April 11-12 2020
In the winter of 2007 we moved from our rented apartment on the hill in Echo Park to a rented house behind Dodger Stadium. I had never known much about the Chavez ravine story before moving there, but once we started walking around Elysian Park and I discovered Don Normark’s photographs of the towns of the Chavez ravine, I was hooked. Part of it was the mystery of our street, Boylston Street, which abuts the parking lots of the stadium—why were these houses built just as eminent domain was used to evict the folks like Aurora Vargas who lived in the towns of the Ravine? My search for answers led me to dig into the Los Angeles Times archives to learn more about the Chavez ravine, and some of what I learned then seems significant to our current situation with Covid 19. I had always hoped to write a book on this topic, and even did write a draft of a novel using some of what I learned, but then we moved to Highland Park and other projects and books and teaching took my focus away from this other story, but now I want to revisit it.
I think for many of us this seems like not only a novel or new virus but a novel and new situation, for surely we have never seen anything like it in our lifetimes, but our grandparents and great grandparents knew the scourge of infectious disease all to well, and the fact that we are here is because they survived, so I think there is a lesson in that. More importantly, I think the history of disease and the Chavez Ravine offers a way to think about social class, racism, and infectious disease, and that is what I hope to cover briefly, here, but in the context of my experiences and nascent research. I know I will only be able to pose questions as opposed to providing answers, but given the inequalities we are daily watching here in the United States, these are important questions to consider.
On March 13th of 1887, Angelenos were facing a different sort of public health crisis. According to an item in the LA Times, with the headline “No New Cases Yesterday-The Situation” “not a single new case of smallpox turned up yesterday—a fact as gratifying to the authorities as to the public. It indicates the hard work done has been effective.” That headline is what we are looking for now, and it is strange to think that those who lived here then were in a similar situation, for smallpox was a fearsome disease. Indeed, the native people in the US and California were almost wiped out by just such an epidemic of smallpox in part because it was a new disease for them, and they had no immunity.
In the same section of the paper there is an update on “The Hospital Site,” which shares how various and sundry officials and a reporter for the Times visited the new hospital site: “the grounds are up the Chavez ravine, just beyond the Jewish cemetery, in a decidedly pretty location… Workman had laid the floor for the big new hospital tent and were stretching the canvas…the inspecting party drove up to the head of the cañon, in the new park where the city has already set out 5000 young eucalyptus trees. There was some thought of putting the hospital up there, but the party was met there by a party of wild eyed cranks, protesting in the name of all gods at once.”
What can we learn from this? NIMBY (Not in my backyard) was alive and well in 1887, as were the “wild eyed cranks,” which I mistakenly thought were a recent development on social media. More importantly, the description of putting up a tent hospital seems timely today when we watch that on the news in New York, but I am also struck by the place: “a decidedly pretty location,” which it surely is, and what of the Jewish cemetery? My previous research showed me that it was moved and was likely where Victory Memorial Grove is today, a monument to those lost in WWI (another set of folks who faced a pandemic, in their case the terrible flu of 1918).
But do these historical details even matter? I think they do because looking just a few days later on March 14, 1887 we learn that “The Mayor described the several sites viewed for a smallpox hospital, and asked for an opinion on them from the Council.” In the end they …favored building a new house on present pest-house grounds, a little above the present building, ground that is already used for that purpose.” So, in short, they decided to build the “pest house” in Chavez ravine. Pest stands for pestilence: “a contagious or infectious epidemic disease that is virulent and devastating, ” according to Merriam Webster. So, why does this matter? When I first learned about this, living in the heart of the Chavez ravine, I thought it meant the city had always seen this space as a place where you put things you didn’t want to deal with, and none of my additional research ever showed that I was wrong about this, but today it also shows me that these diseases are nothing new, even if they feel new to us today.
By April 7, 1887 (this last week! 133 years ago), we have an article titled “Without Gloves.” Not surprisingly, this is another article about the smallpox outbreak. It is about making sure people follow the public health guidelines and includes this gem of a sentence: “In every such time as the present there are inexpressible pranks and infinite ignoramuses who stupidly and criminally insist upon excusing the health and lives of a whole community; and the public good demands that they be dealt with firmly.” This seemed very appropriate as we drove around to help Mom, picked up groceries at Vons tonight, and watched many folks wearing masks pulled down around their chin. Some things do not seem to change, like human nature.
The story of the smallpox outbreak in Los Angeles in relation to the Chavez ravine goes dark in the Times for a time, and when I found more, it was from the Los Angeles Daily News. There are, however, many fabulous stories about mountain lions and unusual characters cavorting in the ravine, but they are off topic, here. The Daily News story is about a dispute in November 1899 about relocating the pest house site. They are discussing a new site, but they do share this about my old street: “The Chavez ravine road is not much traveled. The old pest house is on this road, at the corner of Boylston Street, not over half a mile below the proposed site.” So, what happened? I do not know, nor did I when I first set out to research this because life distracted me.
I do know that when I would walk home from Sunset Boulevard to our house on Boylston, “Line 2, Downtown LA” I would pass by the Barlow Respiratory Hospital as I ascended our hill, and although I have researched that place a little, it seems to be from a later iteration of infectious disease, a hospital from the 1920’s for tuberculosis patients, but given its’ proximity to Boylston Street, is it the old site reborn? And just to tie back to today, I did learn that the Barlow is currently a leader on moving patients off ventilators…another eerie coincidence.
In the end, I know I raise more questions than I answer here, but I wanted to share these ideas for two reasons. First, living on Boylston in the Chavez ravine made me fall in love with Los Angeles. I saw that skyline from my bedroom every night and it was part of who I was and my daily routine. When I discovered Don Normark and the stories of those evicted from the Eden of the ravine, an Eden I knew well from walking there, I was angry at the city. I noticed that everywhere I walked in Elysian Park, I could always see City Hall. I was angry about the continued treatment of immigrants here, and I knew through my reading that the Naval Base in the Zoot Suit riots was right next to this same place I had fallen in love with.
In time, I came to see it as the heart of LA (and later depicted it as such for a fanzine). I never could quite erase knowing that under the parking lots of Dodger Stadium was a school built in the town of Palo Verde.
I felt that the place was haunted, and I felt this in my own home there. There was a pencil scratch that appeared outside the laundry room that read simply “Go away,” and a persistent puddle in the same laundry room that had no known source, but would just appear. I didn’t know what that meant then, nor do I know today, but my time in the ravine was troubled by what had come before.
The second thing that matters is getting through. We are all facing a tough time right now, harder for some than for others. We need to stay home and reach out however we can. We need to remember that there were people here before us, the Native people and the original settlers and those who survived in the 1800’s and those who survived the 1918 pandemic. We can do this, too, but I won’t lie: I don’t think it will be easy, and I know I am so very lucky to have time to look up old articles and pontificate about such matters when so many people are working so hard. I am so thankful for all the people working everywhere, and thankful for my students especially, and all I can say is thanks for walking with me on this journey—you matter. I want to hear your story.