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A Los Angeles Primer: Olvera Street

As an Angeleno, no matter of how brief a standing, you tend to want to steer visitors away from Olvera Street. I, for my part, have caught myself wanting to steer visitors away from Olvera Street without appearing to steer them away from Olvera Street. People who live elsewhere have heard of this set of narrow blocks in the very origin point of downtown Los Angeles as a shoppable commemoration of the city’s past as an eighteenth-century Spanish, later Mexican, pueblo, and they often want to see it for themselves. People who live here have heard of it as an unforgivable corralling and sanitization of certain particularly saleable elements of Latin American culture, a tidy serving of “fake” Mexican presence in a town with such a rich banquet of “real” Mexican presence on offer. Yet it has everywhere become deeply unfashionable to appoint oneself a defender of the authentic, and rightly so; in few other places does the concept of authenticity carry so little concrete meaning. I can come to only one reasonable position to setups like Olvera Street: neither for nor against. You can only enter and observe.

I’ve long observed Olvera Street, but usually from what I’ve considered a safe distance, away from the market-filled alley, out on the old plaza. Go in, I figured, and I might as well go in to Disneyland. Charles Phoenix, a well-known “histo-tainer” specializing in the retro, both unprecedentedly sophisticated and deeply unsophisticated mid-century Americana that so flowered in postwar Southern California, has taken the comparison as far as to offer booked-well-in-advance tours premised on the assumption that we Southern Californians have not just one glorious multi-centered theme park, but two: Disneyland, and downtown Los Angeles. Stops include Bunker HillChinatown, and, of course, Olvera Street, of which the latter two (and, in a sense, arguably all) really did appear in their modern incarnations for the express purpose of taking in tourist money. Both came developed at the hand of English-born cultural promoter Christine Sterling, and since opening in 1938 and 1930, respectively, both of these highly deliberate simulacra have regained, or perhaps generated, reality of their own.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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