By John D. Trausch
“Los Angeles did not begin with the Spaniards; it was settled under a different name by the Gabrieleno/Tongva Nation, aborigines who were established centuries before King Carlos the III of Spain ordered his countrymen to come to Southern California. Following the king’s orders, 11 Mexican families settled El Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1781.
Olvera Street is the oldest part of Downtown Los Angeles, and although some call it “the birthplace of Los Angeles,” in reality—well, it’s close. Originally near vineyards and a winery, the street was called either Wine Street or Vine Street (depending on which 19th Century map you look at, or whether wine had been spilled on half the “W” in “Wine”). In 1818, the Avila Adobe was constructed, now the oldest existing house in the city.
In 1877, Wine/Vine Street was officially changed to Olvera in honor of the county’s first judge, Agustin Olvera, who lived on the street. The turn of the century brought with it neglect, decay and disrepair. With the neglect came the city’s forgotten, the poor working immigrants. Many of the city’s unemployed gathered in the plaza, and it became a hotbed of radical politics. Revolutionary icons such as anarchist Emma Goldman and Sun Yat-Sen, “the father of modern China,” spoke there. But the street continued its downward spiral of neglect. Some referred to it as “Sonora Town,” reflecting the Mexican state of origin of most of Los Angeles’ founders.
Enter Christine Sterling, a wealthy, young, well-connected socialite from Northern California with a hunger for history. When Christine first discovered Olvera Street in 1926, she was shocked by the dilapidated condition of the oldest part of the city. Where once had stood the city’s finest buildings and cultural center was now a hideaway for prostitutes and street crime. Old Olvera Street had a date with the bulldozers, but Christine would have none of that. She envisioned a Mexican Marketplace and a cultural center in the heart of Los Angeles to preserve the memory of old L.A. Christine’s romantic vision brought Los Angeles’ first street back to life and brought in Mexican American merchants to sell their wares, artifacts and celebrate their fiestas as they would in old Mexico.
The Avila Adobe and most of the other 26 surrounding structures were ticketed for demolition. Christine campaigned for favorable press from the Los Angeles Times, and with that came help investors and government agencies (including the Sheriff’s Department, which provided prisoners for labor). Her dream of closing the street to automobile traffic and opening a Mexican village came to fruition on Easter Sunday, 1930.
Today, the 44-acre El Pueblo Historic Park is a colorful Mexican marketplace lined with street vendors, cafes, restaurants and gift shops selling handcrafted goods, Mexican folk art, and the expected tourist items made in China. There are 27 historic buildings with a traditional Mexican style plaza area. Tourists, celebrities, politicians and dignitaries from around the world wander around the marketplace smelling the ever-present taquitos and tacos at the outdoor cafes and listening to the strolling mariachi music, and dance performances by Aztecs and Mexican folkloric dancers on weekends.
Olvera Street hosts the city’s first church, firehouse and theater, in addition to the Avila Adobe and other historic sites and residences, roughly outlined by Alameda and Hill streets, Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and the 101 (Hollywood Freeway). On the south side of the Plaza is the Pico House. Pio Pico was the last Mexican governor of California (1845-46) and his house was the first hotel in the city. In its center lies the old plaza, the symbolic heart of Los Angeles.”