OldWestNewWest.com: History & Travel Magazine

Feb 20th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home Places to Visit Historic Towns Searching for Early California's History: El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Ángeles

Searching for Early California's History: El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Ángeles

Olvera Street Gives Visitors a Glimpse of What Old Los Angeles Was Like More Than 200 Years Ago

Hits smaller text tool iconmedium text tool iconlarger text tool icon

With a population approaching 4 million, it's hard to think of glitzy Los Angeles as anything more than a megalopolis (second largest city in the U.S.) made up of movie stars, really wacky people (oops, did we just repeat ourselves?) and - palm trees.

At one time, however, Los Angeles was nothing more than a dry, coastal land of grasses, chaparral and rattlesnakes, occupied by members of the Tongva - Native Americans who lived throughout the Los Angeles basin including the offshore islands.


Then in September 1781, a group of 11 families recruited from Mexico (11 men, 11 women, and 22 children), four soldiers, a few mission priests and a handful of Indians headed west about nine miles from the San Gabriel Mission (founded on Sept. 8, 1771) with the goal of establishing a new community near what is now the Los Angeles River.

The name for the new little town was el Pueblo de la Reina de Los Ángeles, or in English, the Town of the Queen of the Angels. Over time it simply became Los Angeles. From the few quickly-built adobe-brick houses and meandering dirt streets, a small farming community began to take place.

The exact location of the original settlement is uncertain, but what is there today-Olvera Street-is pretty close, local historians say, and makes up the birthplace of the city and part of the greater Los Angeles downtown.

We wanted a glimpse of what was the look and feel of old Los Angeles, so during a recent trip to Southern California we headed to Olvera Street to see what we could discover. We discovered quite a bit, and we wanted to share it with you.

Olvera Street is a block-long, Mexican-style street marketplace featuring several historic buildings and a traditional Mexican-style plaza area on its west end. It's a key component of a 44-acre state historic park called El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument.

Other historic elements in El Pueblo include the city's first firehouse, the Chinese-American Museum, the Pico House (built by the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico) and La Placita Church, the city's first, and still an active parish.

Olvera Street was saved from what it had become-a skid row-by socialite and preservationist Christine Sterling, who in 1926 started a campaign to rescue what was left of the city's historic birthplace. Needless to say, she was successful. On Easter Sunday, April 20, 1930, Olvera Street was officially opened as a Mexican marketplace.

Calling it a street really is a misnomer, in our opinion. Closed to vehicles for almost seventy-five years, it's really more like a lane or passageway with shops and restaurants along both sides and kiosks in the middle.

Sure, there are a lot of tourist items available; the usual leather sandals (huaraches), serapes, souvenir shot glasses and postcards. But we found items that were notches above what we'd label as souvenirs.

Ambling along the narrow walkway, and wandering into some of the shops, we spotted a variety of imports (mostly from Mexico) that were appealing; kitchen items, hand-decorated tiles and borders (even ceramic sinks), artwork, hand-carved wood furniture, crystal glassware, etc. While prices were posted, we came away feeling that bargaining was not out of the question.

There's history on the street to see as well.

Foremost is the Avila Adobe House, the oldest residence in Los Angeles. Built around 1818 by Don Francisco Avila, one of the city's early mayors, only seven of the original 18 rooms remain. It is built of adobe bricks and cottonwood timbers cut down from the banks of the old Los Angeles River. The walls are nearly three feet thick.

The entrance way to the Avila Adobe was a little hard to spot at first. We had to walk along a breezeway between the adobe and another building that led us into the old courtyard. One of the displays there is a wooden-wheeled carreta, an ox-drawn cart used during the period to haul such things as cowhides and goods. We also were impressed by the thick adobe-brick oven along one wall where most of the meals were cooked.

We were able to wander inside the house and see a little of what life must have been like in the early 1800s. From the looks of things in the living quarters, obviously life was not easy back then. We wondered if today's BlackBerry-powered residents of Los Angeles would be hardy enough to have survived the 1800s. (There's also an exhibit on Christine Sterling, rescuer of Olvera Street.)

There are other notable historic buildings on Olvera Street, including the Pelanconi House built in 1855 (and the oldest fired-brick house in the city) and the Sepulveda House, built in 1887.

Visiting Olvera Street can take maybe a half hour (if you're really in a hurry) or a late-morning to early-afternoon exploration. Our advice: Take your time. We took the longer choice and included a really good lunch at one of the Olvera Street restaurants. If you're curious, see our story in the restaurants section of OldWestNewWest.Com

In the meantime, if you find yourself in Los Angeles, and have time to spare, go experience the origins of the city; visit Olvera Street and get a glimpse of how the megalopolis began.


Free Guided Tours of El Pueblo de Los Angeles

Las Angelitas del Pueblo is a group of volunteer docents who offer the public free tours of El Pueblo de Los Angeles.

The 45-minute walking tour is offered three times a day every Tuesday through Saturday, at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon. Tours are available Mondays upon request and availability of docents from July 1 through Dec. 30. Groups of 10 or more should make reservations by calling El Pueblo's Visitor Center at (213) 485-8437.

El Pueblo de Los Angeles, including Olvera Street, is located between Main Street, Cesar Chavez Avenue, Alameda Street and Arcadia Street. Easiest direction: It's right across the street from Union Station.

Places to Visit