There’s a scene in the pilot episode of Futurama where, immediately after the main character falls into cryogenic suspended animation, we see the next thousand years of human history fly by in less than a minute: Buildings topple as society falls, then are rebuilt, then fall again when alien spacecraft invade, then are replaced by medieval castles, and eventually a futuristic city.
Whenever I’m walking down Olvera Street I’m reminded of that scene.
Part of this is because there’s a section of my brain that’s always kind of focused on how cool an alien invasion would be, but mostly it’s because of the many iterations of Olvera Street you’d see if you watched the last 230 years of Los Angeles history on fast-forward; over the 1800s and 1900s, it’s gone from city center to forgotten backstreet to tourist mecca.
Many of us think of Olvera Street as “the oldest street in Los Angeles,” but the reality is that, at one time, Olvera Street pretty much was Los Angeles. As the central plaza of LA — or, as the city was known, El Pueblo de Nuesta Senora Reina de los Angeles — was the beating heart of the city. But after California was ceded to the United States as a spoil of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the city saw an influx of European immigrants, and Olvera Street’s status as a community center declined as LA grew.
By the early decades of the 20th Century, Olvera Street had become a gathering place for struggling immigrants. Then in 1926, a wealthy socialite named Christine Sterling “discovered” the street and its surrounding area, and used her connections among LA’s moneyed elite to bring the street back to its old glory. When Sterling first saw Olvera, it was in a state of ruin; its impressively-preserved condition today is largely due to efforts she started in the 1920s.
The street was maintained by the state of California until 1985, when it came under the auspices of the city. Most recently, Olvera Street was in danger of losing its events funding; a political struggle would have put the planning and implementation of festivals like Dia de los Muertos and the Blessing of the Animals in the hands of private bidders rather than local merchants. In May, those efforts were overturned by the City Council.
Today, Olvera Street is a blast; when I visited on Sunday I stopped for taquitos at Cielito Lindo (warning: sound), where I got three taquitos and refried beans smothered in green chile sauce for a cool six bucks (the same price will also get you two taquitos and a tamale). The service is super-quick, even in a crowd. The taquitos are good, but it’s the green sauce that’ll keep me coming back. Finding a seat is a challenge; I gobbled down my taquitos perched on a brick planter in the middle of the walkway until a seat opened up in the dining room.
Afterwards I stopped at Mr. Churro for dessert. I ordered two churros for myself and two for my girlfriend, then learned that each churro was literally as long as my damn arm. You can get them filled with strawberry, caramel or whipped cream, and then watch as the coolest guy in the whole world uses a giant confection-injection machine to fill the churros. I offer my profound apologies for not getting a picture of this process; it’s awesome beyond the telling.
While I ate I was treated to a roving mariachi band. I’m pretty sure it was a mariachi band; my knowledge of Mexican music isn’t what it should be.
Of course, being the glutton that I am, I spent much of my time eating, but there’s plenty more to do at Olvera Street. There’s the Avila Adobe House, which, built in 1818, is the oldest still-standing house in Los Angeles. There’s the Sepulveda House, built in 1887 and restored by Sterling in 1929 as a USO canteen. And there’s plenty more.
We didn’t buy anything, but Olvera Street is a great place to part with a few bucks. At some point, I keep promising myself, I will buy one of the luchador masks that every vendor seems to sell. I’ll have to do it when I’m there alone, because apparently there’s nothing more terrifying to my girlfriend than the sight of me dressed as a Mexican wrestler.
Most of the restaurants in Olvera Street are open until around 9:30 or 10 PM. It’s easily accessible from Union Station if you want to take the Metro, but parking in the surrounding area isn’t hard to find. I was surprised to find that many merchants and restaurants take credit and debit cards, but I’d recommend bringing some cash just in case. Oh, and bring all the politeness and good manners your mama taught you; it can get pretty crowded and some of the spaces are a little snug (to the woman who spilled a drink on me without apologizing or even looking at me: Karma is a stone-cold bitch, lady). Also, families bring their kids, and the vendors sell a lot of trinkets that make noise.
On the plus side, though, there’s margaritas.