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A music blog by Mark Nishimura

Singer-songwriter Bad Heart performs ballads of aloneness and loneliness, keeping the ghosts of the no-no boys and Sleepy John Estes in his throat and more than a few card tricks up his sleeve. Originally from San Francisco, he currently is absorbing the city lights of Hollywood.

The Late Great Chavez Ravine

“I’ll never go again. I hated it. I didn’t enjoy it. It was like dancing on a grave.”

– A former resident of Chavez Ravine describing her first visit to Dodger Stadium.

On this year’s Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, I was sitting on the balcony of my flat, a bottle of rum in tow, watching fireworks over Dodger Stadium five miles away. I imagined the crowd at the stadium was listening to the patriotic songs of John Philip Sousa or Irving Berlin or Toby Keith and gazing at the lightshow above. My soundtrack was Ry Cooder’s CD, “Chavez Ravine,” playing over and over again. Whether this was appropriate music for the day was for the ear of the beholder.

Chavez Ravine is a classic American story, unfortunately. A neighbor of Echo Park, the district was a “poor man’s Shangri La” for generations of Mexican Americans. Here, the residents formed their own metropolis, built their own churches and stores, and even created a whole new sound, blending corridos and boleros with swing music and boogie woogie. But outsiders found the area to be an eyesore and wanted to shut down the party.

Their first attempt was in June 1943, when American sailors started coming into the neighborhood to beat up “zoot-suiters” after a fellow sailor had his jaw broken from an earlier fight. Their search-and-destroy tactic exploded into the infamous “Zoot Suit Riots” in Los Angeles.

Then in 1950, the cops evicted many residents out of their homes. The reason: to construct a federal-approved public housing project. To add insult to injury, after the land was paved over, the city decided not to build new houses after all. Instead it gave the land to the Los Angeles Dodgers and built the stadium there.

Cooder – a session guitarist who has worked with Captain Beefheart, Randy Newman, The Rolling Stones, Ali Farka Toure and Buena Vista Social Club – was born in Los Angeles but had never stepped foot in Chavez Ravine. Yet his 2005 CD, a three-year project influenced by the photographs of Don Normark, sounds as if he’d lived there all his life.

The album’s characters are portrayed by some of that era’s real voices – Lalo Guerrero, Ersi Arvizu, Little Willie G and Chicano R&B legend Don Tosti – telling stories about the rise and fall of this great neighborhood. They sing about high school dances and lively street parties, as well as the police raids, the riots and finally the bulldozers. They even throw in the Red Scare and UFO sightings for good measure.

“If the dozer hadn’t taken my yard,” says a fictional parking attendant in the song “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium,” “you’d see the tree with our initials carved. [There are] so many moments in my memory. [It] sure was fun, because the game was free.”

As I listened to this music, I thought about those folks who have sat, are sitting, and will be sitting in Dodger Stadium, getting their fill of Coors Light and Oscar Meyer hot dogs, rooting for Manny Ramirez, Kuroda, Billingsley, and other highly-paid ballplayers. And I wondered if they ever thought about those former Chavez Ravine residents whose homes were torn down so that they could have a seat.

Ry Cooder’s “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium” accompanied by Don Normark’s photographs of Chavez Ravine

  1. Great post~

    Ry Cooder is one of those rare artists who can pull a memory from the surrounding landscape, embellish it with his music and transport you back to the time when life flourished with raw truth, endless possibilities and undeniable innocence.

    Chavez Ravine is a jewel of a CD and it was home to more than just the boys of summer.

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