In the mid-1920s, when Christine Sterling walked down the 600-foot-long lane that intersects the plaza in front of the Church of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, Olvera Street was a rough mix of immigrant tenements and industrial buildings. The area around the plaza had been the heart of the Spanish and Mexican city from the 1780s through the 1840s and even through the first three decades of the newly American city. But booming Los Angeles moved west and south in the late 1880s, leaving its past behind.
Until the past became a sales pitch. The Ramonaland fantasy of the "Days of the Dons" gave remnants of the past considerable value. By 1920, old haciendas were roadside attractions. The Camino Real was restored. The Franciscan mission churches were refurbished (and those that had melted back into the adobe soil were rebuilt with varying degrees of historical accuracy).
Unfortunately for boosters, downtown Los Angeles had no haciendas, no mission. (The church on the plaza was rebranded as "the Old Mission Church" in hopes of fooling some of the tourists.) Downtown had only the plaza, some once-grand buildings from the previous century, and an alley called Olvera Street.
And Olvera Street had Christine Sterling. She had already reinvented herself through two failed marriages, progressing from Chastina Rix to marquee-worthy Christine Sterling, before she took on the task of reinventing Olvera Street. Sterling saved the oldest surviving house in Los Angeles - the Avila adobe, built in 1818 - by encasing it and nearby buildings in an invented Mexico - a place Sterling never visited, according to Cecilia Rasmussen, writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2005.
Once, Olvera Street was literally the first thing that tourists saw after walking out of Union Station, luggage in hand. That's changed, and the street has had hard times. Today brings some of the hardest: a combination of recession, the city's near bankruptcy, and the limits of reinvention and fantasy.
Olvera Street has always been publically managed (currently by the cash-strapped city) but operated for the benefit of businesses along the street, come of which have been owned by successive generations of family members since Olvera Street was reborn in 1930. Businesses have been sheltered by this arrangement, but now they face rents recalculated at "market rates." That would mean, in some cases, increasing payments by several hundred percent, according to restaurant owner Vivien Bonzo (interviewed by Patt Morrison's in Saturday's Los Angeles Times).
Irrelevance seems to hang over Olvera Street. "How many people do you know who are looking for a pair of maracas or a sombrero?" Bonzo asked Morrison. Selling souvenirs of Mexico to tourists in Los Angeles may not be much of a business model anymore.