History and museums
Olvera Street is in the oldest part of Downtown Los Angeles, California, USA, and is part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument. Many of the Plaza District's Historic Buildings are on Olvera Street, including the Avila Adobe (1818), the Pelanconi House (1857), and the Sepulveda House (1887). The tree-shaded, pedestrian mall marketplace with craft shops, restaurants and roving troubadours is a popular tourist destination.
Los Angeles was founded in 1781 by Spanish pobladores (settlers), on a site southeast of today's Olvera Street near the Los Angeles River. They consisted of 11 families — 44 men, women, and children — and were accompanied by a few Spanish soldiers. They had come from nearby Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to establish a secular pueblo on the banks of the Porciúncula River at the Indian village of Yang-na. The new town was named El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles. Priests from San Gabriel established an asistencia (a sub-mission), the Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles Asistencia, to tend to their religious needs. The pueblo eventually built its own parish church, known today as the "Old Plaza Church." Unpredictable flooding forced the settlers to abandon the original site and move to higher ground in the early 1800s.
Spanish colonial rule, which began with territorial claims to the unexplored area as early as the late 1500s and saw actual settlement from 1769, lasted until Mexican independence in 1821. This period saw Los Angeles's first streets and adobe buildings. During Mexican rule, which lasted just twenty-six years, the Plaza was the heart of a vibrant ethnic Californio community life in Los Angeles and was the center of an economy based upon farming in the former flood plain, supplemented with cattle ranching.
The first newspaper in Southern California, Los Angeles Star, was founded in 1852 near the plaza. It was published in English with a few articles in Spanish, much like the first newspapers in the State, Monterey's Californian and the California Star, which dated to 1846.
After the Mexican War, the Plaza remained the center of town. A small alley branching off of the Plaza—Wine Street—had its name changed by City Council ordinance in 1877 to Olvera Street to honor Augustín Olvera, the first Superior Court Judge of Los Angeles County, who owned a no longer existing adobe house nearby. In the 1880s, the little town grew rapidly due to the influx of settlers from Southern States. These joined the Spaniards and earlier English-speaking settlers who had become voting citizens before 1846.
As the town expanded, the original area of settlement came to be neglected, and served as a neighborhood for new immigrants, especially Mexicans and Sicilians. It included a Chinese community, which eventually relocated to the present nearby Chinatown to make way for the construction of Union Station. During the 1920s, the pace of Mexican immigration increased rapidly. California was the primary destination, with Los Angeles being a common choice. As a part of a movement to preserve what was viewed as California's "authentic" heritage, Christine Sterling began a public campaign to renovate the Francisco Avila Adobe, which evolved into a campaign to remake Olvera street as a modern Mexican-style market place.
Sterling's efforts to rescue the area began in 1926, when she learned of a plan to demolish the Avila Adobe, the oldest existing home in the city. After raising the issue with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Sterling approached Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, with a plan to create a Mexican marketplace and cultural center in the Plaza. Chandler was intrigued by the idea of packaging the Plaza area as replica of the city's past (though in reality, only a romanticized version). He helped by providing extensive publicity and supporting 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 doomed. In late November, Sterling discovered a Los Angeles City Health Department Notice of Condemnation posted in front of the Avila Adobe. In response, she posted her own hand-painted sign condemning the shortsightedness of city bureaucrats in failing to preserve an important historic site. Her act helped attract additional public interest in preserving the old adobe. The Los Angeles City Council finally 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 Opinión, the leading Spanish language daily, perhaps reflecting the sentiments among many Mexicans in the city, praised the project as una calleja que recuerda al México viejo, "a street which recalls old Mexico."
The American Planning Association named it one of the top five "Great Streets" in the United States for 2015. As part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument which is on the National Register of Historic Places, they recognized that it was once the heart of Mexican farming and community life in the area.
Situated in the midst of Downtown in the area where the city was born in 1781, Olvera Street is home to dozens of craft shops, restaurants and businesses with roving troubadours. This pedestrian mall is a block-long narrow, tree-shaded, brick-lined marketplace where some merchants are descended from the original vendors who opened shops when Olvera Street was created in 1930. The exterior facades of the brick buildings enclosing Olvera Street and on the small vendor stands lining its center are colorful piñatas, hanging puppets in white peasant garb, Mexican pottery, serapes, mounted bull horns, and oversized sombreros. Olvera Street attracts almost two million visitors per year who can find the customs and trades of the Mexican and Latino traditions of Los Angeles commemorated in an walkable outdoor shopping mall. As a tourist attraction, Olvera Street pays homage to a romantic vision of old Mexico.
Some find this to be a sanitized fabrication of Latin American culture merely to attract tourists, a "fake" Mexican presence. Even critics though, have acknowledged how the city fathers were ready to condemn and destroy the whole unsightly mess in the 1920s. The attention brought to the area shamed the city into saving its heritage and preserving some of the original adobe buildings. This tension around an idealized cultural image is evident in the mural América Tropical (full name: América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismas, or Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism) by David Siqueiros which was slated to be an exciting addition to the street until it was actually unveiled in 1932. The mural was ignored and soon covered up to mask its political content that scandalized L.A. elites. The Getty Conservation Institute began performing detailed conservation work on the mural in 2010 and the America Tropical Interpretive Center opened to provide public access in 2012. The revitalization of downtown Los Angeles finally seemed to be reaching the area around Olvera Street when a $135-million development of 341 apartments with shops and community facilities was approved in 2014.
The plaza, before it was improved, can be seen in Charlie Chaplin's 1921 film The Kid, which featured a number of scenes of the west side of the plaza a few doors north of the Pelanconi House. At the time of the film, Olvera Street, then still called Wine Street, was seen as a dingy alley.
The Blessing of the Animals at Olvera Street, an event dating to 1930, is held every Sabado de Gloria (Holy Saturday, the Saturday before Easter). The event was originally held in conjunction with the Feast Day of Saint Anthony of the Desert, but it was changed to take advantage of better weather. The original procession has grown into an all-day event with vendors, performers, and a procession where participants bring their animals to be blessed by religious authorities and others.
The event includes an animal parade and informal displays of their pets and the event was covered in the book Blessing of the Animals: A Guide to Prayers & Ceremonies Celebrating Pets & Other Creatures