The first in-depth study of Los Angeles through the lens of its original core at the old city Plaza.
City plazas worldwide are centers of cultural expression and artistic display. They are settings for everyday urban life where daily interactions, economic exchanges, and informal conversations occur, thereby creating a socially meaningful place at the core of a city.
At the heart of historic Los Angeles, the Plaza represents a quintessential public space where real and imagined narratives overlap and provide as many questions as answers about the development of the city and what it means to be an Angeleno. The author, a social and cultural historian who specializes in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Los Angeles, is well suited to explore the complex history and modern-day relevance of the Los Angeles Plaza. From its indigenous and colonial origins to the present day, Estrada explores the subject from an interdisciplinary and multiethnic perspective, delving into the pages of local newspapers, diaries and letters, and the personal memories of former and present Plaza residents, in order to examine the spatial and social dimensions of the Plaza over an extended period of time.
The author contributes to the growing historiography of Los Angeles by providing a groundbreaking analysis of the original core of the city that covers a long span of time, space, and social relations. He examines the impact of change on the lives of ordinary people in a specific place, and how this change reflects the larger story of the city.
Gold Award in Californiana
California Book Awards
Commonwealth Club of CaliforniaNACCS Book Award National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies
- Chapter 1. Cultural and Historical Origins
- Chapter 2. The Rise and Decline of the Mexican Plaza
- Chapter 3. From Ciudad to City
- Chapter 4. Homelands Remembered
- Chapter 5. Revolution and Public Space
- Chapter 6. Reforming Culture and Community
- Chapter 7. Parades, Murals, and Bulldozers
- Chapter 8. Politics and Preservation
- Chapter 9. The Persistence of Memory
Memory of Place
For generations of Angelenos, the old Plaza in downtown is a place of enduring personal and historical memory. I am a native Angeleno with family roots that run deep in the city, especially in the old downtown core around the Plaza. My great-grandfather Miguel Salazar, nephew of the legendary General José Ines Salazar of the Mexican Revolution, settled in Los Angeles in the late 1910s with his family and began his long career as a baker working for the Moreno family at La Esperanza bakery located on the first floor of the old Plaza House on North Main Street directly across from the Pico House and the Plaza. He was among the crowds of newly arrived immigrants and exiles who filled the restaurants, pool halls, theaters, and public gatherings at the Plaza and gave evidence to the dramatic social dislocation that was brought on by the Revolution and marked the rebirth of Mexican Los Angeles.
As children of the Great Depression, my parents, Rudolph Estrada and Lillian Saenz, found economic opportunity and some measure of social acceptance in the theaters and soda fountains of downtown. Clifton's Cafeteria on Olive, motion pictures and live performances at the Orpheum and Million Dollar Theatres, and the jazz clubs on Central Avenue still linger in their memories. They also understood that Los Angeles was a smaller place before World War II and that the Plaza was a focal point for the city that people understood in terms of its spatial relation to other significant places and landmarks in downtown: Union Station, Fort Moore Hill, Old and New Chinatown, City Hall, Little Tokyo, and Broadway. For them, the old square was a place where daily shopping, courtship, weddings, funerals, traditional Mexican-patriotic observances such as Cinco de Mayo, and the simple pleasure of sitting in its shaded open space allowed Angelenos to temporarily soften the barriers of race, class, and ethnicity that divided other places of the city. The Plaza also served as a visual and visceral reminder that despite the physical transformation of downtown and the decline in the Plaza's regional significance after the war, Los Angeles once was a Mexican city.
