The Los Angeles Plaza Historic District.
I doubt it. But what if I mentioned Olvera Street? I bet you would know exactly what I am talking about.
Most have come to know Olvera Street as the birthplace of the City of Los Angeles. But what if I was to tell you that’s not entirely true.
Shocked? I was too.
Until recently, I was under the impression was that Olvera Street was the founding spot of Los Angeles. I mean, it looked authentic enough. With its quaint Spanish-styled street, it’s Mexican vendors and trinkets, and all the history that went along with it. I remember feeling like I had just stepped back in time, too, what I assumed, was the early days of El Pueblo de Los Angeles. But it wasn’t until after my visit and a little research that I learned more about Olvera Street’s creation. Yes, creation. As well as its colorful, yet slightly misleading, popular history.
But before we get more into that, let’s discuss the historic plaza as a whole.
Olvera Street is but one extension of a multitude of buildings, monuments, shops, and eateries that make up the “heart of Los Angeles.” A recognized historic monument and a tourist destination, the Plaza Historic District is both a living museum and a romanticized revision of “old Los Angeles.”
Well, don’t worry. That is what this post is all about. To help you discover all that is the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District and hopefully clear up the history surrounding it.
As the most popular place within the Plaza Historic District, Olvera Street, much like its appearance, has had a very colorful history.
Originally known as Vine Street up until 1877, Olvera Street was not apart of the original Pueblo de Los Angeles.
Established in much closer proximity to the LA river in 1781. The original location of the Pueblo was relocated many times due to flooding. It was not until 1818 that El Pueblo of Los Angeles was established at the location we visit today. From that point on, the Plaza and later renamed Olvera Street has since been recognized as the center and “cultural hub” of Los Angeles.
But Olvera’s colorful and festive appearance wasn’t always as it appears today. As the city of LA began to expand, Olvera Street was left behind. By the 1920s, the once prosperous “heart” of the city had fallen into disrepair. On the verge of being condemned and the Avila Adobe already scheduled to be demolished. One woman, who realized it’s historical significance, began a crusade to save LA’s heritage. That woman was Christine Sterling.
Thanks to Oakland transplant’s love of history, the Los Angeles Historic Plaza District is in existence today. As the “Mother of Olvera Street,” Sterling made it her mission to preserve Olvera Street and the surrounding area and make it a worldwide tourist attraction.
A RECONSTRUCTED PAST
Yes, you read that correctly.
Under Sterling’s vision, Olvera street was transformed into a rendering of a “Mexican Marketplace.” Never having stepped foot in Mexico, Sterling sought to celebrate LA’s Spanish and Mexican heritage by romanticizing “Old Los Angeles.” Although Olvera Street became no more than a Disney-fied version of the former Pueblo de Los Angeles, Sterling’s efforts preserved LA’s history and brought life back to the area.
By hand-picking local artisans and craftsmen, Sterling lined Olvera Street with stands and created a bustling marketplace. Which is still well and alive today.
Murals were also commissioned throughout that Plaza under the supervision of Sterling. One mural even having been painted by famous Mexican Artist David Alfaro Siqueiros. The murals, which have been tediously conserved today, are now apart of the America Tropical Interpretive Center.
Although Sterling’s version of El Pueblo de Los Angeles isn’t as authentic as one would hope, her efforts in preservation saved an area that would have been otherwise lost. Thanks to Christine Sterling, Angelenos can visit and reconnect with LA’s diverse history for decades to come.
Thanks to the preservation of the historic buildings, the Plaza is chock full of museums. Seven museums, if you want to be exact. With topics ranging from LA’s history to the Chinese American experience, the Plaza’s museums seek to represent all the diverse cultural history within the city.
The museums within the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District are as follows:
- Avila Adobe
- Italian American Museum of Los Angeles
- Chinese American Museum
- Old Plaza Firehouse
- Museum of Social Justice
- Sepulveda House
- La Plaza Cultural de Artes
If you have an extra 50 minutes to spare while visiting the Plaza, take a free walking tour. Not only will you get an in-depth history of the Plaza Historic District but you will also visit all seven museums!
Tours are Tuesday- Saturday at 10 am, 11 am, and 12 noon with reservations suggested but walk-ins welcome
You can’t really expect to visit the Plaza and not enjoy some Mexican-American cuisine. Whether you grab a churro from a street vendor or enjoy one of the many restaurants lining Olvera Street, there are plenty of options to satisfy your taste buds.
Here are a few historically noteworthy stands and restaurants to visit when walking around the Plaza:
- La Golondrina Mexican Cafe– recognized as the oldest restaurant on Olvera Street. Located in the landmark Pelanconi House which happens to be the oldest surviving brick house in Los Angeles.
- La Luz Del Dia Restaurant
- Cielito Lindo– this tiny taquito spot has been an institution amongst Olvera Street since 1934.
- El Paseo Inn– serving since 1930, this designated historical landmark holds one of the oldest bars in all of Los Angeles.
- Chiguacle Sabor Ancestral de Mexico
Located in the center of the Plaza Historic District is where you will find Plaza Park. Also known as Father Serra Park, the site stands as a monument to the first settlers that established El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Scattered throughout the park, plaques, as well as statues, can be found dedicated to the individuals and 11 families whom in 1781 first established a life here.
- King Carlos III of Spain– founder of El Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1780.
- Felipe de Neve-Spanish Governor of the Californias. Selected the site for El Pueblo de Los Angeles.
- Father Junipero Serra– Father and Head of the California missions.
Although no longer the center of LA, the Plaza is still a focal point within the community. No matter the day, you can still find Plaza Park filled with people. Whether listening to an impromptu musical performance or celebrating one of the many events, the Los Angeles Historic Plaza District is alive and well.
For more information and a complete list of events, check out the Plaza’s official calendar.
If your interest in learning more about how Olvera Street was saved and recreated, check out this great little article by the LA Times “How The ‘Mother of Olvera Street’ Got Her Moniker.”