History Lives on Olvera Street

Palisadian Frank Damon, a Las Angelitas del Pueblo docent, points out details in the mural painted between 1974 and 1978 by artist Leo Politi on the Biscailuz Building off Olvera Street. The “Blessing of the Animals” is a popular annual tradition.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

For a city bursting at the seams with newcomers, it’s ironic how, in the beginning, it was tough to convince anyone to come live here. The promise of free land, no taxes, and provisions for growing crops finally motivated 44 men and women to migrate from present-day Mexico (then New Spain)’a 1,200-mile journey that took six months’to found a pueblo on soil that today is Los Angeles. ”Under the orders of King Carlos III of Spain, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles was officially established in 1781 to grow food for the soldiers guarding this far-off territory of Spain. The San Gabriel Mission, established 12 years earlier, was eight miles away. This section of land, now part of downtown Los Angeles near Union Station and Chinatown, extended east towards the L.A. River and was the city center from 1781 to the mid-19th century. ”Today, this oldest section of Los Angeles is the jewel known as El Pueblo Historical Monument, an official state park that boasts 27 historic buildings and five museums clustered around an old Plaza. Olvera Street, the popular, thriving Mexican open market established in 1930, serves as the focal point of the park as well as a living link between present-day L.A. and the city’s Spanish and Mexican roots. ”Given L.A.’s poor record with historic preservation, it’s something of a miracle that the area still exists. It was threatened in the early 1920s when city planners wanted to make way for a larger City Center, and again in the 1950s when it narrowly missed being devoured by the construction of the Hollywood Freeway. Official designation came in 1953.” ”’Most people don’t realize it all began with 44 people,’ says Frank Damon, a longtime Palisadian who is a prominent member of Las Angelitas del Pueblo, the volunteer docent group responsible for conducting tours of the area. ‘And that original group of people was multicultural in the same way the city is today.’ ”Damon, a man on a mission to share and preserve L.A. history, came to the subject relatively late in life. Two years ago, he and some friends made a trek to Olvera Street to practice their Spanish. After taking a tour of the site, he was hooked, signing on to participate in the El Pueblo docent training class, a program he now directs. ”’Growing up in the Valley, downtown seemed like this faraway, mythical place,’ says Damon, 60, who attended UCLA and the University of San Diego, where he took his law degree. A former chief deputy insurance commissioner, he now practices part-time. ‘I go downtown now more than ever.’ He and his wife Linda have lived in the Marquez area since 1975. ”Damon guesses he’s read close to 60 books on Los Angeles history since becoming a docent. ‘I want others to realize what a great city this is, how truly unique it is.’ ”There’s no mistaking Damon’s passion for his subject. His tour, brimming with fun facts and insights, is delivered in a high energy style that incorporates old photographs, maps and other paraphernalia. Commentary swings creatively from conjuring the days of the earliest settlers’ ‘Close your eyes and imagine seeing nothing but beautiful mountains and sunshine”to the colorful period under Pio Pico (1801-1894), the last governor of California under Mexico. In 1869, Pico erected Pico House, the most elegant hotel south of San Francisco and the first three-story masonry building constructed in Los Angeles. Today, the Italianate structure is a major monument anchoring the old Plaza. ”’Pico’s life, spanning most of the 19th century, encompassed California life under three different flags’Spain, Mexico and finally the United States,’ Damon notes. ‘This is probably my favorite period of California history.’ ”Jumping into the 20th century, Damon points to Christine Sterling as one of the great visionaries of preservation. The entire area, especially Olvera Street, had fallen to ruin by the early 1900s, when the professional heart of the city had moved southward as the city’s population grew. Sterling convinced city leaders it was in their best interest to bring the historic section back to life, and forged ahead with the creation of an old-style Mexican marketplace in 1930. She skirted budgetary problems by using prison labor for much of the construction and, according to Damon, jokingly told police ‘to arrest a plumber or electrician’ when the need for more skilled labor came about. ”Olvera Street, celebrating its 75th anniversary next April, teems with visitors to this day and is the site of countless city celebrations and festivals, including the ‘Blessing of the Animals,’ a spring ritual since 1938. Las Posadas, the festival commemorating the journey of Mary and Joseph into Bethlehem, will be depicted each evening beginning tonight through December 24 with singing and a candlelight procession. ”A respite from crowded Olvera Street comes at Avila Adobe, the city’s oldest house, filled with authentic artifacts and restored to appear as it did in the 1840s. The Chinese American Museum, the Firehouse Museum (the city’s first dating from 1884), Sepulveda House, the Mexican Cultural Institute and El Pueblo Art Gallery are among the other major attractions in the park. ”’One can easily spend all day here,’ Damon says, pointing out that Union Station is just across the street and Disney Hall only three blocks away. ‘We wish this area were better publicized,’ Damon adds. ‘It’s not exactly in the top five with Hollywood or Venice Beach.’ ”The majority of those who do come are students, mostly fourth graders studying California history. A core group of 40 active docents leads tours for over 11,000 visitors annually. ”Las Angelitas del Pueblo won the History Channel’s first ever ‘Save Our History Preservation Award’ last year, based on the work Damon and Bob Aguirre, vice president of the docent group, did with a group of seniors at Belmont High School. The students created a 10-minute video, brochure and Web site documenting Pico House. The $10,000 award will go towards another joint effort with Belmont, this time producing a DVD on the emergence of Olvera Street and recording oral histories. ‘Eventually, we’d like to cover the history of the entire Pueblo,’ Damon notes. ”A new docent training session, headed by Damon, takes place on seven Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. beginning February 8 at the Las Angelitas del Pueblo office on the south side of the old Plaza. The class agenda appears online at www.lasangelitas.org. ”One-hour docent-led tours are free and are conducted at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon, Tuesday through Saturday. Contact: (213) 473-5206.