A Chavez Ravine - in every town
Ry Cooder is best known as the
producer of the Buena Vista Social Club album, the man responsible for the
international exposure of the group of brilliant though forgotten Cuban
musicians at the heart of the album and the film. For the best part of the last
20 years he has earned his bread by writing music for films such as Paris,
Texas, The Long Riders, Alamo Bay and many more. He hated the record
and touring routine, giving up doing ‘solo’ albums in 1988.
Younger people may not be aware
of his rich body of work which stretches back to the 1960s (see the link below
for his discography.) His latest project - Chavez Ravine - is a much
praised piece of work which tells the story of the destruction of a Los Angeles
neighbourhood by use of a kind of musical collage. It combines music from the
period with new material written by Cooder, his percussionist son Joachim, and
Latino writers who hail from the area.
Chavez Ravine took its name from
Julian Chavez, one of the first LA county supervisors who bought the land in
1840. It was a "self-sufficient and tight-knit community, a rare example of
small town life in a large urban metropolis." The area became a multicultural
community: Mexican American, but with Chinese American, Russian and Jewish
In 1946 the City of LA Planning
Commission developed a housing plan for supposedly "blighted areas" such as
Chavez Ravine. In 1950 the Housing Authority told the residents that their land
would be purchased and used for public housing. People to be displaced were
promised first refusal on housing in the planned Elysian Park Heights. Some of
the residents resisted the order to move, whilst others took the money and left.
Most of them received insubstantial or no compensation for their homes and
Using the power of "eminent
domain", which permitted the government to enforce purchase of private property
from individuals for projects deemed to be for the "public good", the City of LA
bought up the land and levelled most the buildings.
However, the public housing
would never be built. It was the subject of a decade long political and legal
battle. Whilst supporters of the public housing scheme considered it an
opportunity to provide improved services for poor Angelenos, opponents of the
plan, including our old friend corporate America, utilised the atmosphere of the
McCarthy era to denounce the very idea as a 'socialist plot'.
In 1952 Frank Wilkinson,
assistant director of the LA County Housing Authority, one of the main
proponents of the Elysian Heights plan, was called before the Un-American
Activities Committee. Refusing to answer questions about organisations he had
been a member of or known, he was sacked from his job and imprisoned for a year.
Others suffered a similar fate.
The election of new Mayor
Poulson in 1953 meant the project's days were numbered. He ran for office with
opposition to public housing projects as a central plank of his 'programme'; a
scandalous example of "un-American" spending. When elected, Poulson was able to
buy back the Chavez Ravine land from the federal government at a greatly reduced
cost, with the stipulation that it would be used for a "public purpose". This
"public purpose" proved to be the building of a new LA Dodgers baseball stadium.
As Frank Wilkinson explained,
"We'd spent millions of dollars getting ready for it, and the Dodgers picked it
up just for a fraction of that. It was a tragedy for the people, and from the
County it was the most hypocritical thing that could possibly happen."
There was eventually a
referendum on the issue which the owners of the Dodgers won by a scant 3%. That
great American hero Ronald Reagan made one of his off-screen appearances
denouncing the lefty "baseball haters" who opposed the Dodgers stadium. After
various legal challenges the last remaining residents were dragged away (see
picture) and the stadium was built and opened in 1962.
Cooder's CD was inspired by the
story of this injustice as told in two books. One was a book of photos by Don
Normack, Chavez Ravine 1949: A Los Angeles Story”. Normack,
fascinated by a visit to Chavez Ravine in 1949, spent a year taking pictures of
the local community. At the time, of course, he did not know that he was
recording the last days of this community.
The second book was by UCLA
Professor Dana Cuff: “The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture
and Urbanism. Frank Wilkinson, now in his nineties, is one of the characters in
her book, and Cooder contacted him after meeting Cuff. His recorded voice
appears on ‘Don’t call me Red”.
Three years ago Non Normack
asked Cooder to provide music for a short film of the photographer’s reunion
with families from La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde, the three neighbourhoods of
Chavez Ravine. The project originated out of this.
Cooder, who grew up in middle
class Santa Monica remembers reading stories when he was child and the comments
of his parents who raged against the injustice.
