City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles
by Jerald Podair (Princeton University Press, 2017)
Book Review by Kelsey Harrison. Kelsey has worked as a professor, a political activist as well as being an author.
Residents of New York City will be very familiar with the issues in this excellent account of the building of Dodger Stadium because it evokes some of the same conflicts New Yorkers have faced over the years: public versus private use of city land, Robert Moses’ bulldozing of neighborhoods and the recent construction of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (coincidentally on land once floated as a possible replacement for the Dodgers’ old Ebbets Field ballpark. In the late 1950s owner Walter O’Malley broke Brooklyn Dodger fans’ hearts by moving to the greener pastures of Los Angeles (greener in both the environmental and economic sense). But before screwing New Yorkers, he had to get the approval of a portion of the public as well as various power sectors of Los Angeles. Though he was willing to pay for the building of the stadium itself (something sports team owners have rarely done in the recent past) the land the stadium was built on was designated for public usage and not for a commercial sports team. Also, the city would have to pay for additional parcels of land as well as $4.74 million for land excavation and the building of roads to the stadium. And though Walter O’Malley committed to moving to Los Angeles he first had to find a temporary home while Dodger Stadium was built and overcome lawsuits and a referendum by a combination of opponents from both the right and the left.
The political lineup in the fight over the stadium made for some very strange bedfellows. While the right-wing had previously opposed the building of public housing units at the Chavez Ravine site and successfully prevented them from being built by calling them “socialist”, these same right-wingers then opposed the subsequent building of the stadium there. The conservative white middle-class opposed anticipated increased taxes, increased public spending and increased growth of the city. Conservatives also opposed having Walter O’Malley build the stadium because they felt that a city-owned stadium which rented itself out to the Dodger organization would bring in more revenue in the long term, especially through concerts and other events when baseball wasn’t being played. Supporters of the Dodgers also felt it would elevate the importance of Los Angeles as a major American city and help unify its residents’ identity. The right-wing, anti-union Chandler family that owned the Los Angeles Times supported the stadium as well since it would increase the value of nearby real estate that it owned. However, the outlying neighborhood newspapers opposed the stadium on the grounds that it would boost the downtown area but not offer a penny’s worth of support to their own neighborhoods. The conservative movie studios opposed the arrival of the Dodgers because the Dodgers were flirting with putting their games on a pay-TV network, which was seen as competition to people going to the movies. In fact the Dodgers franchise initially didn’t televise most of its games in its first year in Los Angeles while playing in the L.A. Coliseum, in order to boost attendance, a strategy that had worked successfully for the then-recently-moved Milwaukee Braves. African-Americans supported the building of the stadium because of the Dodgers commitment to civil rights through the signing of Jackie Robinson and many other African-American players. The Latino community also supported the Dodgers but that support waned when Mexican-Americans were evicted from Chavez Ravine to build the stadium. The unions of Los Angeles supported the Dodgers arrival because of the increased jobs the team would bring to the area, both in construction and at the stadium itself. Overall there were disparate interests working together on both sides of the issue. However, Mr. O’Malley thought he had a done deal when he exited his airplane in Los Angeles in 1957, with the team soon to follow, only to be handed a lawsuit filed by a City Council member to prevent the stadium from being built.
One interesting subplot involved an attempt to build public housing at the future Dodger Stadium site before the stadium was envisioned. A referendum was held on whether to build 10,000 units of public housing but it would lose due to a massive red scare campaign against “socialistic” housing. In anticipation of the housing project being built most of the 700 homeowners of Chavez Ravine had been paid for their homes and land and they had already moved out. However, when the housing proposal lost, the twenty remaining homeowners said that they should be allowed to stay since the reason for their property being confiscated in the first place didn’t exist anymore. But in a bizarre decision the city said the provision declaring that the land was to be used for a public purpose meant that these private homeowners couldn’t stay there anymore even though they were the original landowners. When the stadium was finally approved a small number of these remaining homeowners were evicted on live television, causing more opposition to the impending stadium. And another irony in this battle of the stadium was that the same people crying “socialism” over public housing opposed the building of the stadium because it would not be a public use as mandated by the government.
Ultimately, the fight over the stadium went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (which refused to hear an appeal by the opponents of the stadium), and (Spoiler Alert!!!) it did get built after a massive public relations campaign, the large outspending of opponents of the stadium and the use of celebrities and television shows to support an L.A. Dodger team. The book brings to vivid life the inside story of the fight over Dodger Stadium while laying bare the intricacies of political life in a big city. And it also answers the question of what a gas station was doing in the parking lot of the stadium for over forty years. If the same situation existed today the gas station would probably be placed in the bleachers with cars filling up between innings.