Olvera Street: One Person’s Fantasy Becomes Los Angeles Realpolitik : Restoration: Proving the past can be what you perceive it, a crime-ridden, rat-infested service road was transformed into a Mexican marketplace.
The intense emotions swirling around the debate over the historical restoration of Olvera Street suggest the street’s Mexican market is as eternal and fixed as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. In truth, it was invented out of whole cloth in 1930, by a civic activist inspired by a California past that existed mostly in fantasy.
Olvera Street is part of the historically significant Old Plaza area, where 44 colonists from Sinaloa and Sonora, Mexico, founded El Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1781. Today, it consists of 44 acres incorporated into the city-owned El Pueblo Park.
The idea of a mercado on Olvera Street was conceived in 1929, by Christine Sterling, a San Franciscan, who had never visited Mexico. She was from an Anglo family of modest financial means. Her father was said to have invented the cable car; her late husband had been a Hollywood producer.
Inspired by the romantic vision of old California personified in the Ramona legend and the movement to preserve the state’s missions, Sterling dreamed of creating a Mexican marketplace in Los Angeles to preserve the old buildings of the region and promote Mexican crafts.
She focused her creative energies on an unpaved service road for commercial and light-industrial businesses that fronted Main and Los Angeles streets. No retail businesses had existed there since it had opened in 1877. Olvera Street, in fact, was a crime-ridden, rat-infested, unsightly gash in the center of the plaza. In Sterling’s mind, however, it was the perfect setting for a romantic mercado .
Moving into the Avila adobe after city health officials condemned it, she saved the adobe from the wrecking ball. (She lived there until her death in 1963.) With Avila as her mercado headquarters, she secured mostly moral but some financial backing from six prominent Angelenos--including Harry Chandler of The Los Angeles Times, attorney Henry O'Melveny and railroad magnate Moses Sherman. The $25,000 she raised paid for rent and repairs along Olvera Street.
Property owners whose back doors opened onto the street bitterly resisted the mercado proposal. They complained to the City Council and mayor that closing the road would interfere with their businesses--a winery, tinsmith shop, cornice factory, Italian community center, hotel and restaurant and others. When the City Council voted to close off the street, the mostly Anglo owners unsuccessfully complained all the way to the California Supreme Court about the closure. The mercado was unveiled on Easter weekend in 1930, amid a fanfare of dancing, singing, eating and public rejoicing.
From its inception, the Old Plaza area, as well as Olvera Street, was multi-ethnic. The original settlers were Spaniards, African-Americans, Indians and mestizos. They had taken over from Gabrieleno Indians, who had probably lived there for centuries. While Latinos have been the dominant ethnic group in the 20th Century, the area’s residents, shopkeepers and customers included Chinese, Germans, Italians, French, Portuguese, African-Americans and a smattering of Japanese. The Italians owned key properties and built the Italian Hall. The plaza area had been the center of Chinatown since the 1880s, and the large, surrounding Chinese population was still growing in the late 1920s, when Sterling first envisioned her enchanted mercado .
The fates of both the Old Plaza and Olvera Street, even with its new mercado , have always rested in the hands of decision-makers in City Hall and corporate board rooms. In the 1920s, city officials considered replacing the plaza with a new civic center. They also come close to bulldozing the area for a new railroad terminal--eventually built just east of the plaza, on Alameda Street.
The construction of the rail terminal required the bulldozing of Chinatown, a collection of thriving businesses and a residential ghetto abutting the plaza’s eastern perimeter. Because the Chinese residents lacked political clout, their businesses and community facilities were uprooted and moved to a new site a mile or two north--where Sterling created a romanticized Chinese market off Ord Street. It was a bust commercially and burned down in 1938.
The Olvera Street mercado , by contrast, became a commercial success and tourist attraction. Craft artists sold leather, glass, silver and wood goods to residents and tourists, which numbered close to a million annually. A reporter for the New York Times, writing on Aug. 3, 1930, said: “The Plaza is very old, as old as Lilith and Cain. The Mexicans founded it, and the Mexicans are still there. So are the Chinese, the Japanese, the Negroes, the low-caste whites and as many variants as the mathematical law of permutations and combinations will allow.”
Of course, other major events have shaped the history of the plaza and Olvera Street since the 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s, historically significant buildings at the plaza’s southern end were bulldozed to make room for a freeway. In 1953, outraged preservationists, including Sterling, successfully called for the area to be declared a state historic monument, so providing minimal protection for the remaining buildings.
For a time, El Pueblo Park was run by a three-headed commission whose members--state, county and city--could never agree on anything important. The result: If it wasn’t theme-park entrepreneurs seeking a quick buck, no matter the historical cost, it was architectural purists (save all buildings) vying with architectural romantics (impose a uniform Spanish colonial style on all buildings) for control over Olvera Street’s look. Throughout, there was never enough money to preserve what was there.
Knowing the history of Olvera Street and the Old Plaza alone will not calm the storm over what form the restoration of Olvera Street should take today, because the struggle is not so much about the past as it is about the present and the future. To some degree, Olvera Street and the plaza are what the viewer perceives them to be. But plainly, they are more than a popular downtown commercial attraction: They symbolize much of Los Angeles’ past, especially its multi-ethnic origins, its Mexican roots and its celebration of historical romance.