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Olvera Street Remains Historic Center of Los Angeles - 2004-05-12

Olvera Street is the historic center of Los Angeles, located at the heart of the Spanish colonial village that predated the modern city. Today, the neighborhood is a historical monument and a tourist destination.

Today, Olvera Street attracts two million visitors each year. They buy souvenirs, listen to street musicians and maybe eat a meal in one of the area's many restaurants. The short street is located just north of the modern center of this city of nearly four million, but when Los Angeles was founded in 1781, it was a dusty hamlet with a few adobe buildings.

As the early city grew, the district called El Pueblo, from the Spanish word for "village," remained the center of civic life.

Tevvy Ball is an editor with Getty Publications, and co-author of a book on El Pueblo. ?For the first 60 or 70 years of its existence, it was a Mexican town, a California town,? he said. ?And when the Americans arrived in the mid-19th century and California became a state of the United States, Los Angeles and the heart of Los Angeles, which was the historic pueblo where the city had been founded, became richly multicultural."

Even the earliest settlers were racially diverse, of Indian, African and European background. By the late 1850s, they were joined by Americans, French, Italians and Chinese, all living together in an uneasy relationship. Jean Bruce Poole, coauthor of the book El Pueblo says violence sometimes erupted. She recalls the most notorious incident.

?In 1871, there was the worst massacre that has ever happened in Los Angeles, when the so-called Chinese massacre occurred,? she explained. ?An American bystander called Robert Thompson was accidentally shot and then a mob came out and then by evening there were 500 in a mob trying to get at the Chinese.?

When the disturbance was over, 19 Chinese were dead, representing nearly 10 percent of the city's Chinese population.

The small, often-lawless city continued to grow, however. Bill Estrada, curator of history at El Pueblo de Los Angeles historical monument, said that that after 1870, it underwent the first of several booms. ?By the 1870s, Los Angeles had already become a multiethnic mix of people from all over the world, with the largest population being Mexican,? he said. ?The railroad came to Los Angeles in 1876, and that really began the process of boom in Los Angeles, population boom, economic boom, the signal for change coming to Los Angeles.?

Much of this history can been seen in Pico House, which was built as a hotel in 1870 by Pio Pico. It is now a museum that traces the story of its builder and his city. Pio Pico was California's last governor under Mexican rule and he later became a prominent businessman. Bill Estrada said that the three-story building has been restored to reveal some of its early splendor.

The upstairs, the second and third floor, was the hotel residence rooms and the bottom floor served as a French restaurant,? he explained. ?In its day, in the 1870s, it was the finest place to dine and to stay in the city of Los Angeles.?

The city's growth continued through the 20th century, as the movie industry came to nearby Hollywood and sprawling suburbs developed, but El Pueblo and Olvera Street fell on hard times, says Tevvy Ball. ?By the 1920s, that part of Los Angeles really was somewhat decrepit,? Mr. Ball said. ?There were houses of ill repute. There were machine shops, junkyards. It was not what it used to be.?

A woman named Christine Sterling, who fell in love with the idea of old Mexican California, led a civic drive to renovate the neighborhood. Mr. Ball says she transformed Olvera Street into a kind of Mexican theme park, which opened in 1930. ?However, because it is located in an area that is one of the birthplaces of Mexican culture in California and because of the rich and very real history associated with the place, the Olvera Street marketplace has become part of the authentic and real heritage of El Pueblo,? he added.

Jean Bruce Poole describes the neighborhood today. ?It's a collection of what is called puestos, or stalls, in the center, and historic buildings on either side,? she said. ?Sometimes it's hard to see the buildings for the puestos. In a way, I'm told, it's like a street in Mexico with all the marketplace stalls.?

Olvera Street is also popular with new immigrants from Latin America, which keeps alive the mix of cultures in this historic neighborhood.