Saturday, June 25, 2005

Eminent Domain, Ry Cooder, and Chavez Ravine

Since there's been so much talk about eminent domain in the wake of the recent unconscionable decision of SCOTUS, I think this is very timely. Also, I'm an L.A. contemporary of Mr. Cooder's. We've never met, but we grew up not too far apart, although I didn't know it until I read this article, and I've been a fan of his for years. I remember the whole Chavez Ravine brouhaha. I've never set foot in Dodger Stadium because I didn't like the way it was acquired, even at 10 years of age. Must've been the dawn of any social consciousness I've got.

Ry Cooder has a new album that, given the lead time to do an album, is uncanny in its timing. This article in Mother Jones tells about the album, the neighborhood, and his inspiration.
Cooder's remarkable new album is titled Chavez Ravine, and this little neighborhood is Solano Canyon, the last intact section of the 400-acre district that gave the project its name. One of the most celebrated guitarists alive, best known for his work on Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder has spent the last three years constructing an evocation of Chicano East L.A. in the '40s and '50s - and he has become so fluent in the history of these side streets that he can go door to door telling stories.
As late as the 1940s, Chavez Ravine was an Old World enclave with 300 families of Mexican immigrants - a place where goats wandered freely and kids played in the dirt roads. But in 1950, following a city planning commission study of L.A.'s "blighted areas," it was decided that Chavez Ravine would be cleared out to make way for a low-income public-housing project. Most families took the meager payout and didn't challenge the authorities; when necessary, though, the city invoked the right of eminent domain, seized the land, and bulldozed the residences.

But the real estate lobby (which Cooder calls "hideous villains") saw an opportunity, and cast the idea of public housing as "creeping socialism." They accused the Los Angeles Housing Authority's Frank Wilkinson of being a communist agent, and the FBI stepped in to squash the project. Eventually, the housing authority sold 170 acres of Chavez Ravine back to the city, which offered the site to Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley. After a voter referendum and a California Supreme Court decision, construction on Dodger Stadium began in 1961. It's a classic Los Angeles story, full of shadowy deals and backroom corruption, reminiscent of Chinatown or a James Ellroy novel, and Cooder captures it with impressive complexity and nuance.

He drives through the adjacent fields of sprawling Elysian Park and further up into the hills before pulling to the side of the road to look down on the massive spread of the baseball stadium, perched above the city streets on a hill of its own. "That's just the parking lot," says Cooder, 58, from behind oversize yellow sunglasses. "You can see it was an enormous expanse. There's a whole town under there. I love the fact that it's high, it's up. I wanted to say that in the music - that it was set apart, and when you were here, you were somewhere else for real."

RY COODER HIMSELF seems vaguely out of time; in his checked shirt and slip-on Vans, speaking steadily but in no hurry, he exudes something like a beatnik cool (he even says "I dig it" with some frequency). His career defies easy explanation. He has recorded with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, the Monkees, and Little Feat. His solo albums, explorations of "world music" long before such a term existed, have featured Hawaiian slack-key guitars, Tex-Mex accordions, and Indian flutes. He's written scores for numerous films such as Paris, Texas and The Long Riders. His reputation as a guitarist is such that, as he hilariously recounts, Bob Dylan showed up at his door one night, unannounced and shabbily dressed, looking for help learning a Sleepy John Estes blues song (and giving the neighbors a good scare in the process). And all that came before Cooder produced Buena Vista Social Club, which won him a Grammy and introduced traditional Cuban music to the masses.

Yet in almost 40 years of dizzying musical globe-trotting, Cooder had never plumbed the idioms of his native Los Angeles. "I always thought East L.A. music was so dreamy and languid and kinda greasy," he says. "I would think, something's out there - I wonder what? I used to sneak my little East L.A. instrumental ideas into movie scores. If I saw an opening, we'd dream up some little low-rider song."
"I needed a story to go with this East L.A. thing," he says. "You can't just do the old songs; they've done those to perfection. Then I found this book, The Provisional City, that's a history of public housing in L.A., and it told the whole story about the Ravine and the FBI and Frank Wilkinson. It was so vivid to me, so I thought, I'll pretend to score the book. I found the mood I want, I found myself as a speaker - which is what you have to do, you can't just be an observer, you have to get yourself located."
Armed with his research, Cooder continued sketching out the mood, texture, and narrative of the album. Musicians including bassist Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre's musical right hand), jazz pianists Jacky Terrasson and Chucho Valdes, and East L.A. boogie king Don Tosti got involved. Cooder visited with Wilkinson, now 93 years old, who showed the musician the 132,000-page file the FBI kept on him, including details of an assassination plot that J. Edgar Hoover did nothing to prevent. ("He's very proud of that," notes Cooder.) Wilkinson even provided a cameo narrative to the album. More songs, in both English and Spanish, were written or found: the story of the Zoot Suit Riots, an account of a bulldozer driver, and even a tune sung in the voice of the scarred earth. Cooder also came up with the slightly loony character who helps tie the story together - a lonely "space vato" dropping in on the residents of Chavez Ravine in his UFO.
"WHAT A MACHINE!" Cooder beams as he stands in a small garage called CJ's, located at the entrance to the Santa Monica airport, a few blocks from where he grew up and not far from his current home. He runs a hand over the half-constructed '50s-vintage ice cream truck that he's having rebuilt. "It sits just so, I tell you. The slope is the thing - Good Humor figured that out."

He's seeing the new hubcaps (actually replicas from Taiwan) for the first time. In a few days, a low-rider specialist will put in the motor and the brakes. Then Cooder will ship the whole thing to San Antonio, where a young Chicano artist will paint a Chavez Ravine mural on the truck's side; concurrently, a local artist is building a diorama of the old neighborhood that will fit in the back. What will he do with this rolling masterwork? Who knows - it won't be completed until long after the album is out and its promotion is done. "This is for me," he says, shuffling back through the parking lot. "I've been wanting an ice cream truck forever. You can't just work and work and work - and this is worth it! This thing is something else."
One other result of his work, though, was Cooder's realization that the legacy of Chavez Ravine is not entirely negative; the neighborhood's destruction also led to a transformative moment in Mexican American activism. "Chavez Ravine is the dawn of Chicano consciousness," he says. "It was the first time they acted together in defense of themselves as a group. They went down to City Hall to these City Council meetings, to these condemnation proceedings, and they damn sure demonstrated and protested. It didn't get them anywhere, but it was the first time it happened."
Please go read the whole article. Be sure to see the links at the bottom. Oh, yeah, buy the album.