"Occasionally there would be
photographs of some poor Mexican family from the ravine watching a bulldozer
tear up their little house while being harassed by the LAPD or lectured by some
It set the post-war trend. LA
was "paved over, mailed up, high rised, and urban renewed, as fortunes were
made, power was concentrated, and everything got faster and bigger" in the words
of Cooder. The tearing down of older areas of LA is something which rankled.
“When they tore down Bunker Hill, I was crushed. I still am. I still get mad.”
He wanted to bring to light the injustice of Chavez Ravine.
As with the Buena Vista Social
Club, Cooder has used musicians originating from the area, allowing them to tell
their story. Don Tosti and Lalo Guerrero who appear on the CD were two major
figures in Chicano music of the period. Sadly, these two died before the release
of the recording. The CD combines songs from the period with new material
written by Cooder and these musicians. Willie Garcia, a singer from early 1960’s
East LA band, the Three Midnighters, co-wrote some the songs. Chavez Ravine is
their story so they were obviously keen to tell it.
Ry Cooder has never been one to
stick to musical categories. His playing and writing have always to varying
degrees combined elements of American folk music, with blues, jazz, rock and
Latino music. He has been a unique interpreter of traditional music who has long
enjoyed working with diverse musicians from different disciplines and
nationalities. Cooder's interest in Latin music predated Buena Vista. One of his
long time collaborators has been 'Tex Mex' accordionist Flaco Jiminez.
Whilst this CD centres on the
Latin music of the Mexican-American community which was at the heart of Chavez
Ravine, he writes the first of his own material for a long time and draws on the
support of Jazz musicians such as pianists Chuco Valdes (from Cuba) and Jacky
Terrasson. As usual he gives old and new music his own stamp.
The song "Don't' Call me Red"
tells Frank Wilkinson's story, including some anti-communist propaganda in the
form of a recording of the well know programme, Dragnet. In real life and on
record Wilkinson was pleased to have "outlived those bastards all"; the bastards
including Edgar J. Hoover. Wilkinson ended up working as a janitor in Pasadena.
Onda Callejera tells the story
of a Saturday night in 1943 when 300 sailors managed to find themselves 100
taxis (must have been just cruising along) and have an outing beating up
‘pachuchos’ – smart dressing Mexican Americans. This was known as the ‘Zoot Suit
Riots’. In fact it was a racist and premeditated attack.
Some listeners might be
irritated by the UFO pilot warning the locals about the gringos coming to take
their homes from them. However, there was a UFO mania in California in the
period, probably associated the anti-communist hysteria of the time. Those Reds
could come at you from anywhere!
‘It’s Just Work for me’ is the
voice of the working stiff who was just doing his job knocking down the houses.
‘In my Town’ gives voice to the
ruling elite of LA helping big business to make a fortune at the expense of the
residents of Chavez Ravine and others who would not be allowed to stand in the
way of what in those days was called ‘progress’.
There is, of course, a Chavez
Ravine in every town where 'development' has been an excuse for big business
making money at the expense of the local population and the environment. In Los
Angeles the car became king and choking smog was the result, beginning in 1955.
Mike Davis, who Cooder consulted in the course of preparing the album, has
written some marvellous books (City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear)
about how the environment has been butchered by 'development' US style.
Former residents of Chavez
Ravine have formed a group call Los Desterrados, the Uprooted, who meets each
year to picnic at Elysian Park, the playground of their childhood.
Ry Cooder has produced a
marvellous CD, to these ears at least, which is worth a listen in its own right.
But it tells a story which has been repeated across the globe as the US model of
‘development’ has spread like a deadly virus.
You can hear four of the tracks
on the Nonesuch Website at:
For those who listen to it and
like it, if you haven't heard anything of Ry Cooder's pre-Buena Vista work, you
would do well to seek out his earlier work.
Other interesting links
See a photo album of Don
Normack's photos of Chavez Ravine - with music as well!
Chavez Ravine: a Los Angeles
a 'Chicano performance troupe' put on a musical play about Chavez Ravine in 2003
in Los Angeles. According to Culture Clash member Herbert Siquenza, although the
battle for Chavez Ravine was lost, helped to create "a culture of resistance,
the beginnings of a civil rights movement, of Chicano activism."
Guardian interview with Ry
Cooder on the Buena Vista Social Club
Cooder's last visit to
Ry Cooder speaking about
Check out Ry Cooder's