This land is whose land?
Documentary photos and film record ‘Land Wars’ in new Avenue 9 Gallery series
arbiter: one who goes to a place, a witness, judge.
“In 1949, photographer Don Normark walked up into the hills of Los Angeles, looking for a good view. Instead, he found Chávez Ravine, a ramshackle Mexican-American neighborhood tucked away in Elysian Park like a ‘poor man’s Shangri-La'” (from dustcover notes to Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story, photos and text by Don Normark, Chronicle Books, 1999).
The young photographer ended up visiting and revisiting Chávez Ravine for a year after that, drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the area and its inhabitants, who had gotten used to this shy 20-year-old with a camera moving about their dirt streets and trails, quietly chronicling their lives before it would all be erased by the bulldozers that were called in to make way for the new Dodger Stadium, which began construction in 1959.
The city of Los Angeles, seeing money to be made, ordered the stadium to be built despite promises the city had already made to the inhabitants of Chávez Ravine of a low-income housing project replacing the little houses of their “village,” with them getting first crack at living in the new development. Some residents of Chávez Ravine, feeling they had no choice, sold their places to the city after receiving notices in 1950 that they had to leave; the rest hung on and were eventually evicted by right of eminent domain, some carried from their houses kicking and screaming.
Some 50 years later, Normark returned to the Chávez Ravine area from his current Seattle home base with his 1949 black-and-white photographs in hand and tracked down as many of the Chávez Ravine residents—Los Desterrados ("the uprooted")—as he could find. Many were still living in the surrounding area, staying as close to their beloved old neighborhood as possible. In fact, Los Desterrados still get together once a year for a picnic in Elysian Park, where they played as children.
The discussions Normark had with Los Desterrados about his photographs and their lives in Chávez Ravine are the subject of both his poignant, photo-filled book and his award-winning documentary film, Chávez Ravine, narrated by Cheech Marin with music by Ry Cooder, to be shown on PBS in the spring and at Chico State on Oct. 5.
I spoke with Normark recently at the busy Black Crow restaurant in downtown Chico, while he was making a stopover on his Seattle-to-LA “business trip” (Normark’s show “Chávez Ravine and Beyond” is showing at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from June 26-Oct. 3, and he will be the subject of an LA Times Sunday Magazine section interview on Oct. 24). With close-cropped gray hair and beard and a calm, warm speaking voice, Normark had a pleasantly distinguished air as he leaned in to be heard over the hubbub of the restaurant. He discussed his recently completed documentary, which “took seven years to get … done,” as well as his much-loved time with the people of Chávez Ravine and his recent color photography of the people and plants of LA’s present-day South Central Farmers’ Garden, which like Chávez Ravine is threatened by urban development.
When speaking of both Chávez Ravine and the South Central garden, Normark refers quite often, very placidly yet disapprovingly, to the term “eminent domain” and seems glad, maybe even proud, when he tells me that the South Central gardeners “are supposed to be kicked off in December, but they are fighting it.”
Normark, whose large body of work includes photographs taken in rural towns in Washington and Sweden, clearly has a passion—and compassion—for people, for family, for community.
Colorado photographer/art historian Susan Silberberg-Peirce joins Normark as co-exhibitor and panelist for the Avenue 9 Gallery’s “Land Wars” series of events. Silberberg-Peirce’s photos are of Colorado’s Little Thompson River Valley, the riparian river and wildlife corridor area that she calls home. It’s threatened with being taken over by the Bureau of Reclamation and flooded to make a dam to support future development.