Olvera Street, or La Placita Olvera, is the quaint birthplace of modern Los Angeles. This
block-long street has now been restored to an old-fashioned marketplace and plaza
reminiscent of early Mexico. The street and plaza were designated El Pueblo Historic
Monument in 1953.
Olvera Street attracts two million tourists every year. The area is blocked to automobiles
so pedestrians can easily explore the streets 27 historic buildings. These include a range
of authentic Mexican eateries, including the citys oldest Mexican restaurant, La
Golondrina Caf. Some of the buildings are rented to merchants selling Mexican goods.
Some stores stock inexpensive souvenirs like finger puppets, marionettes, and tiny
Mexican flags. Others import high-quality Mexican pottery, silver, and textiles. Vendors
stationed in the middle of the street sell churros, souvenirs, and inexpensive childrens
While Olvera Street is a tourist attraction, its also the center of an authentic Mexican-
American community. Locals gather for a Las Posadas reenactment before each
Christmas, and they fill the site for celebrations like Cinco de Mayo and Da de los
Muertos. The Olvera plaza also features cultural performances throughout the year.
The street began as part of a town built by settlers in 1781. Spains king Carlos III
ordered his Lieutenant Governor of California, Don Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, to
lead settlers to the Porcincula River. The king wanted a sub-mission, or asistencia; the
Spanish soldiers and families would serve as missionaries to a nearby native village. The
group followed the kings orders, but flooding pushed them to settle on higher ground.
This was the beginning of the town they called Los Angeles or, more formally, El
Pueblo de Nuestra Seora Reina de los ngeles sobre El Rio Porciuncula. (This
translates to Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels on the Porcincula River. Today
the river is known as the Los Angeles River). The first streets and adobe buildings of Los
Angeles were constructed during Spanish rule, which lasted until 1820.
After the Mexican Revolution of 1821, the town of Los Angeles, population 650, became
part of a newly independent Mexico. Olvera Street, which was called Calle Vino (Wine
Street) at the time, was the center of community life and a crossroads for the agricultural
and ranching economies. By 1877, the city had grown to over 5,000 people and wanted
more street space. Wine Street was extended and renamed to honor a prominent
neighborhood resident, Los Angeles County Judge Agustin Olvera.
City growth was suddenly exponential. But as the city grew, its center deteriorated.
When new buildings were erected, their backs bordered Olvera Street. It began to look
like an unkempt alley, and then the city built a noisy power station there for streetcars.
The area was far from its glory days by the late 1920s, when a socialite would make
renovation her mission.
Christine Sterling arrived in Los Angeles in 1926. She was shocked to find the citys
historic center dilapidated and abandoned with boarded windows. Even the historic Avila
Adobe, the oldest residence in Los Angeles, was scheduled for demolition. (Seora Avila
had abandoned the home in 1847 when the United States occupied Los Angeles.)
Considering the citys steady stream of Mexican immigration, Sterling thought Los
Angeles was being short-sighted in destroying an historic Mexican area. It seemed only
natural that the area be restored.
Sterling contacted Avilas descendents, who welcomed the offer of renovation. She
raised the issue with the citys Chamber of Commerce and contacted The Los Angeles
Times. Sterling won the support of newspaper magnate Harry Chandler, who provided
positive publicity. He also formed a for-profit Olvera Street business venture and
sponsored a $1000-a-plate luncheon. Sterling raised funds within two years, and the Los
Angeles Health Department rescinded its condemnation order for the Avila Adobe!
Next, the Sheriffs Department brought inmates to provide manual labor. Sterling wrote
in her diary, One of the prisoners is a good carpenter, and another an electrician. Each
night I pray they will arrest a bricklayer and a plumber.
The festive new marketplace opened on Easter Sunday in 1930. It was touted as A
Mexican Street of Yesterday in a City of Today. A cross was erected at one end of the
street amid newly-planted trees.
Olvera Street is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Some restaurants and shops have
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