Olvera Street

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Olvera Street,
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Olvera Street, Los Angeles

Olvera Street is in the oldest part of Downtown Los Angeles, California, and is otherwise known as the birthplace of the City of Angels or El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument and is a department within the city. Many Latinos refer to it as 'La Placita Olvera'.

Having started as a short lane, Wine Street, it was extended and renamed in honour of Augustin Olvera, in 1877. There are 27 historic buildings lining Olvera Street, including the Avila Adobe, the Pelanconi House and the Sepulveda House. In 1930, it was converted to a colorful Mexican marketplace. It is also the setting for Mexican style music and dancing and holiday celebrations, such as Cinco de Mayo.

Contents

History

Early days

Los Angeles was founded in 1781 on a site southeast of Olvera Street near the Los Angeles River but unpredictable flooding forced settlers to move the town to higher ground. The town, complete with a church and rectangular plaza surrounded by house lots and planting fields, was placed in its current location in the early 1800s. Colonial rule lasted until 1821. This period saw the first streets and adobe buildings of the town constructed. The town came under the control of newly independent Mexico in 1821. During this time of Mexican rule, which lasted until 1848, the Plaza area was the heart of Mexican community life in Los Angeles and center of an economy based upon cattle ranching and agriculture.

Hard times

For a time after the Mexican-American War and Gold Rush the Plaza remained the center of a diverse town. The central street of the Plaze, Vine or Wine Street, was extented and had its name changed by City Council ordinance in 1877 to Olvera Street to honor Agustin Olvera, the first Superior Court Jedge of Los Angeles County and long time Olvera Street resident. In the [1880s]] Los Angeles began quick expansion through a massive influx of Anglo and European settlers who arraived via the railroad. The old Plaza area became a forgotten remnant of the city's roots and the remaining adobe and brick buildings within the Plaza area fell into disrepair as the civic center of the city shifted to present-day Temple and Main Streets. Its decline as the center of civic life led to its reclamation by diverse sectors of the city's poor and disenfranchised. The Plaza served as a gateway for newly arrived immigrants, especially Mexicans and Italians. During the 1920s the pace of Mexican immigration into the United States increase to about 500,000 per year. California became the prime destination for Mexican immigrants, with Los Angeles receiving the largest number of any city in the Southwest. As a result of this dramatic demographic increase, a resurgence of Mexican culture occurred in Los Angeles. It was within this social and political climate that Christine Sterling began her public campaign to save the old Francisco Avila Adobe from demolition and build up Olvera Street as a center of Mexican romance and tourism.

Preservation and restoration

Sterling's efforts to rescue the Plaza-Olvera area began in 1926, when she discovered the deteriorated conditions of the area and in particular the Avila Adobe, the oldest existing home in the city. After raising the issue of the Avila Adobe with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Sterling approached Harry Chandler, the scion of the Los Angeles Times with a plan to restore the building and create a colorful Mexican marketplace and culutral center in the Plaza. Chandler was intrigued by Sterling's idea for restoring the Plaza area as a mixture of romance and capitalism and helped by providing extented publicity and support for the development plan in The Times.

However, by 1928, due to a lack of financial support for implementing her ideas, the project appeared to be fading. In late November of that year, Sterling found a Los Angeles City Health Department Notice of Condemnation posted in front of the Avila Adobe. In response Sterling posted her own hand painted sign condemning the shortsightedness of city bureaucrats in failing to preserve an important historic site. Her action helped attract additional public interest in preserving the old adobe. In response to the increased show of publicity, the Los Angeles City Council reversed its original order of condemnation. Support for restoring the adobe rushed in from throughout the city. Building materials came from several local companies, including Blue Diamond Cement and the Simmons Brick Company, one of the largest employers of Mexicans in the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles Police Chief James Davis provided a crew of prison inmates to do hard labor on the project. Sterling oversaw the entire construction project and an excerpt from her diary vividly captures her spirit and sense of desperation for financial support during the construction: One of the prisoners is a good carpenter, another an electrician. Each night I pray they will arrest a bricklayer and a plumber.

In spite of ample supplies and forced volunteers the project lacked solid financial backing until Chandler came forward with capital for the project through funds collected at $1,000-a-plate luncheons with selected businessmen. Chandler established and headed the Plaza de Los Angeles Corporation, a for-profit venture which became the financial basis for the restoration of Plaza-Olvera. The street was closed to traffic in 1929

On Easter Sunday 1930, Sterling's romantic revival came to pass with the opening of Paseo de Los Angeles (which later became popularly known by its official street name, Olvera Street). Touted as, A Mexican Street of Yesterday in a City of Today, Olvera Street was an instant success as a tourist site. La Opinion, the leading Spanish language daily, perhaps reflecting the sentiments among many Mexicans in the city, praised the project as una calleja que recuerda al Mexico viejo.

Present

The Plaza-Olvera Street site was designated at a California State Historic Landmark in 1953.

In the midst of Downtown industrialization, Olvera Street is a quaint, colorized, and non-confrontational environment. Olvera Street is successful in depicting the quaintness of Mexican culture.

As a tourist attraction, Olvera Street is a living museum paying homage to a romantic vision of old Mexico. The exterior facades of the brick buildings enclosing Olvera Street and on the small vendor stands lining its center are colorful pinatas, hanging puppets in white peasant garb, Mexican pottery, serapes, mounted bull horns, oversized sombreros, and life-size stuffed donkey. Perhaps the single most widespread image of this version of old Mexico is the painting or ceramic statue of the Mexican campesino reclining against a giant saguaro cactus. Olvera Street attracts almost two million visitors per year.

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