In the midst of the towering skyscrapers and the multilevel interchanges of Los Angeles’ bustling downtown lies a piece of the past. It’s a colorful slice of the city’s history where Angelinos once went to view the wares of glass blowers and blacksmiths and be entertained by mariachis and ballet folclrico. It’s called Olvera Street.
This unique marketplace, nestled between Main and Alameda, brings historical ambiance to a vibrant and ever-changing metropolis-allowing Angelinos to immerse themselves in a simpler time. It brings together art, culture, and Mexican flare where tourists and locals alike walk the cobblestone streets to eat, shop, and learn.
On weekends, dancers can be seen performing in the La Placita area. On weekdays, businessmen in suits wander from their glass high-rises and sit on the patio of an authentic restaurant. School groups file through the Avila Adobe in matching T-shirts, half listening to the wise words of the tour guide while looking at the weathered remnants of the original Spanish settlement.
Rochelle Guerra brought her two sons to Olvera Street because she wanted them to see, smell, taste, touch, and buy pieces of their culture. The Guerras live in quaint, suburban Diamond Bar, California, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. While the city is a beautiful place to raise a family, Guerra said it’s not a town that is rich with Mexican tradition and customs. She wanted her boys, Ricky (8) and Nathan (14), to get a sense of how their ancestors lived daily life. “I took them to see that this is a part of who they are,” Guerra said. “This is true history; this is where Los Angeles began. I want them to see that Hispanic culture was here even before Anglo culture.”
Today it stands healthy and dynamic, a testament of contemporary advertising mixed with time-honored charm. But the sprawling strip, the oldest street in the city of Los Angeles, was not always as inviting. The area now known as Olvera Street started in 1781 as El Pueblo de Los Angeles, founded by Felipe de Neve and 44 families, ranging from Spaniards to African Americans, Indians, and Italians. The families lived and built their community, including the Avila family who constructed the now-historic Avila Adobe.
Seor Francisco Avila was a patriarch to one of the richer families in the pueblo and built townhouses around El Pueblo de la Reina Los Angeles plaza so people could attend mass, manage businesses, and visit friends in the hub of their community. Avila, who was the mayor of Los Angeles in 1810, lived in the house until 1868 and shared his confines with many, including Commodore Robert F. Stockton. Stockton stayed at the Avila home in 1847 during peace negotiations following the Mexican-American War. Don Avila also rented out the house to several families.
In addition to the Adobe house, the pueblo welcomed La Reina de Los Angeles Catholic Church, a Masonic Hall, and the Merced Theatre. Italian wineries dominated the walkway, giving the street its original name “Vine” or “Wine Street.”
Vine Street was renamed in 1877 after Agustin Olvera, the first county judge who lived at the end of the street. For nearly three decades, Olvera Street prospered and became the home to many immigrants, including Chinese, French, and Anglos. In 1884 the fire house was built, and in 1887 the historic Sepulveda House was built, marking the first merger between Mexican and American culture.
The Sepulveda house belonged to Seora Eloisa Martinez de Supulveda. She combined the American concept of a Victorian house with the traditional Mexican layout, including the inner courtyard. The sprawling house had 22 rooms, including two commercial storefronts on the main street side, and three private rooms overlooking Olvera Street.
While Olvera Street was growing in population, it was shrinking in terms of professional businesses. Eventually, the hub of the city moved south and Olvera Street became an urban slum. The street was littered and crime abounded. Folkloric tales tell of executions and hangings on the dilapidated street. It was hardly the world-renowned tourist attraction we know today.
Enter Christine Sterling: the “Mother of Olvera Street.” Although her skin was pale and she did not have a roll of the tongue, a Spanish accent, or surname, she saw a hidden treasure in what had become a rat-infested alley.
Sterling, originally from Oakland, California, lived on Bonnie Brae near downtown with her husband and two children. She visited Olvera Street in 1926 and saw it was in utter disrepair. Somewhere beneath the filth and sewage she saw a cobblestoned gold mine. With its rich heritage and military lore, she saw the perfect place for a tourist attraction.
When the Avila Adobe was condemned in 1928, she fought vehemently to gain the support of influential Anglos whose pockets were deep and the reach of influence was long. She eventually won the support of L.A. Times Publisher Harry Chandler, Los Angeles Police Chief James “Two Gun” Davis, and local construction suppliers. Davis offered inmates for hard labor, and Blue Diamond Cement and Simmons Brick Company offered materials and workers.
While she had the support of wealthy Angelenos, she did not have backing from the merchants and locals of the community. Sterling’s plans called for the city to close off the street, which property owners thought would ruin their businesses. When construction began on her vision, she wrote the following in her diary (November 1929): “Work started this morning on Olvera Street. With my two children, 25 prisoners, 50 percent protest from the property owners, and a lawsuit thrown in for good measure, we put the first picks and shovels into the old street.”
In 1930, Olvera Street was unveiled. Sterling lived in the Mexican-American community of Chavez Ravine until the city moved to evict residents in 1959 to build Dodger Stadium. Although she had succeeded in preserving Mexican culture at Olvera, she couldn’t stop the wrecking balls that eventually demolished her house. She moved into the Avila Adobe where she lived until she died in 1963.
Now, Olvera Street stands proudly with its impressive 560-foot walkway and international fame. It is a testament to the heart of Los Angeles. Starting as a multi-ethnic melting pot for immigrants, it has endured poverty, crime, and controversy to emerge into a state-historic park.
The Avila Adobe remains, the Sepulveda House has become the Monument’s Visitor’s Center and Gift Shop, and El Pueblo Gallery proudly hosts exhibits honoring the area’s heritage, including the famed Dia de Los Muertos.
Ginnette Rondeau, curator and artist for the gallery, says she sees the cultural hub as a way to again rise above the violence and crime that seems to have infected parts of the community. “I grew up in a wonderful, magical place, which is now a historical monument in Los Angeles known as Olvera Street,” Rondeau writes in an essay to visitors. “Now that I’m an adult, I often reminisce about the good old days. Today’s world seems to feature violence, abuse, drugs, gangs, neglected children, and homelessness. Now with the chaos and frenzy of world terrorism, I feel a special need to reach out to be a part of the healing of our world.”
Her work, along with the goods and wares of the other vendors, offers a retreat for Angelenos where they can stroll an authentic Mercado, socialize among others in the community, and be entertained. These are the reasons the Guerra family came to eat lunch at La Noche Buena and browse authentic wares of the various vendors that line the cobblestone street. Guerra gushed about the variety of Mexican products, saying it was like having a little piece of Mexico within local reach. “They have molcajetes, beautiful pottery, and even the Mexican jumping beans, which the boys absolutely loved,” Guerra said. “What a treat for the kids to see their heritage right in the middle of Los Angeles.”