As odd as it may sound today, public housing was indeed once the domain of dreamers, idealists, and reformers. Frank Wilkinson was one of them. And, in a fateful meshing of character and history, Wilkinson would become the pivotal, if unwitting, figure in what came to be known as The Battle of Chavez Ravine.
As civil libertarians we are quick to claim Frank as our own. But we have to share him with the housing activists. Peter Dreier teaches political science and directs the Urban and Environmental Policy program at Occidental College. Jan Breidenbach is the executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing and Housing LA. Both are National Housing Institute board members.
Together they wrote a remembrance of Frank:
It is worth remembering that Wilkinson’s crusade for the first amendment actually began when he was fired from the Los Angeles Housing Authority for his radical politics. The years he spent fighting for our basic freedoms were catalyzed by his own experience as a victim of the 1950s Red Scare when he was a housing activist in Los Angeles.
Dreier and Breidenbach note Frank’s brilliant work as a crusader for the First Amendment, but they want us to note his roots:
Wilkinson came to his activism through his own experience. He grew up in Beverly Hills, went to UCLA where he joined the Republican Party, was active in “Youth for [Herbert] Hoover” and considered becoming a Methodist minister. During a post-college trip around the world, he was radicalized by his exposure to poverty. For his generation of idealists who came of age in the Depression of the 1930s, public housing was part of a broad movement for social reform and economic justice. Wilkinson joined the new Los Angeles Housing Authority in 1942, when it was an independent agency with the mission of ending slum housing in the city. Under then-Mayor Fletcher Bowron, a reform-minded liberal Republican elected in 1938, the L.A. Housing Authority supported the idea of building decent housing for poor and low-income families and believed in racial integration in the city’s developments.
Then came Chavez Ravine:
After World War II, Bowron sought to expand the program, especially for the many veterans who faced a desperate housing shortage. He endorsed a plan to raze many homes in the tight-knit Chavez Ravine neighborhood and to replace them with a large public housing development, to be designed by world-class architect Richard Neutra. It was to include two dozen 13-story buildings and more than 160 two-story houses, as well as new playgrounds and schools.
Bowron, Wilkinson and other reformers viewed the housing plan for Chavez Ravine as a way to improve living conditions for poor Angelenos. The first people to oppose the idea were the immigrants who lived in Chavez Ravine. This community, with its small shacks, unpaved roads and no sewer system, was still their home. One of the incentives offered to the residents was the promise that they would be the first ones to move into the new housing.
Real estate developers had other ideas for Chavez Ravine. It’s not really a surprise they sunk to red-baiting to win:
While Wilkinson and the Housing Authority wanted to rebuild the neighborhood for the people who lived there, Los Angeles business leaders and right-wing politicians wanted to bulldoze it for other reasons. Land so close to the city’s downtown was worth more exploited for profit than for the provision of affordable housing. Using McCarthyite Red Scare tactics, these forces combined to characterize the Chavez Ravine proposal – and public housing in general – as socialist planning. The attack focused on its leading advocate, Frank Wilkinson – portraying him as a dangerous Communist. Brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to answer their questions on First Amendment grounds. He was fired from his job, tried and sent to federal prison.
But Frank wasn’t the only one who suffered. The residents of Chavez Ravine paid a huge price: they lost their homes.
City officials allowed Chavez Ravine to languish as an almost abandoned slum until the mid 1950s, when Councilman Kenneth Hahn enticed Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to bring his team to Los Angeles. The City bulldozed the few remaining homes, forcibly evicting the last residents. No one was relocated into better housing; instead, the deep ravines were filled in to make the flat playing field of Dodger Stadium.
We didn’t mean to take Frank away from the housing activists! We are happy to share. Dreier and Breidenbach are happy to have him back:
The story of Chavez Ravine, along with that of Frank Wilkinson and the L.A. Housing Authority, lay dormant for a long time. In recent years, however, the “battle of Chavez Ravine” has become a legend of urban planning, inspiring a play by the Culture Clash theater group, a recent album by guitarist Ry Cooder (who spoke at the memorial service for Wilkinson), many books and academic articles. After years of national activism for the First Amendment, Wilkinson became known again, this time for his housing work. A positive history of public housing, and a new housing hero, were returned to us.
We’ll all continue to fight in Frank’s memory:
Like his fight to protect the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, Frank Wilkinson viewed decent, safe, affordable housing as a basic human right. He is an inspiration to tens of thousands of activists in this nation. In his memory, we recommit ourselves to dismantling the Patriot Act, as he fought to dismantle HUAC. And in his memory, we fight for a safe, decent and affordable place for all to call home.
Read the entire essay at the National Housing Institute, Shelterforce Online
Further reading on housing activism:
For more information about Frank Wilkinson’s life, see:
First Amendment Felon: The Story of Frank Wilkinson, His 132,000 Page FBI File and His Epic Fight for Civil Rights and Liberties, by Robert Sherrill. Nation Books, 2005.
Making a Better World: Public Housing, the Red Scare and the Direction of Modern Los Angeles, by Don Parson. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Ry Cooder, Chavez Ravine. Nonesuch/Perro Verde Records, 2005.