Early 20th century Angelenos paid little attention to the crime-ridden, rat-infested alley that would someday attract more than 2 million visitors a year. But a newcomer from San Francisco saw treasure in the city’s birthplace.
Seventy-five years ago, Christine Sterling saved El Pueblo de Los Angeles and became known as the “Mother of Olvera Street.” She turned the area into a tourist attraction and something of an ethnic centerpiece.
In its two-century-plus history, Olvera Street has been a civic center, a slum, a nightspot and, by 1939, a quaint retail area where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt did “a little bit of Christmas shopping.”
When Sterling discovered the site in 1926, she saw it as “forsaken and forgotten,” she wrote in her diary. Appalled by “filth everywhere,” she set out to recruit movers and shakers to help recast the street as a Mexican-themed marketplace.
On Easter Sunday, April 19, 1930, Olvera Street opened in its current incarnation. It includes more than 70 market stalls and eateries today.
“Its fantasy-like theme isn’t a bad thing,” said Bill Estrada, a curator at El Pueblo. “But its 560-foot walkway roots go a lot deeper” than tourism. Estrada’s book, “Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space,” is due out next year.
Since the city’s founding in 1781, El Pueblo has been multiethnic. The original 44 settlers were Spaniards, African Americans, Indians and mestizos. Several floods prompted them to relocate the plaza farther from the Los Angeles River, finally settling at the present site in 1818.
In the 19th century, El Pueblo was home to Chinese, Mexicans, Indians, French, Italians and Anglos. In 1823, an Italian immigrant opened a shop and built a home where the plaza firehouse now stands. Soon Italian winemaking enterprises so dominated the mud-covered lane that it became known as Wine or Vine Street -- the same street now lined with shops.
In 1877, it was officially renamed Olvera Street, after Agustin Olvera, the county’s first Superior Court judge, who fought the Yankees in the Mexican American War.
By the early 1900s, the street had fallen into disrepair. City leaders ignored it for 20 more years -- until Sterling happened along.
She was born Chastina Rix in Oakland in 1881, Estrada said. Her grandfather, Alfred Rix, was a San Francisco judge and leading member of the vigilante committee. Her father, Edward Austin Rix, was a scientist.
For a brief time, Christine, as she called herself, studied art and design at Mills College in Oakland. Just as briefly, she married, before divorcing.
With her second husband, Jerome Hough, she had two children. By 1920 the family was living on Bonnie Brae Street near downtown Los Angeles. Hough abandoned the family and soon died, leaving Christine a widow without means. By 1928, she had changed her name to Sterling.
Strolling Olvera Street in 1926, she saw neglect and decay. Although she had never visited Mexico -- and never would -- she envisioned what the street should be. She believed that the 1818 Avila Adobe, which was the U.S. military headquarters during the Mexican American War, and the alley in front of it were the perfect setting for a tourist attraction.
First, she won over Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler, who assigned columnist John Steven McGroarty to report on her plans.
“Chandler was impressed with her and her ideas,” Estrada said.
But two years of publicity got her nowhere. “Miles of conversation, but no definite, tangible results,” she wrote in her diary in 1928.
That November, the city posted a “Condemned” sign in front of the Avila Adobe. Sterling put up a much bigger sign below: “Why Should This Be Condemned?” At the bottom, she added the history of the house, the oldest adobe in the city, where Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton, Maj. John C. Fremont and Kit Carson had quartered.
“Appealing to an Anglo audience, she conjured up the Anglo heroes [in the fashion of] ... ‘George Washington slept here’ -- not the fact that Francisco Avila built this adobe and was a rancher and onetime mayor of the city,” said Estrada, giving voice to later Latino critics.
In her dramatic campaign to save the remnants of “old Los Angeles,” she held a barbecue on the Avila Adobe patio. Despite Prohibition, tequila flowed freely. After a few sips, Police Chief James “Two-Gun” Davis reportedly volunteered jail inmates for the hard labor. Blue Diamond Cement and Simons Brick Co. offered material and workers. Chandler and five other prominent Angelenos agreed to donate $5,000 each.
Property owners whose backdoors opened onto the street bitterly resisted the plan. They complained all the way to the state Supreme Court that closing the road would interfere with their businesses: a winery, tinsmith shop, cornice factory, hotel and restaurant, among others. But in September 1929, the street was closed to vehicles; reconstruction soon began.
“Work started this morning on Olvera Street,” says a November 1929 entry in Sterling’s diary. “With my two children, 25 prisoners, 50% protest from the property owners and a lawsuit thrown in for good measure, we put the first picks and shovels into the old street. The prisoners were good workers, one escaped, but we managed to keep the others.”
In April 1930, the mercado was unveiled with “great festivities,” newspapers reported.
Two years later, David Alfaro Siqueiros was commissioned to create a mural for Olvera Street. This was during the Depression, when the government was deporting people to Mexico.
The artist finished his work in October 1932, and its unveiling provided an opportunity for more festivities. But when he uncovered his 80-by-16-foot “Tropical America,” the crowd gasped. He had depicted a Mexican Indian in a loincloth, hanging from a cross, with a predatory American eagle overhead.
Embarrassed city officials, and Sterling, ordered the mural whitewashed. It is now, however, being restored as a “treasured survivor of the modern Mexican muralist movement.”
As managing director of Olvera Street, Sterling personally approved tenants. In 1935, Mexican native Carmen Garcia had to parade with her four children before Sterling -- who allowed her to open a variety shop that she operated for 56 years.
Artist and children’s author Leo Politi gained a foothold with his sketches of Olvera Street children and a mural depicting the blessing of the animals.
Sterling then turned her hand to a romanticized Chinese-theme tourist center called China City. But the Chinese thought vendors’ booths and rickshaws were absurd and inauthentic.
Sterling countered, “What do they want? An Oriental Westwood Village? Let them build [New Chinatown] if they think they can get away with it, but I think it will fail.” She was wrong; it endures today.
Her “Celestial Empire” of China City, which opened in 1938, was destroyed by arson 11 years later and never rebuilt, said Suellen Cheng, a curator at El Pueblo.
Eventually, Sterling’s interest in preservation became personal. She had lived in the Mexican American enclave of Chavez Ravine since 1938. On May 9, 1959, the city moved to evict residents to make way for Dodger Stadium. Unable to save her home from the wrecking ball, she moved into the Avila Adobe, where she died in 1963, at age 82.
This weekend, a photo exhibit commemorating the Mexican marketplace opens at Pico House on North Main Street. “Celebrating 75 Years of Culture, Pride and Promise” captures the multicultural and turbulent beginnings of the quaint walkway, and Sterling’s story.