Olvera Street should be teeming with life at this moment, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to a once-bustling area. The shopping area within the historical landmark officially known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument hasn’t seen its usual throngs of customers for months. The international tourists who visit during their visits to the U.S.? Not traveling. The locals who dine at the restaurants and food stands? Dining at home or elsewhere with restrictions. The students from local schools who visit for cultural trips to El Pueblo? Stuck at home on their computers for virtual classroom lessons.
For the generations of merchants at Olvera Street who have worked tirelessly for decades to maintain and grow the legacy of their families, the fight to survive the pandemic has since grown to protect the soul of the city landmark.
“I had to furlough 15 employees because I knew, once that happened, we weren't going to see a lot of business,” says Greg Berber, describing the changes he made to his restaurant business, La Luz Del Día, after Governor Gavin Newsom gave the first quarantine orders in mid-March. “For the first four weeks, it was just myself and three other employees running the restaurant just because we were going to try to sell food, but we knew that sales were going to be significantly down.”
Berber is the vice president of J. Berber and Company, Inc., which operates La Luz Del Día. Jack Berber, Greg’s grandfather, founded the restaurant with his cousin Pancho Cazares at the behest of Christine Sterling, “the godmother of Olvera Street,” as Greg describes her, in 1959. Before then, Jack Berber owned and operated a supermarket in what is now a parking lot.
Berber has lost at least 90% of his annual revenue since the pandemic began and, as a result, is more than $60,000 in debt. Without assistance from the City of Los Angeles, which owns and operates El Pueblo, he and other merchants are sure to lose their businesses, many which have remained within their families since the official founding of Olvera Street in 1930.
Valerie Handley of Casa California and Christina Mariscal-Pasten of Myrosa Enterprises, both souvenir and gift shops, have suffered alike during this pandemic. Handley’s father worked in Olvera Street as a shoeshine boy in 1930 before starting his business. Mariscal-Pasten’s family has been at Olvera Street for six generations and her parents continue to run the day-to-day operations at Myrosa. Her father has worked in their shop since he was five years old.
“He’s been running it now since 1980, 1981,” says Mariscal-Pasten. “He knows nothing else. And I will tell you right now that for somebody who, you know, jokingly, we said he's going to die there because that's all he's ever known … he's talking about throwing in the towel. Somebody who has been at this for so many years is ready to just walk away.”
“It's not a reflection of him,” she continues. “It's a reflection of the circumstance. It's a reflection of the lack of support that we've received on a grander scale from our elected officials.”
The Olvera Street merchants sought help at the federal and state level but didn’t receive much from either. Many were able to secure temporary relief from the federal government’s CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program, but received half of what they asked for. Those funds lasted only a few weeks with much of it going to their employees, leaving almost nothing for rent and other utility bills that must still be paid even during the pandemic.
“We all have bills that are due,” explains Handley. “I'm still paying the alarm on my business, I'm still paying the minimum lighting on my business, all of that stuff that, even if I've shut my doors, I still have expenses that come from my business. I pay the insurance on my business and the property tax.”
“For our larger shops, it’s extremely difficult,” she continues. “I have one of the larger businesses and, unfortunately, our contracts state that, no matter what happens, we have to pay our rent.”
The merchants fund and curate a handful of events at Olvera Street, such as the Blessing of the Animals, Las Posadas during Christmas and the nine-day Day of the Dead celebrations through the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation. This year, they were forced to cancel all events because of the pandemic including the events planned for Olvera Street’s 90th anniversary celebration.
"We’re not your traditional brick and mortar shops .... We are truly mom and pop businesses with a 90-year history and a legacy that is rooted in what is Los Angeles. We know that we can’t stay the Olvera Street of old, but that doesn't mean we have to lose the essence of what it’s been for all this time."<br>Christina Mariscal-Pasten
“This year, Olvera Street celebrated its 90th birthday, and we’re unable to do anything,” explains Mariscal-Pasten. “I think the biggest fear for a lot of merchants who have been around a long time is that they feel like this year could be their last because … they don't know when their next paycheck is coming.”
One major obstacle for the merchants is the lack of representation they have in the city. Olvera Street is in Council District 14, formerly represented by disgraced Councilman Jose Huizar, who was arrested and charged in a 34-count indictment in June. Huizar had already been ostracized from City Council weeks before his arrest.
This has led the constituents of District 14 to look for help from Huizar’s office staff and from councilmembers in neighboring districts. The Olvera Street merchants received some help from Councilmember Gil Cedillo of District 1, which buttresses District 14. Cedillo introduced a motion asking the city to “waive rent payments due from merchant tenants at the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument for the months of July - December 2020. Any rent paid prior to the effective date of this motion should be credited towards future rent due.”
