Faking history for profit

The Donkey Was Real Once
"How many people do you know who are looking for a pair of maracas or a sombrero?" Vivien Bonzo asked Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times last June. She was, of course, being sarcastic. As a long-time tenant of Olvera Street and leader of the shop owners' association, Bonzo knows that Olvera is a street of troubled transactions.

Morrison's interview last year was part of the paper's coverage of a decades-long dispute between business operators and the city department that manages the historic plaza and the shops and small stalls that line Olvera Street. (I wrote about the dispute here.)

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Tenants like Bonzo are caught between a cash-strapped city looking for revenue and a paternalistic business model that has hardly changed in 80 years.

In 1929, Christine Sterling persuaded the Los Angeles Times to save the oldest surviving house in Los Angeles - the Avila adobe, built in 1818 - by encasing it and nearby warehouses in an invented Mexico. Reportedly, Sterling never visited the real thing. She preferred the Mexico she made on the edge of downtown.

Her Mexico was clean, English speaking, and "quaint" and "colorful" for tourists too meek to cross the border. Olvera Street was the Disney version, with a plaza, a little church, and a mercado of stalls and shops dealing in "native handicrafts" and restaurants serving Anglo-friendly Mexican cuisine.

Olvera Street under Sterling also was strictly regulated. She would exile any stall owner or shopkeeper who failed her vision of her street.

As long as the tourists came, the shopkeepers of Olvera Street did well enough under Sterling's colonial regime, passing their leases on to sons and daughters and their children. These arrangements continued when Olvera Street and the historic buildings around the plaza became a state park in 1960 and when the city took over management of the park in 1974 under a joint powers agreement.

Since then, the city has sought to tighten up management of its tenants and raise their rents closer to the "market rate." Tenants always pushed back. Posturing, ethnic politics, and partial agreements have punctuated the last 13 years of the conflict. It's nearly over now, but the draft agreement shows the limits of operating the kind of hybrid public/private place that Olvera Street has always been.

The ironies on the street are stark. The business operators are there to deliver the sanitized Mexican-ness that Sterling's vision of Olvera Street required. They're the props in an outdated narrative of Los Angeles history, and the business owners know it. Yet they depended on that narrative to draw tourists. Fewer have come in recent years; business, say the owners, hasn't been good.

The owners would prefer the get-along style of management to which they've become used. They want low rents. And, they say, the city should invest more of its money to bring in festive events for Angeleños to watch . . . and then stay to shop.

On Tuesday, the city council will vote on a concession agreement that represents the latest compromise. Some loose ends still need resolution, including resistance to a provision that shop and stall operators must spend at least 80 hours a month on site running their business.

In exchange for higher rents - to be phased in over five years - the merchants want more from the city. According to Paul Hamilton, the attorney for the merchants' association, "What is absolutely critical here is that . . . the city council provide funds for events, for artisans, that will bring Olvera Street back to what it traditionally was. (The city) must have active operating money to ensure that there is sufficient enhancement of visitors who will come to Olvera Street and raise revenues.''

What Olvera Street traditionally was - and what it will remain - is the legacy of Sterling's paternalism. It will continue to yoke Olvera Street's business owners and the city in an unhealthy dependence. And the stuff sold to tourists - maracas and sombreros - will continue to say almost nothing about the Norteño culture that is the historical legacy of Los Angeles, as well as its future.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was adaped from one taken by flickr user Aterzm. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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