First of a three-part series about Olvera Street and Los Angeles’ rise as an urban center
By all respects, it is nothing more than an alley, a narrow cobblestone corridor tucked away amid some of Los Angeles’ more imposing architectural behemoths. At the same time, it is a tourist trap surrounded by overpriced parking lots and street vendors testing the limits of visual overload.
Still, amid its obvious melee, Olvera Street seems to be living a double life. Somewhere along the way, it managed to morph itself into much more than a kitschy escape into “old Mexico.” Intentionally or not, it has become shared space for some of Los Angeles’ more disaffected communities, each adapting it to their own needs, each taking away from it something unique.
My aim is to tell the story of Olvera Street in three parts: first, looking back on the history of this proto-urban center, from its beginnings in 1781 to its restoration in the early 1930s; secondly, to understand how and why this block has been and continues to be a rallying point for immigrant communities while simultaneously playing host to dozens of the city’s homeless; thirdly, looking into the future of Olvera Street, understanding its complicated evolution into being modern, historic, ethnic, and accessible all at once.
As it currently stands, with a stuffed burro guarding its entryway and panpipe versions of “My Heart Will Go On” wafting through the air, Olvera Street may be a bit of a far cry from its origins. But history, in spite of some of the more fervent efforts to erase it, has a distinct penchant for tenacity.
The city of Los Angeles itself had a bittersweet birth. In 1781, a small contingent of settlers and soldiers trekked northward out of Mexico with military governor, Fernando Rivera y Moncada in the lead.
Unfortunately for Moncada, the 1781 expedition proved to be his last. Never making it to Los Angeles, Moncada and few local missionaries died in a skirmish with Quechan Indians near the present day California-Arizona border, with that small contingent of settlers and soldiers being forced to head into the Los Angeles basin without him.
As for the settlers, they trudged on, establishing their new secular pueblo just miles from the San Gabriel Mission. Seasonal floodwaters engorged the nearby river, prompting frequent movement and relocation, so it may not have been until the early 1800s that the historic city center arrived at the location we know it at today.
It was then, in 1818, that the now fabled Avila Adobe was born, commissioned by one of the pueblo’s more illustrious landowners, Francisco Avila. Having made his fortune the only way an early californio could, Avila spared no expense in using the money he made in cattle ranching to furnish what was, in those days, a jaw-dropping mansion, outfitted with custom-made windows, decked out with imported furniture, and generally trimmed with the luxuries of the day.
With Francisco’s death in 1832 and the advent of westward American expansion in the 1840s, the short-lived heyday of the adobe effectively came to an end. A declaration of war in 1846 between Mexico and the United States came with California as the prime target. When the war was over, and an American victory effectively claimed half of Mexico as its spoils, the residents of the pueblo at Los Angeles were not entirely thrilled by the transfer of power.
Many residents devoted themselves to making life particularly difficult for the recently arrived American forces sent to police the city, with many small skirmishes springing up throughout the fledgling state.
Still, early californio legacies cropped up here and there. Across the plaza, former governor Pío Pico ordered construction to begin on the ambitious Pico House in 1869, while in 1877, the central path in the city square once called Wine Street was renamed in honor of pioneering local resident and county judge, Agustín Olvera, in 1877.
As for the Adobe, Francisco’s widow, Encarnacion, eventually passed the house along to her daughter and son-in-law, who eventually moved out of the adobe all together once age started to get the best of it.
As age claimed the last of the californios, and time began to chip away at their architecture, Olvera Street itself began to devolve as well. Though still a key gateway to incoming Mexican and Italian populations at the turn of the century, Olvera Street and the history placita were rapidly fading. By the time it made a cameo appearance in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film, “The Kid,” Olvera Street was little more than a dogged dirt path between Los Angeles and Main Streets.
It wasn’t until 1926, when local socialite Christine Sterling decided to make the revitalization of Olvera Street her pet project, that the city’s historic center began to garner attention once again. Wrangling the support –and the wallets—of such iconic L.A. powerhouses as Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Sterling launched her campaign to rebuild the city’s core and transform Olvera Street into a romanticized version of its former self.