An audio-visual geography of Chavez Ravine

This fall I started a Master’s program in Planning at USC. This project is part of a semester-long treatment of the Dodger Stadium site. 

It’s important to remember, as an offramp lifts you from the 110 and guides you onto a newly repaved incline, which will take you to a parking lot, where you will begin your hike up the tarmac toward the Stadium and finally your seats, that these asphalt sensibilities are not native to Chavez Ravine. The roads were dirt until the Mexicans got pushed out, to say nothing of the myriad flora both planted and growing wildly many years before any O’Malley got a taste of Cali. Also, remember that you are in a lowkey sweat when you finally sit down only because someone actually engineered this ravine to be a hill. Although, partly thanks to a Dodger Stadium arborist, the vast gray plains are now dotted with greenery. The Dodger Stadium campus is home to hundreds of different plant and tree varieties, many of the plants filling the same concrete planters and “champagne bowls” that have lined the stadium for over fifty years. The trees are mostly palms, but not entirely. A wreath of deciduous trees beyond the bleachers provides more shade cover, though you’re not expected to spend much time underneath them.

It’s important to remember, as an offramp lifts you from the 110 and guides you onto a newly repaved incline, which will take you to a parking lot, where you will begin your hike up the tarmac toward the Stadium and finally your seats, that these asphalt sensibilities are not native to Chavez Ravine. The roads were dirt until the Mexicans got pushed out, to say nothing of the myriad flora both planted and growing wildly many years before any O’Malley got a taste of Cali. Also, remember that you are in a lowkey sweat when you finally sit down only because someone actually engineered this ravine to be a hill. Although, partly thanks to a Dodger Stadium arborist hired in 2009, the vast gray plains are now dotted with greenery. The Dodger Stadium campus is home to hundreds of different plant and tree varieties, many of the plants filling the same concrete planters and “champagne bowls” that have lined the stadium for over fifty years. The trees are mostly palm, but not entirely. There a wreath of deciduous trees beyond the bleachers that provide more shade cover.

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A Mexican fan palm in a champagne bowl. The potted plants at Dodger Stadium are drought-tolerant warriors. Via Tree Services Magazine.

Geography also varies around the field of play. Where you sit matters at Dodger Stadium. A fan sitting twenty rows behind home plate and a fan sitting twenty rows up in the left field bleachers are watching the same event unfold, but they may remember completely different things about the game. Likewise, a visiting left-fielder will tell you about the fans, but the shortstop wouldn’t be able to corroborate his story.

This reflection will examine two aspects of Chavez Ravine geography. I will begin by briefly discussing the placement and integration of natural features throughout the Dodger Stadium site; then, shifting focus to within the stadium’s confines, I will share audio and video from different seating sections, with some commentary on how what you see and hear changes as one moves around.

Dodger Stadium in the wild

There are competing geographies here: the greater Chavez Ravine area as a park, and Dodger Stadium as an entertainment site. Though the municipal territory surrounding the stadium grounds is a shapeless amoeba, at 617 acres it is comparable in scale to Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. But its hilly and often rocky terrain—millions of cubic feet of dirt were pushed around to set the stadium in a crater-on-a-hill— has made it mostly untenable for building anything else. That inherent resilience to construction has protected much of Elysian Park through decades of booming development Downtown as a rare nature preserve within Los Angeles, even if a fair amount of that terrain is currently inaccessible to people.

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A map of Elysian Park, with the L.A. River licking it to the north and the 110 freeway slicing through it. (via utopiad.org)

One ascending the hill to go to the ballgame will at some point be beset on one side by trees or chaparral on an even steeper incline.

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I am once again arriving late to Dodger Stadium via the Sunset Gate. An hour earlier, this would have been packed with cars. The cones create a lane for cars leaving the stadium, not for pedestrians, who are confined to this four-foot walkway on the left. The road here is flanked by vegetated hills.

But these green margins are almost always fenced off to protect pedestrians from landslides and falling rocks, and, perhaps, to discourage wildlife making the park their home.

Not so tempting, unless you have a body to bury, which I do not.

Take me out!

