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Documentary gives life to a community erased
Seattle Times staff reporter
"There she is," he says, holding her up to the light. "R-4."
Pulled from an understated, white binder, the negative is Don Normark's long-lost genie in a bottle — a girl prepped for the sacrament of confirmation, resplendent in white dress and veil as she turns from the camera. Among the most beautiful of Normark's images, she's real, alive, yet all the more haunting because her identity, and the world she lived in, has been lost to the ages.
A half-century ago, the Seattle photographer spent time chronicling Latino life in a poor area of Los Angeles called Chavez Ravine. Within a decade, residents of the area's three neighborhoods — La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde — were displaced for a planned low-income housing project that instead became Dodger Stadium.
At 11 p.m. tomorrow, KCTS-TV will broadcast filmmaker Jordan Mechner's documentary, "Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story," based on Normark's similarly named 1949 photo collection. While it is somewhat understated about the significance of Normark's contribution, the half-hour program, narrated by Cheech Marin, provides a timeless snapshot of the human-scale losses that occur when cities sacrifice community for long-term stability.
As one former resident says: "It's like we lost our brothers and sisters."
If communities are made by the bonds between its people, Chavez Ravine is romantically etched as one in the truest sense. Neglected and shabby, it was a scruffy street kid of an area, with the lovable qualities not apparent at first glance.
In interviews, former residents, now middle-aged and alternately bitter and wistful, recall childhood years spent sliding down hills on cardboard sleds torn from boxes or swimming naked in the nearby river. Their memories are backed by Normark's images, rare windows to a world unaccustomed to attention.
One emblematic photo shows a straight-armed workman heading home on a winding dirt path, half-draped in the sunlight fading over the hill. That's what Chavez Ravine was — a place where life seemed defined by the hills whose shadows it inhabited, where sunlight spilled or dissipated in measured amounts, as much as they would allow.
Normark came across the area while fulfilling a photo class assignment at Los Angeles' Art Center. It was November 1948. Seeking a picturesque city view, he walked up a hill overlooking the Pasadena Freeway, "and there was this community on the other side."
As he puts it: Things were happening. People were outside, the life's blood of a village flowing right in front of him instead of behind closed doors — children playing, youths chatting, the machinations of men and women at work. The lanky 20-year-old spent the day inserting himself into a little piece of proudly Mexican America.
Another place and time
Normark, now 77, grew up in a stretch of farmland called Hoogdal, an isolated, Swedish-speaking hamlet on the outskirts of Bow, Wash. He saw the same singularity in Chavez Ravine, a sense of existing apart from the world around it despite being right in its hip pocket.
"It was peacefully remote," he wrote in his 1997 collection. "The people seemed like refugees — people superior to the circumstances they were living in."
His camera was a boxy Ciroflex: decent lens, dim viewfinder. "It was not a good camera," he says. But while his technically accomplished images reflect a technology better suited to portraits than moving subjects, the life they portray, of rolled-up pant cuffs and brilliant white T-shirts, is as vivid as yesterday.
Back then, he'd compiled his photos in a self-published tome that he now keeps in the Queen Anne home where he's lived for 30 years. Encouraged by an instructor's feedback, he pitched the project to editors at Life magazine, where any photographer aspiring to greatness wanted to be. They returned it without comment.
And that was it. He filed the photos away, as if their chance to shine had come and gone.
Paving over paradise
As the program shows, the Chavez Ravine project had the misfortune of being a pioneer in what proved to be shaky territory. Los Angeles was at the forefront of the nation's public housing efforts, with Chavez Ravine as its pilot, in a Cold War era when federally sanctioned posses ferreted out supposed communist sympathizers with little more than accusations.
The project, weakened by naive, good intentions, crumbled in the political storm that followed. "It couldn't have happened otherwise, not in the way that it did," Normark says. "In those days, all you had to do to win a point was call somebody a communist."
The tragic figure in all of this turns out to be Frank Wilkinson, the city's embattled public housing official who remorsefully recalls a debacle for which he feels responsible. He spent a year in jail for refusing to answer questions from California's House Un-American Activities Committee.
The area's demise was "the tragedy of my life, absolutely," he says. "I was responsible for uprooting I don't know how many hundreds of people from their own little valley and having the whole thing destroyed."
Elysian Park Heights was going to be his shining legacy, one that would outweigh the loss of the modest houses speckling the unkempt hillside. Eviction notices were sent out, buyouts offered; he personally visited each home, he says, and promised each household they'd have first crack at the new units when built.
But with the project assailed as "creeping socialism," the city saw a chance to sidestep the controversy by offering the land to Walter O'Malley, who was looking to relocate his Brooklyn Dodgers. In television footage interspersed with Normark's black-and-white and sepia-toned images, final holdouts were dragged from the area to make way for Dodger Stadium.
Homes and memories were bulldozed into pieces. In the documentary, scored by Ry Cooder, Normark stands atop the hill with a former resident who points out in a photo where one populated hillside used to be as the view sweeps to the side to show the pristine but lifeless stadium amid a sea of asphalt.
"Remember that Joni Mitchell song?" Normark says now. " 'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.' "
Community still holds on
A dozen years passed before Normark, relocated to the East Coast, realized what had happened. He returned to Los Angeles on assignment and thought he'd drop by the old neighborhood. "I was driving up these roads, and I kept running into Dodger Stadium," he recounts. "And I just couldn't figure it out. I thought it must still be there, if I could find the right road to get in. But I never could find the right road."
The people were gone. Then, in 1996, a friend sent him an article about a former resident reminiscing about Chavez Ravine. Before long Normark was able to contact him and others to arrange to show them images that lived on in memories.
The former residents call themselves los desterrados, or the uprooted, and meet every year at Elysian Park to memorialize their lost neighborhoods, friends and homes. "You know," says a wistful Cenovia Gamboa, primly dressed in a wide-brimmed hat, "I've never felt about any other house the way I felt about that house."
Carol Jaques describes the thought of going to a Dodgers game as "like dancing on a grave."
Despite the stadium fuss, Chavez Ravine basically died the moment city leaders gave the well-intended go-ahead to create new public housing. Had it proceeded, the project would have taken years to complete, and former residents would likely have put down roots elsewhere.
"What if they would have succeeded with that project they wanted to put there?" asks former resident Henry Cruz. "... You think we would still be there? There's a lot of ifs and buts. That's something that we'll never know. All we know is we were uprooted from our neighborhood and we went our separate ways."
Normark's work has given Chavez Ravine an enduring place in the sun. What he hopes viewers come away with is the notion that community is an ideal worth holding onto, "not just some sort of abstract that's kind of nice. When you destroy a community, you're destroying something of value. It's not just a collection of houses."
Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company