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Across the street from Union Station in the middle of Downtown, El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park (also called the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District) is the “birthplace of Los Angeles.” The park’s 18 hectares include the city’s oldest buildings and Olvera Street, the famous Mexican theme-park alley.
At the center of the park is a plaza, as you’d find in any proper Mexican town. When I visited in December, the plaza’s gazebo held a Nativity scene and was also decked out in colorful streamers to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe. That weekend marked the anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s appearance to the Aztec peasant Juan Diego on 12 December 1531, when she made a barren field bloom with flowers. Juan Diego gathered some of the flowers in his cloak. When he presented them to a skeptical bishop, the opened cloak revealed an image of the Virgin that became Mexico’s national religious icon.
A large crowd of local Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had gathered for a fiesta in the plaza, and to venerate the Virgin at the plaza’s historic chapel, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles, the Church of Our Lady [Mary], Queen of the Angels.
This plaza plays a central role in what might be called the Founding Myth of Los Angeles. After the establishment in 1769 of San Diego, the Alta California territory’s first settlement (pueblo), the Spanish king was eager to expand Spain’s permanent presence in the territory. The chosen site for Alta California’s second pueblo was the Tongva Indian village of Yangna, on a river the Franciscan friars in Gaspar de Portolà’s 1769 scouting expedition had given a pious mouthful of a name: El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula— “the river of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciencula.” (The Porciencúla— from the Latin portiuncula, “a small portion of land”— is the ninth-century Italian chapel where Saint Francis of Assisi founded the monastic Franciscan Order.)
In 1779 Filipe de Neve, the Royal Governor of the California territories, drew up detailed plans for the new pueblo. Then he went to Sonora province on the west coast of Mexico to recruit pobladores, the settlers who would live and work there. As Sonora is a semi-desert, de Neve figured that people there would have the experience necessary to grow crops in Southern California’s similar climate. The pobladores also had to be established families, with the correct proportions of European, Indian, and African ancestry to fill out the obligatory caste hierarchy of Spanish colonial society. Even with his offers of free land, de Neve had great difficulty convincing enough qualified families to make the 2000-kilometer trip. It took him nearly two years to recruit 12 pobladore families.
According to the account commemorated on a plaque in the plaza, on 4 September 1781 the 44 pobladores assembled at Mission San Gabriel. They and Governor de Neve then made a suitably solemn 13-kilometer southward procession to the site of this plaza, where they performed a suitably solemn religious ritual to establish El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles sobre el Río Porciúncula— “The Town of the Queen of the Angels on the Porciúncula River.” (The ponderous appellations for both the town and the river were soon shortened to the much more manageable Los Angeles.)
The plaque tells a nice story, but it never actually happened. The historical record shows that the pobladore families arrived separately from Sonora by different routes over several months beginning in June 1781, and went directly to the pueblo site. The “founding” on 4 September appears to have been a purely arbitrary date, possibly when Governor de Neve finished writing up an official report to his superiors in Spain.
And even if the mythical founding had actually happened, it wasn’t at this plaza. Today the Los Angeles River is an urban flood control channel, its entire length lined with concrete (and strewn with graffiti in many places). But before twentieth-century engineers tamed it, the river often flooded and altered its course during rainy winters. A flood in 1815 destroyed the pueblo’s original plaza. There’s not enough historical evidence to know for sure where that plaza was, but some historians think it was close to where Los Angeles City Hall now stands. The current plaza was rebuilt on higher ground in the 1820s.
Though the plaza offers a symbolic rather than physical connection to the eighteenth-century
Spanish founders of Los Angeles, it was the pueblo’s social center during the Mexican
period (1822-1848). And surrounding the plaza is a collection of genuine historic buildings,
most from the nineteenth century.
El Pueblo de Los Angeles is best known for Olvera Street, an alley just off the plaza. It’s a Mexican-themed tourist attraction jam-packed with shops, restaurants, and stalls selling so many colorful knickknacks that a better name for it might be Paseo de las Tchotchkes. (Local Spanish speakers call it La Placita Olvera.) During the summer, or on sunny weekends, it’s also jam-packed with tourists following the guidebook recommendations for an “authentic” experience of Old Mexico.
Olvera Street’s “Mexican marketplace” is actually a twentieth-century invention with no historical basis. The alley was originally called Wine Street, as in the middle of the nineteenth century it was home to vineyards and a winery. Toward the end of the century, with speculation pushing up the the value of land, factories and offices replaced the winery. The street was extended in 1877 and renamed for Agustín Olvera, the first judge in Los Angeles, whose house was on the corner of Wine Street where the Plaza Methodist Church now stands.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Los Angeles had begun its evolution into the amorphous sprawl we know today. The old city center around the plaza had lost its relevance and had decayed into a slum. By the the mid-1920s, City officials were planning to bulldoze the old buildings for a new train station.
Enter Christine Sterling, a wealthy Northern California socialite with a passion for history, a talent for promotion, and elite connections. She managed to generate enough publicity to stop the demolition of the historic buildings. More importantly, Sterling persuaded several wealthy business owners to underwrite the redevelopment of Olvera Street into a kind of theme park based on her romantic notions of an idealized Hollywooden Mexico.
Construction began in November 1929. Among Sterling’s supporters was the county sheriff, who provided convict laborers to do the heavy lifting. The new Olvera Street— which Sterling called Paseo de los Angeles, “Angels’ Way”— opened on Easter Sunday, 19 April 1930.
Sterling got unexpected help when railroad officials found that demolishing nearby Chinatown would be cheaper than acquiring the land around Olvera Street. Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (later renamed Union Station) was thus built across Alameda Street from El Pueblo de Los Angeles. With the high cost of parking and the frustrating Downtown traffic, riding a Metro Rail train or a bus to Union Station is the easiest, cheapest, and most environmentally sensible way to visit El Pueblo and Olvera Street.