As alluded to above, where you sit in the stadium matters. If nothing else, it determines your view of the action. A more expensive ticket generally gets you closer to the batter. The worst view won’t be more than 500 feet away.

Even as people of all colors and creeds sit alongside each other in every section, where you sit can still say something about you. In the spirit of class division, a highly judgmental but nonetheless EMPIRICAL overview of what your stadium geography says about you in 2017:

TOP DECK (usually around $8-$15 per ticket): Gravity, like the price of your ticket, is reduced at this elevation. You wanted to see the game in person, which is commendable. Noble, even. As long as you’re up in the clouds, you might as well dream of a foul ball making it up here. You tell your friends that the view “actually is secretly very good, considering,” but they can’t hear you from down there. And they don’t think you’re their friend.

LEFT FIELD BLEACHERS ($15-$30): You’re under 40 years old, you’re saving money on food so you can spend more on liquor, and you don’t mind yelling at strangers. You’re here for the right reasons.

RIGHT FIELD BLEACHERS ($35-$45, all-you-can-eat): You’re capable of scarfing down mass quantities of hot dogs, nachos, and peanuts. It’s okay, though, because you’re washing it down with Coke Zero.

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RESERVE ($10-$30): You are a man or woman of the people who cares about personal space. You’re not the first person to realize that the best seats in this section strike the perfect balance of affordability and enjoyment. There is also a very clean pair of bathrooms in the right field corner. It’s clean because only true baseball fans know of its existence.

LOGE ($28-$75): This section is for foul-ball chasers and bourgeoisie trying to flex. It’s sort of dismal in the corners.

FIELD ($45-$400): You’re rich, you know someone who’s rich, or you like feeling rich.

CLUB/DUGOUT CLUB ($500+): You’re wealthy, which is not the same as being rich, and consider yourself elite. You haven’t gotten this low in life’s grand tiered seating arrangement without making a fair number of people really hate you. That, or you’re Magic Johnson. The chances you give a shit about the game are highly diminished here, trending in the opposite direction of the likelihood that you’re wearing a suit.

GRASS: You are a jock, you serve the jocks, or you are currently being chased by security. Run!

You don’t have to be on the stadium grounds to consume Dodger baseball—the vast majority of fans watch the game at home or listen on the radio. Until this season, Vin Scully, the inimitable, irreplaceable aural accompaniment to Dodger home games, called the games on television with the first three innings simulcasted to radio. (Different radio announcers would take over the rest of the game.) Scully had done this for 67 years. His skill, his uncanny ability to pluck humorous or thoughtful anecdotes out of the distant past to color the game, and his warmth on air made his voice a fixture not just on Los Angeles televisions, but also at the stadium on fans’ transistor radios. Since Scully retired in 2016, you won’t find any portable radios in the stands. But you can still catch the game on AM 570, which at 5,000 watts covers most of the L.A. area. The radio frequency determines one important geographic range—and somewhere within its reach is where gameday begins for me, as I’m once again running late. I’m listening to 93.5 KDAY, then I’m eastbound on the 10 freeway with the windows down, then I’m in my Subaru sound studio. The recorder doesn’t catch my deep sigh.

A baseball game’s broad strokes—the home run, the injured player, the organ, the last out of every inning—sound mostly the same regardless of where you sit. It’s one wave of sound, or in the case of an injury, all noise is momentarily doused.

It’s the liminal sound, the 20-30 seconds between each pitch, that varies from section to section, and from ballpark to ballpark. But those in-betweens define the game’s sonic experience. Wrigley Field in Chicago, with two long, shallow concourses, is a steady drum of ambient discourse—the sound carries straight ahead. There’s excellent sound at Wrigley. You can go there to talk or just to listen. It’s somehow loud and yet you never have to raise your voice in conversation.

Dodger Stadium varies more across the four terraces and bleachers. The Reserve section, first-base side, where I’m sitting today, doesn’t carry its own weight in sound, mostly because the seating is so steep that talking just moves over the head of the person sitting in front of you. There is an ambient stadium sound that bounces off our section, which in the acoustical sense is the biggest wall panel in the stadium.