My earliest memories of the Plaza area date back to my childhood in the 1960s while growing up in the city's East Side barrio. This is where significant neighborhood landmarks comprised my first mental map of the city: the New Calvary Cemetery; Belvedere Park, where I learned to fish, swim, and play baseball; Whittier Boulevard, where I shined shoes and learned to cruise; the Golden Gate Theater; D. W. Griffith Junior High and Garfield High; and Saint Alphonsos Catholic Church. Weekend family shopping excursions downtown to the department stores on Broadway and the Grand Central Market and dinner at the Golden Pagoda Café in New Chinatown (our family favorite) would invariably lead us to the Plaza for rest, a visit to the old church, or shopping on Olvera Street. Walking through its historic structures and open spaces, my parents—a union construction worker and a secretary—served as my first tour guides. And whether or not I was paying attention, they drew on their own childhood experiences of downtown to point out significant historical markers and events that formulated an important part of my cultural DNA as an Angeleno and, given the times, as a Chicano. Among them were the Avila Adobe (built in 1818 and the oldest remaining house in the city); the Zanja Madre on Olvera Street, the brick-lined ditch that brought precious water to residents during the early days of the pueblo; the three-story Pico House Hotel, built in 1870 by Pío Pico, California's last governor under Mexican rule (my father would proudly remind me with a soft whisper into my ear: "Mijo, he was one of us"); the place where mobs of Anglo servicemen and Mexican teenagers (my father among them) clashed in the summer of 1943 in what became known as the Zoot Suit Riots; and the most sacred structure on the site, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles, affectionately known by locals as La Placita church. Paradoxically, these experiences were a sharp contrast to my grade-school field trips to the old square, which were a requirement for all lower-grade classes in the Los Angeles city schools under the rubric of the California missions and local history. In these instances, however, the lessons to be learned focused on the American exploration and conquest of the city by men like Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, and John C. Frémont and, ultimately, what my place in this heroic story might be. For after learning that Commodore Robert F. Stockton and other U.S. military leaders made the old Avila Adobe their headquarters during the occupation of the pueblo in 1846, our attention usually shifted to the display of contemporary images, caricatures, and incarnations of Mexico and Mexicans that were for sale on Olvera Street, the Mexican marketplace created in 1930. But as a Mexican American, I often found it difficult, yet necessary, to join in the laughter and finger pointing of my classmates in the onslaught of brown-faced puppets, peasant sandals, giant sombreros, and all sorts of other "things Mexican." I was never quite sure if the statue of the peasant sleeping under the giant saguaro cactus (the "lazy Mexican") or Mexican jumping beans were ever sold in Mexico. For me, Olvera Street was then and always will be a place of mirrors.
As the years passed and while making my way through college and the last phase of the Chicano/a Movement, my family's memory strengthened, if not inspired, my growing sense of history. And as my academic interest in Los Angeles and its historic center became the basis for a doctoral thesis, I came to appreciate the scholarly value of my boyhood anxiety about the Plaza area, especially the contrast between the bittersweet memories of my family, which are part of the unwritten narrative of Los Angeles, and my memory of elementary-school field trips and sterile classroom textbooks, which were part of the "official" narrative of the city. It is this duality between contrasting memories that forms the prism through which we will examine the long and complex history of the Plaza.
History of Place
While the subject of Los Angeles has attracted a growing body of research, the old Plaza has somehow eluded systematic analysis in the historiography of the city. This is not to say that the birthplace of the city has been out of sight and out of mind. From the 1850s to the turn of the twentieth century, leading English and Spanish newspapers such as the Los Angeles Star/La Estrella de Los Angeles, El Clamor Público, Daily News, La Crónica, Los Angeles Times, and Los Angeles Examiner reported on daily life and important events at the Plaza. This attention to the space was certainly understandable and natural, as during this time the city and the Plaza were thought of as one place. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took careful note of the transformations taking place as the city and its Plaza changed hands from Mexican to Anglo American rule. Major Horace Bell, in Reminiscences of a Ranger (1881) and On the Old West Coast (1929), offered several colorful and sobering observations of daily life within the Plaza area between the 1850s and 1870s, while historian J. M. Guinn devoted generous space to Los Angeles and the Plaza in his five-volume History of California (1915). Guinn was the consummate public historian of his era. He was a founder of the Historical Society of Southern California and edited and contributed to the society's annual publication. Three pioneering essays—"The Story of a Plaza" (1897), "Passing of the Old Pueblo" (1903), and "From Pueblo to Ciudad: The Municipal and Territorial Expansion of Los Angeles" (1906)—are Guinn's most important works that linked the Plaza with the larger geographic and social development of the city. But perhaps above all other observations of Los Angeles of the nineteenth century was Harris Newmark's detailed memoir, Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913. He arrived in the city in 1853 and became a pioneer merchant and patriarch of the Jewish community. He knew almost everyone and everything that went on in the pueblo. The book was published in 1916, the year of Newmark's death. His careful prose and insightful anecdotes offered a rich account of the Plaza during the second half of the nineteenth century as well as noting with a sympathetic eye the social and economic decline of Californio society. (Californios were Mexicans born or living in California during the rule of Spain and Mexico, from 1769 to 1848, and their offspring born following the Yankee takeover. The term gradually went out of use during the 1880s.)
In the early twentieth century, the leading daily newspapers, especially the Times and the pro-labor Express, kept the Plaza in the public mind by reporting on two issues that were of great concern to their publishers. The first was the use of the space by a growing number of the city's poor and unemployed—usually described in the Times as "bums," "tramps," or "loafers." The second was the Plaza's popularity as a rallying place for the radical left of all persuasions—events that often led to violent confrontations with the infamous "Red Squad" of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). During the first decades of the century, a host of scholars including sociologists Dana Bartlett, Emory Bogardus, and William W. McEuen, anthropologist Manuel Gamio, and the reform-minded cleric Reverend G. Bromley Oxnam conducted important sociological and ethnographic studies of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles. Each paid particular attention to the vibrant interplay of home, work, commerce, culture, and politics surrounding the old Plaza. These seminal studies were followed by several articles on the Plaza beginning in 1926 by three notable Times journalists—John Steven McGroarty, Chapin Hill, and Harry Carr—who tapped into a growing sense of nostalgia among local readers and history buffs in their show of support for Christine Sterling's fledgling campaign to preserve what was left of the birthplace of the city.
