How the Wilkinson Dossier led to Dodger Stadium

Drive northeast of downtown Los Angeles, up the Arroyo Seco Parkway (now known as the Pasadena freeway, it is the first freeway built in the United States) and you will come across a landmark as iconic as the Hollywood Sign — Dodger Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers major league baseball team.  I think it is unfathomable to most Angelenos, today, to imagine anything else sitting atop Chavez Ravine in my hometown.  That the stadium sits there is the result of LA’s history of notoriously corrupt city government, racism, questionable police tactics from a force that would make ISIS look like Sunday School children on an outing to feed ducklings in a pond, HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee), J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and the Wilkinson Dossier.

construction of Dodger Stadium

the construction of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine,1962

As late as the 1940’s last century, Chavez Ravine was an enclave with roughly 300 families of Mexican immigrants, a throwback to another time and place in the midst of a boomtown where goats wandered freely and barefoot children played in dirt roads.  But in 1950, following a city planning commission study of LA’s “blighted areas,” it was decided that Chavez Ravine would be cleared out to make way for a new low-income public-housing project.  And it is here that I need to introduce you to Frank Wilkinson.

Chavez Ravine, circa 1940

Frank was born into a deeply devout Methodist family in Charlevoix, Michigan, one of four children.  In 1925 the family moved to Hollywood, California and from there on to Beverly Hills two years later.  Although they were not wealthy, the family was comfortable; he attended Beverly Hills High School, going on to graduate from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1936.  After graduation, Frank traveled throughout the US, North Africa, and the Middle East.  In Chicago, he visited Hull House, a settlement founded by Jane Addams, the pacifist anarchist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, to serve newly-arrived European immigrants; while there, he visited Maxwell Street which he described as "one of the real turning points of my life because I had never seen poverty before.”  He encountered more poverty and degradation in his travels through North Africa and the Middle East, experiences which caused him to re-evaluate his faith in a benign deity.  As recounted in his biography, First Amendment Felon, he wrote to his friend, UC Berkeley President Robert Gordon Sproul, "Dear Bob, There is no God….”  But this realization sparked his commitment to humanity in all its diversity and to his desire to build a better world.

Upon returning home, he informed his family of his new-found atheism and zeal for social reform.  The FBI wasn’t buying it, so they opened up a file on him; the first entry notes that he had been seen in the company of "known Communists.”  The FBI would monitor him for the next four decades of his life.  It was at this time that Frank met Msgr. Thomas O'Dwyer, the Los Angeles Archdiocesan Director of Catholic Charities, who took him to slums located just a few miles from his home in Beverly Hills, recruiting him to the Citizens Housing Council, an advocacy group for slum clearance and public housing.  From this, he found his way to a staff position at the Los Angeles Housing Authority.

At the housing authority, Frank pushed for the racial integration of the first Watts Housing project; he was appointed manager and given the task of implementing the integration he sought.  As the housing program expanded into a massive $110 million dollar plan for Los Angeles, he became Special Assistant to the Executive Director of the Housing Authority, responsible for explaining the rationale behind slum clearance and public housing to the general public, which put him in contact with myriad groups, ranging from veterans' organizations, to the Catholic hierarchy in the city, to many community and political interests, including the Communist Party.

Frank Wilkinson, at a 1952 hearing

August 29, 1952.  Frank Wilkinson began the day a determined crusader and luminary in Los Angeles’ housing authority, a man on the verge of the greatest triumph of his career:  the construction of 10,000 new units of public housing in Los Angeles to be called Elysian Park Heights, located in the cleared-out slums of Chavez Ravine.  By the end of the day he would be destroyed — the target of an expensive, elaborate, and ruthless campaign of disinformation and fear-mongering that would also end his dream of seeing integrated public housing in Los Angeles.  Elysian Park Heights would have towered over the downtown Los Angeles skyline as Dodger Stadium does today — he saw public housing as the key to racial harmony and to eradicating poverty.  He was a true believer with a utopian vision at a time when the Red Scare was in full effect and he was caught-up in the injustice of the McCarthy era.

