A Los Angeles Primer: Olvera Street

As an Angeleno, no matter of how brief a standing, you tend to want to steer visitors away from Olvera Street. I, for my part, have caught myself wanting to steer visitors away from Olvera Street without appearing to steer them away from Olvera Street. People who live elsewhere have heard of this set of narrow blocks in the very origin point of downtown Los Angeles as a shoppable commemoration of the city's past as an eighteenth-century Spanish, later Mexican, pueblo, and they often want to see it for themselves. People who live here have heard of it as an unforgivable corralling and sanitization of certain particularly saleable elements of Latin American culture, a tidy serving of "fake" Mexican presence in a town with such a rich banquet of "real" Mexican presence on offer. Yet it has everywhere become deeply unfashionable to appoint oneself a defender of the authentic, and rightly so; in few other places does the concept of authenticity carry so little concrete meaning. I can come to only one reasonable position to setups like Olvera Street: neither for nor against. You can only enter and observe.

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I've long observed Olvera Street, but usually from what I've considered a safe distance, away from the market-filled alley, out on the old plaza. Go in, I figured, and I might as well go in to Disneyland. Charles Phoenix, a well-known "histo-tainer" specializing in the retro, both unprecedentedly sophisticated and deeply unsophisticated mid-century Americana that so flowered in postwar Southern California, has taken the comparison as far as to offer booked-well-in-advance tours premised on the assumption that we Southern Californians have not just one glorious multi-centered theme park, but two: Disneyland, and downtown Los Angeles. Stops include Bunker Hill, Chinatown, and, of course, Olvera Street, of which the latter two (and, in a sense, arguably all) really did appear in their modern incarnations for the express purpose of taking in tourist money. Both came developed at the hand of English-born cultural promoter Christine Sterling, and since opening in 1938 and 1930, respectively, both of these highly deliberate simulacra have regained, or perhaps generated, reality of their own.

Both, writes Phoenix in Southern California in the 50s, "were among the area's most popular and publicized tourist attractions [ ... ] promoted as 'a must-see attraction of taco shacks, outdoor cafes, nightclubs, strolling mariachis, fortune tellers, stalls and shops selling hand-crafted Mexican wares, all operated by Mexicans in their native costume.'" Today's Olvera Street brochure copy could say more or less the same, although the number vendors selling T-shirts emblazoned with novelty phrases rooted specifically in Angeleno Latino culture ("Los Doyers," "I Didn't ask to be Mexican... I just got lucky") has surely skyrocketed since then. There you'll find a space dense with opportunities to purchase woven handbags, brightly colored dresses, miniature guitars, various folkloric ornaments, saint imagery of every kind, and, at the small and difficult-to-distinguish eateries lining either side of the alley, the sort of dishes whose names end in "con carne."

But who could deny the place's lasting appeal? Last I visited, at the end of a gray Monday morning, I still found it full of curious customers of all ages. I then re-emerged onto the plaza into a group of green-uniformed elementary school kids; "This is the best field trip ever!" exclaimed one. A walk down Olvera Street also confronts the modern-day Los Angeles urbanist like myself with the particularly uncomfortable fact that many of the city's tourist traps get the qualities of urbanism right that its actual urban spaces often don't. Most often, they do it on the dimension of scale. Los Angeles' main streets — a Wilshire Boulevard, for example — usually cater to the grand minimum scale perceptible from the seat of a passing automobile, one of the several potential original sins of Los Angeles. This all looks grotesque from the perspective of an actual human, but the likes of Olvera Street, however, adhere, if inadvertently, to the prescriptions laid out by noted Danish architect and authority on humane urban planning Jan Gehl.

In his influential textbook Cities for People, Gehl endorses the advice given by Sven-Ingvar Andersson, professor of landscaping at the Royal Danish Academy of Art's School of Architecture: "Make sure there's never quite enough room." Gehl explains that "in narrow streets and small spaces, we can see buildings, details and the people around us at close range. There is much to assimilate, buildings and activities about and we experience them with great intensity. We perceive the scene as warm, personal, and welcoming." Here we have the great attraction of a place like Olvera Street, or, as reluctant as I may feel to admit it, some equally constructed environments as The Grove or the Third Street Promenade. Say what you will about their aesthetics — and most of us have much to say, little of it positive — these developments have proved attractive by operating at the human scale that the rest of greater Los Angeles too often denies us, offering instead, in Gehl's words, "urban complexes where distances, urban space and buildings are huge, built-up areas are sprawled out, details are lacking and there are no or few people," contexts "often perceived as impersonal, formal, and cold," where "there generally isn't much to experience. And for the senses closely tied to strong, intense feeling, there is absolutely nothing."

Disneyland itself, irritatingly, seems also to have mastered this preferred scale, which puts me in the uncomfortable position of claiming that Los Angeles has much still to learn from the places within itself, or at least an hour or so outside itself, that locals either visit only occasionally or avoid entirely. The celebrated science-fiction author (and non-driving Angeleno, in an era when that counted as freakish) Ray Bradbury thought that only electing Walt Disney himself Los Angeles' mayor could bring the kind of urban infrastructure for which we now long. "I'm all for making Walt Disney our next mayor," he said, "the only man in the city who can get a working rapid transit system built without any more surveys, and turn it into a real attraction so that people will want to ride it." Phoenix's Disneyland tour of downtown Los Angeles also features, of course, a tour of the Olvera Street-proximate Union Station, English architect John Parkinson's Art Deco/Spanish revival intercity train terminal that, after a few fallow decades, has revived itself as an intracity transit hub. This speaks to how far Los Angeles has come, in terms of urbanism, since Gehl used it exclusively as a source of bad examples in his seminal 1971 book Cities for People, but when I visited the Danish architect in his Copenhagen offices last week, he still professed to be "not amused" by the developmental "acupuncture" applied to the city in recent years. And in response to his friend Bradbury's suggestion of mayoral candidacy, Disney had a telling reply: "Why should I run for mayor when I am already king?"

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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