March 5, 2024

Olvera Street: A Taste of Old Mexico

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 street’s 27 historic buildings. These include a range of authentic Mexican eateries, including the city’s oldest Mexican restaurant, La Golondrina Café. 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 children’s toys.

While Olvera Street is a tourist attraction, it’s 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 Día 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. Spain’s King Carlos III ordered his Lieutenant Governor of California, Don Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, to lead settlers to the Porciúncula 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 King’s 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 Señora Reina de los Ángeles sobre El Rio Porciuncula. (This translates to “Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels on the Porciúncula 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 city’s historic center dilapidated and abandoned with boarded windows. Even the historic Avila Adobe, the oldest residence in Los Angeles, was scheduled for demolition. (Señora Avila had abandoned the home in 1847 when the United States occupied Los Angeles.) Considering the city’s 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 Avila’s descendants, who welcomed the offer of renovation. She raised the issue with the city’s 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 Sheriff’s 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 extended hours.