20 May 2017
Dodgers Stadium: A Historic Reminder of Eminent Domain
In 2012, the Barclays Center opened its doors to the people of New York City and beyond. Built as a massive multi-purpose arena, the Barclays Center project was intended to bring positive benefits to Brooklyn. Behind its headlining concerts, Brooklyn Nets games, lounges and bars as well as its eye-catching design, are the hopes of economic developers to bring Brooklyn into a modern age (1). The arena is just a part of Brooklyn’s “rebuilding” attempts - it sits within the larger Pacific Park development project that will bring in businesses and high rise buildings. From the surface it looks like nothing more that city development. Cities grow - people move in and the cities continue to build themselves up. The simple circle of urban life.
Yet, beneath the foundation of the Barclays Center there is a darker story. In modern stadium building it is a story that has been repeating itself time and time again. From the Barclays Center, to the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium, to the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Park - churches have been demolished, houses and businesses torn down all under the legal authority of the government by use of eminent domain (2). The use of eminent domain to acquire land for stadium construction is no new trend. Sadly, it is the beginnings of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and was instigated by the need for urban renewal in the 1950s.
In post World War II California, Chavez Ravine was a flourishing community of Mexican-Americans. Many of the residents were the children of those who had fled during the 1910 Mexican Revolution. They had settled in Chavez Ravine and started putting down roots. Just a mile from downtown Los Angeles, the families of Chavez Ravine grew their own food, traveled dirt roads, and surrounded by farm animals roaming the streets (3). It wasn’t a life of many luxuries, but it was home.
After the National Housing Act of 1949 was passed, the Los Angeles Housing Authority received a $110 million grant to develop the community. They chose Chavez Ravine, described as a shantytown (4), and began to buy up the homes of the residents, promising them that they could move into the new housing project that would replace their neighborhood. Some families accepted the offer and left. Others refused - having their homes eventually condemned and seized under eminent domain.
The project got underway around the same time Los Angeles’ elected a new mayor, Norris Poulson - who opposed the housing project as one of his campaign promises (5). Poulson was voted in during the height of the “McCarthy era”- Communist scare, where some held the view that housing projects were too socialist (3). He made good on his election promise, putting the housing project to an end. The LA housing authority selling the city of LA the Chavez Ravine property at a reduced pride under the condition that the land would be put to public use.
On the other side of the country, Walter O’Malley, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was seeking a new stadium for his team. O’Malley had complaints about the Dodgers’ Brooklyn stadium Ebbets Field (6). Brooklyn Dodgers attendance had sunk to fifth in the league. Baseball attendance was suffering overall. There may be many factors with the introduction of televised games sometimes taking blame, but there was also the factor of urban decay in the cities like New York.
The 1950s are usually presented as a golden era in American history. World War II was over, American businesses were blossoming, and the chance of the “American Dream” seemed within reach.
Human nature is never so simple.
Deep within America’s biggest cities the world seemed to be falling apart. As people moved to the suburbs that were sprouting up across America, urban decay was setting in. The Industrial Revolution that had made places like New York City into what they were was over. Apartments were losing tenants to the appeal of suburban life. Buildings were falling apart. Ebbets Field had become surrounded by a disintegrating city. Not only was there a boom in economic growth, with the expansion of the interstate system there was a boom in traffic as well. Cars had become more of a necessity. A trip to the ballpark was no longer a walk down the block, it required travel, planning and parking.
Ebbets Field was not surrounded by parking - this was one of O’Malley’s complaints (6). Chavez Ravine was a chunk of wide open land available to build a ballpark and one of the most important features of modern stadiums: parking lots.
One of the most unique features of Dodger Stadium in LA is its incredibly enormous and beautifully designed parking lots that encompass it. This is a ballpark Brooklyn could not (or would not) provide for O’Malley.
Take away all the aspects of human struggle, from a strictly business standpoint the move made sense. Brooklyn couldn’t or wouldn’t give O’Malley what he wanted so he took his business elsewhere. Los Angeles was a booming center of business, entertainment and economic growth. There was no West Coast team. Baseball fans on the West Coast only had the Pacific Coast League (once a talent-rich minor league that was now being eaten up by big league teams). West Coast fans were hungry for baseball. By 1960, the population of Los Angeles surpassed that of Chicago, a city that already supported two Major League teams (7). There was a demand in Los Angeles that could be met by moving the team there.
When Mayor Poulson met with Walter O’Malley in 1957, the case of Chavez Ravine took a turn that somewhat resembles the case of Brooklyn’s other involvement with a use of eminent domain: the Barclays Center. Instead of using Chavez Ravine for “public use”, Poulson offered O’Malley the land for his team at a reduced price than what it was worth.
People had moved out of the ravine with the promise that they could move into the housing project. While it may have never replaced their homes, it was an opportunity for a place to live. When it was put to an end and then offered instead to a private businessman for private use, it set off quite a bit of anger. The city of Los Angeles had mixed feelings. Some people could relate, such as people from the nearby region of Bunker Hill who also lost their homes to economic development purposes (8). They opposed the Dodgers deal as did middle class workers who resented the Downtown “elite” - politicians, businessmen, and real estate development. They felt that this project was another project that was going to siphon resources away from their neighborhoods and businesses.
In the end, a city referendum awarded the land to the Dodgers with only a 25,000 margin in votes. The land was sold with the intentions of producing “public benefits” as is the claim of most uses of eminent domain. (5). Public benefits is the new meaning to the words “public use”. Public benefits include claims of economic development, higher tax revenues and more jobs. Other claims include increasing business in shops and restaurants, changing the quality of life of locals for the better. In the case of stadiums the evidence doesn’t always back this up. For Barclays Center this still may not be the case.
The dark story that follows Dodgers Stadium is the same story the people of Brooklyn are living through. They have had their homes and businesses taken for a $4.9 billion stadium/development project that still has not yielded the benefits it claimed it would. Those still in the area are seeing the effects that a growing urban development plan has on their community. It has become louder, the traffic has increased, and overall their lives have changed. People have moved out not just because of the noise or their home being demolished, but because the anger they feel consumed them (9).
To this day, those who lost their homes to the development projects at Chavez Ravine still feel bitter (3). While it was the housing project that initially took the land, the bitterness is aimed at the Dodgers whose stadium ripped their community to shreds. In their eyes, their roots are still buried beneath Dodgers Stadium. They refuse to visit the stadium, yet in a way they feel like part of it. However, the Dodgers were quickly welcomed to the city. The bitterness of the displaced residents of Chavez Ravine was a not passed down to the following generations. Instead, they bred Dodgers’ fans who couldn’t be more thrilled to visit the ballpark.
One can wonder how Los Angeles would be different if Chavez Ravine had been developed, instead of destroyed. Could it have been a cultural center for Los Angeles’ Mexican-American heritage? Did Dodgers Stadium provide anything aside from entertainment?
Part of Dodgers Stadium’s economic benefits could stem from its proximity to both Downtown LA as well as the suburbs. It could easily draw in visitors from either direction. This expansion of land development brought the city to the doors of the stadium. Maybe the biggest benefits of Dodgers Stadium stem from the improvement of people’s quality of life.
Quantifying quality of life goes both ways. On one hand it created a new community of baseball fans - which whether they know it or not - allows them to connect as a city and cross social barriers that they may not otherwise engage in. On the other hand it uprooted a community, took away property rights, and built a stunning parking lot on what once was a group of homes.
This use, or rather misuse, of eminent domain that is plaguing the country is a lesson about how we value person’s right to own property.
6. “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” by Bill James, pgs: 240-241