The reserve section is also ideal for actual spectating. Bring a pair of binoculars, and you can gaze into the dugout on the opposite of the field for minutes at a time, to see which players are chatty and which keep to themselves, which guys spit down and which spit straight. Remember to blink.

The Loge level is the best place to catch foul balls, and it feels nice and snug over the action, too. Loge is a good blanket. When dad told you he was springing for seats in Loge, that’s a solid fist pump. These days, the Loge level also has these little nooks where you can stand over a table and drink. They’re fine. The ambient sound in Loge is a little louder than Reserve; the sound is trapped under the overhang.

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Loge.

The Field level is overrated in Dodger Stadium. You’re so used to being above the action that when you’re adjacent to it, you can feel small and unable to comprehend the game’s scale.

IMG_4132Someone in the Top Deck is yelling down at us. “WE’RE STARTING THE WAVE!” Some of us look up, but this is no place to start the wave. What do they do up there, in the Top Deck? I guess, this.

At the end of the Reserve tier, in the upper corner, are the Worst Seats. No one is sitting there tonight.

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My knees are at the neck of the person in front of me. I don’t mind these folks. But whatever I say goes over their head.

It’s different in the left-field bleachers. It’s a younger crowd, a self-selecting group of people who privilege good company over good time. The outfield seats don’t hang over the players like they do in some other stadiums. The soft murmur of the Reserve section is replaced with a chattering babble. The bleachers sound like the outdoor tables at a happy hour. That’s basically what they are.

The bleachers are in the outfield, far from home plate. But that puts them very close to the outfielders. Jabari Blash, the Padres’ left fielder, knows this. Over the course of nine innings he will hear “Number 32! You suck!” become a rallying cry for Michelada-sipping Dodger bums. But he’s a good sport—it’s the last Dodger home game of the season—and plays along, teasing the implacable fans by faking throws into the seats, and holding a finger up to his lips when the joke gets old: sshhh.  At the end of a long, losing series, Blash deserves some fun. And why shouldn’t the players get some R&R?

Fans in the bleachers want to cheer. They want to hear their own voices. When a churro salesman says “Churro…churro…” walking up the aisle, the section starts chanting, “Chur-ro! Chur-ro! Chur-ro! Chur-ro!” When someone in the section yells, “NUMBER THIRTY-TWO!” the rest of the section obliges: “YOU SUCK!”

One more thing: crucially, the bleachers is where doing the wave starts. The wave begins when some fans—it could be anyone—get their section to stand, throw their hands up, and immediately sit back down, triggering a domino effect of the section to their right doing the same, and on and on, all the way around and around the stadium and it only stops when something happens. It takes about 45 seconds for the wave to do a full lap around the stadium.

It’s easiest to start the wave in the bleachers, because the bleachers are visible to the rest of the crowd (they’re not above or below anyone), and everyone in the bleachers is in the same “tier,” so an entire section acting means the entire structure is acting. With enough momentum, everyone in the stadium participates. Even the people in suits, probably. Those who don’t, don’t matter—they’re outnumbered, and they’re sitting down.

[Also, everyone in the bleachers is willing to do stuff. If they’re not starting the wave (which happens maybe 1-3 times per game, with a few false starts mixed in), they’re batting around a beach ball until it lands on the field and play has to stop.]

Polarizing for its aesthetics as well as its practicality (it occurs irrespective of game events), it says here that the wave is a meaningful diversion—organic social action bubbling up and driving top-down, democratic participation. I love the wave, and I wrote that sentence to explain it. The wave is stupid, and it’s fun, and it’s a Dodger Stadium thing. And it starts in the bleachers.

The Dodgers win this, their last home game of the regular season.  Time to go home. I walk back to the car past a gorgeous terrace, out through acres of parking lot and down the Sunset Gate entrance. There’s a man at the corner of Sunset and Stadium Way selling Dodgers t shirts for ten dollars. Another man, in the middle of the street directing traffic, wants one. They start yelling at each other over the sound of cars racing by in between them. All around us are mysterious, uncharted hills. There are no places to walk that aren’t paved.

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