Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story

Before Lasorda and Valenzuela, before we bled blue, before Dodger Stadium Chavez Ravine was a collection of three sleepy communities–La Loma, Bishop, and Palo Verde–existing in the hills sandwiched between downtown and Elysian Park. There, poor, mostly Mexican-American families made their homes out of shacks and makeshift dwellings, but when a young photographer, Don Normark, stumbled upon the inhabitants of Chavez Ravine, he felt he "had found a poor man's Shangri-la." He had found three communities full of life, pride, and strength. Of course, most know that the homes that once scattered across the hillsides where vacated and bulldozed, at first for a public housing project, but later the public land was sold to private investor, Walter O'Malley for Dodger Stadium. So what was once a vibrant Mexican-American enclave hidden in the hills of Los Angeles became the site of the major Los Angeles professional sport institution known as The Dodgers.

What is especially astounding to me is that Normark accidentally stumbled on to La Loma, Bishop, and Palo Verde, when he was searching for a wide shot of downtown, but was so inspired by the place that he came back more than a dozen times with his camera in hand. Little did he know, nor the subjects of his photographs know, that the place he was capturing would soon no longer exist.

And now because of the work of a young, novice, but inspired photographer, we have a look back at a time and a way of life that has become obsolete in wide-spread industrialized Los Angeles.This is one of my favorite photos. He is demanding his own poem.

The book, Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story, is full of Normark's black and white photos and is accompanied by interviews with the people who once lived there. It is an amazing source, and a reminder of a simpler time when neighbors knew one another, and L.A. was green and untouched.

Here is a portion of a poem inspired by Normack's photographs and one woman's memories of life in the ravine:

Quinceañera Serenata

“And what was really, really special was that on Saturday, five o’ clock in the morning when the sun was coming out, the boys used to play the guitar and serenade everybody, and it was so beautiful to hear the music in Spanish.” ––Carmen Torres Roldan

Mi quinceañera, en tela blanca,
como linda flor de la mañana,
blushes before an open window’s light.
A virgin veil sweeps black coquettish eyes,
and hands hold prayers like fiery drama.

Dawn calls me to sing my serenata
for this child-bride, this niña querida,
versus for young apricot cheeks. Ayay,
mi quinceañera.

Poem Notes:

The form of this poem is a rondeau. It is missing the final stanza for publication purposes.

A quinceañera is the celebration of a girl turning 15 years-old. It can also refer to a girl who is turning 15. This Mexican tradition is still very prevalent among Mexican-Americans.

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