as the site of a major public housing project. Called Elysian Park Heights, the development was designed by Richard Neutra and planned by Frank Wilkinson, who refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee for suspicion of being a Communist for his ideas on social housing. Subsequently, he was fired and his project up in smoke, making way for Dodger Stadium. This part of the Chavez Ravine story is found in "Don't Call Me Red", with the priceless lyric:
Richard Neutra is my friend, and he's the man.
He's been to school and he can see what's best for all of you.
Please trust me, my name is Frank, don't turn me down.
Don't call me red.
Missing image - chavez-neutra.jpg

The city evicted about 300 families from the ravine to make way for the housing, demolishing houses, a school, and a church in the process. But after the Frank Wilkinson debacle, the Los Angeles city government sold the property to Walter O'Malley, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose team had just won the World Series in 1955. He built Dodger Stadium on this land razed for public housing, for $12 million. Two years later the ball club moved to LA.

Missing image - chavez-dodgers.jpg

But before the scene above...
In 1949, photographer Don Normark visited Chavez Ravine...Enchanted, he stayed for a year and took hundreds of photographs documenting community life. But little did Normark know that he was capturing the last images of a place that was about to disappear.
Missing image - chavez-normark.jpg

These images are captured in a book, Chavez Ravine: 1949, and a PBS documentary, Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story. One year after Normark's images were taken, residents were given eviction notices, the neighborhood viewed by outsiders as a "vacant shantytown" and an "eyesore." Need thriving communities be beautiful?

It's these photographs that inspired Ry Cooder to make this album. Even though he never visited the Ravine before its razing, he "misses the texture of certain older neighborhoods...a rural feel in urban places...peace and quiet." He spins fiction and non-fiction across its 15 songs, culminating in an album that captures the period and the resident's struggles. Cooder is clearly critical of universality and technology, ideas that were taking shape in the 1950s. For him, the reality of a place formed by its residents is more important than "a town's that flat...a street's that's tame."

Missing image - chavez-panorama.jpg

According to AMG, "Cooder sought out musicians from the era and the place, including the late Pachuco boogie boss Don Tosti, the late legendary Lalo Guerrero (the guiding force and spirit of the album who also passed away after contributing), Ersi Arvizu, and Little Willie G." I'm in agreement with their review that says the album is sad and beautiful, funny, quirky and funky. It's listenable and pleasurable beyond its conceptual leanings, though bilingual liner notes make the intentions behind each song ring loud and clear.

7 comments:

  1. Soleri, New Orleans, E-mail. If you would.

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  2. John:

    So...what: did you and Lynn Becker go out drinking last night? He posted a homage to your Ry Cooder post today. And yeah, it's a great album...'Muy Fifi' especially.

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  3. That's a good tune. My favorite track at the moment is El UFO Cayo.

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  4. I've been blogging about this for a while after seeing the pbs documentary - if you have a chance, definitely watch it. its only a half hour, I think. when I moved to LA, it became a story that fascinated me - just one of many betrayals of the public trust this city experienced (and continues to) in order to placate business interests. this is just one of the most visible and most fascinating. I'm glad cooder (and wilkinson's death) have brought renewed attention to it.

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  5. Where did you find that map of Neutra's plan for Chavez Ravine?

    thanks,
    Josh

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  6. where did you find that map for the chavez ravine plan? thanks.

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  7. joshua - It's from the cd liner notes. - john

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