El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula
~ The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River ~
Tanned/toned beach gods/goddesses? Check.
Soul crushing traffic straight out of a bad -- and not "good" bad -- Hollywood horror film?
Check, check, check.
Like it or not, they're all part of life in Los Angeles. But scratch beneath the surface and you'll find a wealth of fascinating history that will make you think about the City of Angels in a whole new light.
Founded in 1781 by Spanish settlers primarily from the present-day Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora, Los Angeles’s first non-indigenous inhabitants consisted of eleven families and four soldiers; forty-eight people in all. By the early to mid 1800’s, the settlement had grown large enough to support its own plaza and church, both of which served as the heart of the rapidly growing community.
More than 175 years later -- under the collective aegis of Spain (1781–1821), Mexico (1821–1847) and the United States -- both the twice relocated plaza and church are still standing proud and now form the heart of The Los Angeles Plaza Historic District, aka El Pueblo de Los Ángeles State Historic Park.
The district encompasses many of the city's oldest structures, including Avila Adobe (1818), (the supposedly haunted) Pico House (1870), the Vickrey-Brunswig Building (1888), and the Garnier Building (1890 -- home to the terrific Chinese American Museum, the oldest surviving Chinese building in Southern California.)
Like untold civic plans throughout American history, LA's Historic District almost never came to pass. Why? Because it was very nearly reduced to rubble years before.
In 1848, shortly after the US-Mexican War ended and California became part of the United States, Los Angeles was incorporated as a city. Over the next forty years, buoyed by the first railroad connection to reach her shores, an international mix of Mexican, Italian and French immigrants triggered a massive population growth.
As a result, the longstanding commercial and cultural center began to move south, away from the Plaza. Local wags took notice:
The geographical center of Los Angeles is the old plaza, but that has long since ceased to be the center of population... These are solid facts which it is useless to attempt to ignore by playing the ostrich...The Los Angeles Times, 1891
By the early 1920's, severe social and economic conditions transformed the former jewel of Los Angeles into a dingy, rundown slum. City leaders wanted nothing to do with the area, and were making plans to condemn vast swaths of it.
Enter Christine Sterling.
Known as the “Mother of Olvera Street”, this well-connected socialite was born in Oakland but moved to Los Angeles in 1920 with a vision shared by countless others to this day: “The booklets and folders I read about Los Angeles were painted in colors of Spanish Mexican romance. The sunshine, mountains, beaches, palm trees were here...".
Crucially, she went on to add "But where was the romance of the Past? Old Missions, rambling adobes — the strumming of guitars and the click of castanets.”
Certainly not on Olvera Street -- which Christine traversed in 1926 only to be shocked by the dilapidated condition of the oldest part of the city.
(Originally known as known as "Calle de la Vignas", i.e. "Vine Street" because of the abundance of Italian wine makers in the area -- the street was renamed in 1877 in honor of Augustin Olevera, the first Superior Court judge of LA County.)
Where once had stood the city’s finest buildings and cultural center was now a hideaway for prostitutes and street crime. As she noted in her journal: “The crime, the filth of everything, a woman dying of consumption in a dirty room, sewer water running down the street from broken pipes.”
Sterling's efforts to restore the Plaza and greater Olvera Street area to its former glory began in 1926 when she learned of a city plan to demolish the Avila Adobe. Former residence of Francisco Avila, the two-time mayor of Mexican Los Angeles, it was -- and still is -- the oldest residence in the city.
With a smart, vocal, and perfectly targeted one-woman campaign that would impress even the most grizzled PR flaks of today, Sterling came up with an audacious plan to conserve this formerly grand historical district: turn it into a "modern, romantic” marketplace and cultural center where visitors could learn about city's Spanish and Mexican heritage.
Or, as she came to pitch it to local movers & shakers:
"A Mexican Marketplace of Yesterday in the City of Today".
After a series of ups and downs befitting the plucky, indefatigable heroine of any madcap 1920s Hollywood film, Sterling's plan ultimately demonstrated sufficient commercial appeal to draw support from the Chamber of Commerce, City Council, prominent local luminaries including Harry Chandler (publisher of the Los Angeles Times), and perhaps most fortuitously:
The infamous Chief of Police James "Two-Gun" Davis.
After attending one of Sterling’s fundraising barbecues -- where tequila flowed like water in spite of prohibition -- Chief Davis was in such high spirits that he offered up crews of prison inmates to do the hard labor.
Work started this morning on Olvera Street. 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... One is a good carpenter, another an electrician. Each night I pray they will arrest a bricklayer and a plumber.Christine Sterling (Personal Diary, November 1929)
Olvera Street was closed to traffic in 1929, and re-opened in 1930 to great fanfare and instant success. The leading Spanish language newspaper, La Opinión, lauded the overall result as "una calleja que recuerda al México viejo" (a street which recalls old Mexico).
Today, Olvera Street attracts over 2 million people a year, tourists and locals alike. It includes more than 70 market stalls and places to grab a bite -- and yes, kitsch is served liberally wherever you go -- but its overall importance as a vibrant, tangible piece of LA’s living history cannot be underestimated.
So next time you find yourself in the area, why not head over and take a good look around. Although Los Angeles emphatically remains the "City of Today" Christine Sterling said it was back in 1920s… you'll surely find that the beauty and rich multi-cultural legacy of yesteryear is still very much alive at the old El Pueblo de Los Angeles.