That August morning, immediately after being sworn in, Frank was hit with the question that would change his life forever; an attorney, Felix McGinins, looked over a mysterious stack of papers he had in front of him and asked Frank to please list all of the organizations, political or otherwise, that he had belonged to since his freshman year at UCLA.  It was obvious to everyone what the questioner was implying — in Los Angeles, opponents of public housing had spent years trying to tie such projects to Communism; in fact, the leading group opposing public housing was ironically called CASH, an acronym which stood for “Citizens Against Socialist Housing!”

Frank rattled-off a long list of groups he had joined:  religious organizations, civic organizations, his college fraternity.  When he stopped, he was asked if that was all, or would he like to continue.  He refused to go on, as "a matter of personal conscience.  And if necessary I would hold that to answer such a question might in some way incriminate me.”  The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution condemning his refusal to answer and calling upon the House Un-American Activities Committee to come to LA to investigate the Housing Authority.  Frank was fired with immediate effect, but ultimately the fate of Elysian Park Heights would come down to the following year’s mayoral election.

For the time being, the incumbent mayor was a staunch public housing supporter named Fletcher Bowron.  A few years earlier, the city had signed a deal with the Truman administration to build 10,000 units of public housing, paid for with Federal money.  But in the ensuing years, support for housing on the city council had been eroded by Red Scare tactics like the one that had ruined Frank Wilkinson and beaten back by private real estate developers putting profits before the needs of people.  It all hinged on the mayoral election.

Mayor Bowron’s opponent was a little-known congressman named Norris Poulson, who had been hand-picked by LA business interests, led by Norman Chandler, the powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times.  Poulson and his allies ran an aggressive, negative campaign, tying public housing to Communism; Frank and Chavez Ravine were the cornerstone of their campaign, which included inviting a Michigan congressman named Clare Hoffman to Los Angeles to conduct hearings on Communist infiltration of the housing authority.  Hoffman was known to be a fear monger and a conspiracy theorist who spoke at “America First” rallies spreading conspiracy theories alleging that fluoridated water, polio vaccines, and the mental health movement of the 1950’s were elements of a coordinated Communist plot to take-over America.

The Hoffman hearings were televised, and Frank watched on tv as Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker was sworn in.  Parker proceeded to produce a paper from a rather large file.  This was, Frank immediately realized, the same document that attorney Felix McGinins had been referring to back in August of 1952.  Parker testified that early in 1952 he had presented this very dossier (gesturing to the file) to Mayor Bowron, as well as similar dossiers on nine other housing authority employees “known” to be Communists, adding that, “This information came to me through official channels.”

Chief Parker offered no evidence of any kind, nor was he asked to.  He did not even accuse Frank or the others of a crime.  It didn’t matter.  Frank had already been denounced as a Communist, and was now linked, by the chief of police, to Mayor Bowron and public housing.  Later, Frank would learn that the official channel that Parker was referring to was the FBI, which had begun surveilling Frank over a decade earlier.  Norris Poulson won the mayoral election; plans for Elysian Park Heights were scrapped, and along with it the idea of affordable, integrated, public housing in Los Angeles.  315 acres of Chavez Ravine were sold for the construction of a new baseball stadium to team owner Walter O’Malley who shocked the baseball world by announcing he was moving the Brooklyn Dodgers west to Los Angeles.

In the 1970’s, with help from the ACLU, Frank decided to file a Freedom of Information Act request about the FBI surveillance of him.  After a decade-long legal battle, Frank learned in the 1980’s that the FBI had been surveilling him since 1942, since the start of his career in housing.  They had continued to watch him for more than 30 years.  His FBI file ran to 132,000 pages.  They had spied on him constantly and worked to subvert his efforts at every turn.  He learned that J. Edgar Hoover had taken a personal interest in his case; every time he went somewhere to speak, the FBI worked to infiltrate his life and undermine his goals, even going so far as to recruit members of the American Nazi Party as counter-demonstrators.  It was all right there in the file.

Chavez Ravine-Dodger Stadium

Chavez Ravine Today — Dodger Stadium

The dossier that William Parker referred to, the sheet of paper that Felix McGinins used to discredit Frank Wilkinson and pave the way for a baseball landmark with few peers which boasts the largest seating capacity in professional baseball and is roundly viewed as one of the most beautiful places to watch a game, suddenly had an explanation.

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