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A musical tribute to L.A.'s lost 'Chávez Ravine'

By Stephen HumphriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2005

Before the bulldozers came, the valley of Chavez Ravine was stubbled with clapboard homes and shanties. Surrounded by a moat of Los Angeles highway, the hilly enclave was home to more than 300 families - mostly of Mexican heritage - by 1949. To hear Ry Cooder describe it on his new album, Chavez Ravine was a "poor man's Shangri-La," a vibrant neighborhood where carefree pachucos danced to the sounds of Lil' Julian Herrera in their zoot suits.

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Though the community had its own stores, school, and church, Los Angeles officials viewed the area as an eyesore and invoked the power of eminent domain to uproot the Ravine's residents. Years later, the city razed the 300-acre area to make way for Dodger Stadium.

The story of the Bohemian neighborhood's demise is the subject of Cooder's "Chávez Ravine," a concept album - part historical document, part musical fantasy - that took more than three years to make. The album couldn't be better timed. A resurgence of interest in the incident recently inspired a play by a Los Angeles theater company as well as a new PBS documentary titled "Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story" (which includes music by Cooder). By coincidence, the CD's release also comes as the US Supreme Court weighs a case that may determine whether eminent domain can be used to further private economic development.

"Los Angeles is the home of eminent-domain abuse, and poor people are the ones who get moved around," opines Cooder. "If [the Supreme Court justices] come down in favor of the rights of citizens, it would be amazing."

The virtuoso slide guitarist, renowned for a shimmering tone as pure as Alaskan spring water, says his new album was sparked by stark photos of Chavez Ravine taken by Don Normark, a photographer who stumbled upon the community shortly before its residents were served eviction notices in 1950.

"I began to work harder [to] get to know some of the individuals and get to know some of their stories," says Cooder, who was aware that many key figures of the era had died. "In order to do music, you have to have a visual."

Now in his fifth decade as a recording artist, Cooder has developed a reputation as something of a musical archaeologist - a modern day Alan Lomax. In addition to introducing Western ears to the unique guitar sounds of Mali's Ali Farka Toure and India's V.M. Bhatt, the roving troubadour's 1996 pilgrimage to Cuba triggered a wave of interest in the island's Latin jazz in the wake of the multimillion-selling "Buena Vista Social Club." To make that album, the product of just two days of sessions, Cooder recorded with octogenarian jazz masters who had been all but forgotten by the outside world after the Cuban revolution of 1959.

For "Chávez Ravine," Cooder once again went looking for musicians that radio forgot. The mostly Spanish-language album includes vocals from the late Don Tosti, an "overlooked" musician, as well as Esi and Rosella Arvizu. It also features the final recording of Lalo Guerrero, a legend of the Chicano music scene.

"It's a group effort," says Cooder, in a phone call from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. "That way you begin to include more of everything - more information, more personalities."

Little Willie G. was one of the first collaborators invited to cowrite and sing on the album. The singer has vivid childhood memories of the turmoil in Chavez Ravine, an area his family visited for picnics. "Television was in its infancy but I remember these black and white images coming across the screen of bulldozers, the National Guard, and LAPD in the dead of night, evicting people from their homes - actually dragging them from their homes," says the ex-member of Thee Midnighters, a key '60s band from East L.A.

By the time of that final reckoning on May 8, 1959, the ravine was already largely empty, its residents long since scattered. The city had originally intended to clear the land for public housing, ostensibly to help the very people it had displaced. But the proposed development hit several snags, both legal and political. Finally, after years of protracted arguments between competing interests, the 300-acre area was sold to Walter O'Malley, owner of the Dodgers. In the liner notes of his album, Cooder deems the legendary team owner a man beholden to the dollar.

Others, not surprisingly, see it differently. Ticket prices for ballgames remained unchanged until 1975, evidence that O'Malley wasn't greedy by nature, says Brent Shyer, vice president for special projects at Walter O'Malley's website. Mr. Shyer defends the building of the stadium as a turning point in the city's maturation.