The merchants hope that newly elected councilman Kevin de León will prove to be an important ally and step in immediately on their behalf. De León will be sworn in on October 15, two months early from the official inauguration date of December 14, due to the unique circumstances in the district.
“I’m hoping that Kevin makes good on his commitment,” says Mariscal-Pasten. “I’m hoping that he will come and meet with us because we’ve had lots of council members in my lifetime who have come and said, ‘We’re going to help you.’ And then they come in, they’re gung-ho for about five minutes, and we get left to the side. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
In the meantime, the merchants are working with the city on guidelines and potentially funding to reopen safely, if possible, during the pandemic. Nearly a dozen merchants remained open, but with limited operating hours, hoping to make any kind of revenue. Hand sanitizers that have been on back order were deployed, as well as safety signage and fencing to help space out the flow of traffic should their be an uptick in visitors at Olvera Street.
Besides Olvera Street, the El Pueblo Historical Monument features numerous historic buildings such as the Avila Adobe, the oldest home structure in the city (1818), the La Placita Church, which opened its doors to worshippers in 1822, the Old Plaza Firehouse, built in 1884, the Merced Theatre, which hosted numerous Hispanic vaudeville performers, and the Pico House, a three-story building that was once the most luxurious hotel in Los Angeles and owned and operated by Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California, Mexico before the end of the Mexican-American War.
These historic structures are under threat not only from the quarantine-related shutdowns but also by the city’s and county’s numerous attempts to develop new structures in and around the historic monument. The city has mulled building either a multi-level parking lot or a multi-story hotel at Father Serra Park on numerous occasions. Metro, the county’s public transportation company, is currently constructing an expansion nearby that will narrow Alameda Street, Los Angeles Street and the walkway into El Pueblo.
“It always feels like, slowly but surely, everything is trying to encroach on us,” says Handley. “They’re trying to do something with our parking lot number two, to build something there, and that may include apartments or whatever. To us, that will just destroy the historical nature of our place because you're not going to have a two-story apartment house, right? You’re going to have a minimum six-story apartment house or something to that nature that would completely destroy the historic core that they should try to preserve. Apparently, the dollar seems to be mightier than the history of Los Angeles.”
These repeated encroachments also affect the amount of taxes the merchants pay to both the city and the county. Unlike other businesses, the merchants explained that they pay the property tax on their businesses despite the fact that the city is the official landlord of Olvera Street. They also pay a possessive tax, an unsecured property tax, a sales tax and typically see a rise in their taxes with every new development in the area.
“Every little improvement that happens around us, we end up getting a bump in our property taxes,” explains Handley.
“We’ve been battling this for two generations,” adds Mariscal-Pasten. “When can we just run our businesses? When can we just operate and not have to worry about somebody constantly trying to pull the rug out from under us?”
The merchants fear that if Olvera Street goes, so too will the rest of the El Pueblo Historical Monument. As such, they are not just protecting their livelihoods and familial legacies but fighting to preserve a section of living history in Los Angeles where the past and present coincide. The legacy of their family businesses simply cannot be separated from that of the existence of Olvera Street.
“What they really don’t realize is that we’ve been taking care of these buildings in this place longer than they’ve had control over this place,” says Handley. “So to us, this belongs to us, not to them, as proprietors. It’s our responsibility to be able to maintain this. They don’t see that. They see it … just like any other rental place.”
“We’re not your traditional brick and mortar shops,” explains Mariscal-Pasten. “We are truly mom and pop businesses with a 90-year history and a legacy that is rooted in what is Los Angeles. We know that we can’t stay the Olvera Street of old, but that doesn't mean we have to lose the essence of what it’s been for all this time.”
On Aug. 26, the merchants found some breathing room as the City Council unanimously approved the motion, freeing the merchants from their rent burden for the rest of the year. “That was able to go through, which was nice,” says Handley. “We asked the City Council and the Budget & Finance Committee to have them work or have El Pueblo work with us as to what we’re going to do beyond December…We want to work with them. We want to be able to help. We don’t expect a free ride forever.”
There is still a matter of the rent forgiveness or credit for the rent payments made or owed for the months of April, May and June of this year. Some of the merchants are still receiving late payment notices for rents owed for those months. Olvera’s merchants are hoping that this too will eventually be resolved in the coming months.
“It was a brief respite, but we’re already thinking about what's going to happen after December because that’s the slow months,” adds Berber. “January, February, March is when we barely have any foot traffic. I don’t know how they expect us to pay full rent, especially since we’re still not up to the point that’s sufficient enough to pay our bills, let alone rent.”
Editor's note: The article has been updated to reflect the actions the City has taken to address the health and safety issues at Olvera Street.
Top Image: Olvera Street postcard with City Hall in the background from the Security Pacific National Bank Collection | Los Angeles Public Library Olvera Street