From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner August 7, 1987
Title – “Olvera Street faces wholesale changes”
The fate of Olvera Street, Los Angeles’ oldest, is up for grabs. Earthquake laws, historically preservation, the pimping of Mexican culture and a political power struggle over who will control El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Park, all are playing a role.
During the 1880s, Olvera Street was part of a larger Mexican barrio – encompassing today’s Chinatown – called Sonora Town. Although they competed with newcomers to Los Angeles to live there, Mexicans made up a majority of its residents at the turn of the century.
But by the mid-1920s, Sonora Town, now reduced to Olvera Street, was in its last urban cycle. Its residential character was gone, its buildings occupied by commercial enterprises. When light industry moved in, almost everyone expected Olvera to be bulldozed. Enter Mrs. Christine Sterling, who wanted to save the Avilla house, as well as other buildings, and preserve a bit of “Old Mexico.”
With the help of the city elite and convict labor, Olvera Street, as we now know it, opened in the early 1930s. The area was not only meant to be a tourist attraction. It also was intended as a showplace of Los Angeles’ multi-ethnic heritage, a demonstration project on how different races could work and live together in the city. Ironically, that ideal was daily tarnished by government-sanctioned repatriation squads looking for Mexicans, who, during the Great Depression, were blamed for the shortage of jobs. A mural critical of American capitalism – “America Tropical” by David Siquieros, the great Mexican muralist – was whitewashed. Yet Sterling’s Ramonaland, a sort of Mexican Romeo and Juliet fantasyland in which rancheros wear oversized sombreros and their wives wear layered petticoats, survived.
When California established El Pueblo Park in 1953, Olvera’s merchants had great expectations. They were short-lived. As their first priority, state bureaucrats insisted on restoring the street’s buildings. That meant those built by the Italians, Chinese and other ethnics. The dwellings of the poor – the adobes, where Mexicans had lived since 1781 – were the first to be bulldozed.
Today, Olvera Street is more tourist trap than model of inter-racial harmony. But many of its merchants and their families have developed strong ties to the neighborhood – some have lived there for 57 years – where Mexican traditions such as “Las Posadas” and the “Blessing of the Animals” are still celebrated. Indeed, it is their continuing presence that has preserved much of Olvera Street’s traditional image.
But the rise of Chicano nationalism and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals and Central Americans have significantly transformed the character of El Pueblo. On Sundays, up to 13,000 Latinos attend mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels. The plaza is increasingly used to celebrate Latino holidays, as well as to protest continuing injustices. In short, Olvera Street is not just an enclave of Mexican business families. Over the years it has come to represent a sense of place for the larger Latino community to share its culture.
A merging of forces, financial and political, threatens to change all that. The enactment of strict earthquake standards, many of which fail to take into account the nature of historical buildings, have made bringing Olvera structures up to code extremely expensive. Environmentalists have compounded the problem by demanding laws that limit a building’s restoration to its original shape and use, without insisting on additional money to achieve this purpose. Faced with paying the bills, the Legislature has decided to appropriate only limited funds to upgrade quake safety in the area.
The lawmaker’s reluctance in part stems from a long-simmering squabble over who should pay for the repairs. The city says Sacramento is responsible, since the state owns the park. In turn, Sacramento wants the quake buck passed to the city, which administers El Pueblo. The dispute has led some city politicians, notably the mayor, to pressure Sacramento to transfer park ownership to the city, a goal that many Olvera merchants support. And for good reason.
The directors of El Pueblo Park have been non-Mexican. In setting policy, they never bother to solicits the advice of Mexican-American scholars. Furthermore, the directors have tried to intimidate the Olvera merchants by reminding them that at other state parks, concessions are bid on. The message is clear: Don’t make waves or you’ll have to compete with Taco Bell.
The massive redevelopment occurring across the street at the old Terminal Annex and the Union Station also has upped the economic and political ante. It is an open secret that developers would like to assume management of Olvera Street and parcel out the concessions to the highest bidders.
Only two years ago, the City Council unanimously approved preconditions for Olvera Street development. Among other things, they promised to protect the merchants and preserve the integrity of the district. But political winds shift quickly.
The council’s recent redistricting put Olvera Street squarely in City Councilman Richard Alatorre’s district. Some of the merchants worry that Alatorre’s ties to East L.A. redevelopment corporations might compel him to put developer profit motives at the head of the line, should the councilman ever be in a position to move and shake.
Other Olvera merchants also are leery of plans being pushed by Tom Bradley’s office, which wants the park put under the control of the Parks and Recreations Committee. Specifically, the businessmen fear they might be forced to compete in bidding wars for the street’s concessions which would be prohibitively expensive for most of them.
Another option would be for either the merchants or a directorship controlled by them to buy the park. The idea led them to commission a study on how this could be achieved. They realize that the needed changes must safeguard the Latino community’s deepening stake in the park while not unduly jeopardizing Olvera Street as a tourist attraction. Toward this end, Latino run shops and Latino employees seem indispensable. It would also serve as a reminder that Mexicans (of Indian, black and Spanish blood) originally built and lived on the street.
But will poor Latinos still be allowed to attend mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels or sit in the plaza? Will activists be able to hold political rallies in the kiosco in defense of La Raza? Or will they, like Siquieros mural, be whitewashed, lest they interfere with Ramonaland’s image?