During the 1920s and 1930s, notable literary figures such as Louis Adamic, Raymond Chandler, and Aldous Huxley offered glaring observations on race, history, and street life around the Plaza in several essays and novels, but they often juxtaposed a belief that the old square was—in Huxley's words—"a slum of Africans and Filipinos, Japanese and Mexicans" that embodied the city's worst forms of crime and human deprivation. From the late 1930s through the 1960s, William Wilcox Robinson produced several important books and monographs on early Los Angeles, all of which made reference to the role of the Plaza in the development of the city. Among these works were Ranchos Become Cities (1939) and his widely read Los Angeles from the Days of the Pueblo, Together with a Guide to the Historic Old Plaza Area (1959, revised in 1981). During the 1940s, lawyer-activist-turned-historian Carey McWilliams, whose writing seems to grow in importance with the passage of time, brought new interpretive meaning to our understanding of the transformation of Los Angeles and the city's Mexican population in his classic study, Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946). For him, the Plaza area during the boom years of the 1880s was the most natural place to chronicle the dramatic social and economic decline of the Mexican ciudad with the rise of the Anglo city: "Much Spanish was still spoken in the streets where Mexicans, crowded out of their former occupations, appeared with their carts as vendors, selling sweets, tamales, and manzanita roots which they sawed into bricks and sold as fuel. Most of them still lived in the old Plaza section, their homes clinging precariously to the slopes of Fort Moore hill."
Rounding off this review of critical writings on the Plaza are the works of historians Leonard Pitt, Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 (1966); Monsignor Francis J. Weber, The Old Plaza Church: A Documentary History (1980); and William Marvin Mason, The Census of 1790: A Demographic History of Colonial California (1998). In the spirit of McWilliams, Pitt's now-classic study was a major departure from previous writing because, as its subtitle suggests, it was truly a social history from the point of view of the defeated Mexican population. Weber's collection of essays documented a social history of Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church and its adjacent Plaza, and from the 1960s to the 1990s, Mason produced a series of articles, books, and monographs that focused on such topics as the multi-ethnic origins of the founders of Los Angeles, the treatment of Indian laborers, Old Chinatown, and his critical analysis of the Census of 1790. In 1981, Mason co-wrote with Jeanne Duque a pioneering yet largely overlooked essay, "Los Angeles Plaza: Living Symbol of Our Past," for TERRA, the quarterly magazine of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. More recent additions to Plaza scholarship include El Pueblo: The Historic Heart of Los Angeles by Jean Bruce Poole and Tevvy Ball (2002), which is enjoying a wide readership while offering new insights on historic preservation efforts at the city's birthplace. Finally, Mary P. Ryan's insightful essay "A Durable Centre of Urban Space: The Los Angeles Plaza” (2006) reminds us that the Plaza has always played a vital role in downtown planning and development.
Other important works by contemporary historians shed new light on the city's Mexican legacy, among them: Michael Engh, Frontier Faiths: Church, Temple, and Synagogue in Los Angeles, 1846-1888 (1992); George Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (1993); Douglas Monroy, Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression (1999); Tom Sitton and William Deverell, editors, Metropolis in the Making: Los Angeles in the 1920s (2001); and Deverell's Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (2004). But as William Mason once noted, the Plaza has yet to attract a biographer. Doctoral dissertations by Phoebe S. Kropp, "All Our Yesterdays: The Spanish Fantasy Past and the Politics of Public Memory in Southern California, 1884-1939" (1999); by Cesar Lopez, "El Descanso: A Comparative History of the Los Angeles Plaza Area and the Shared Racialized Space of the Mexican and Chinese Communities, 1853-1933" (2002); and my own "Sacred and Contested Space: The Los Angeles Plaza" (2003) are more recent attempts to locate the Plaza area in the center of the discourse on the city itself, or as Edward W. Soja would describe, as a "thirdspace" where "real and imagined narratives overlap and provide questions that disrupt binary and linear historical understandings of this place [Los Angeles] and its people."
To be sure, the Plaza is the quintessential thirdspace, and any thorough analysis of the original city center necessitates research of pre-1870s Los Angeles. However, this is an area that has attracted only scant interest from longtime scholars as well as from a newer generation of historians. The diversity of the extant scholarship, from Progressive Era politics to Boosterism and from city planning to urban riots, points to an important historiographic need to construct a more coherent definition of the city. And while this is not a small task, perhaps because of its complexity, Los Angeles can be better understood from an interdisciplinary and multi-ethnic perspective originating at the historic core. Consequently, to understand the importance of the Plaza as a particular kind of public space and to provide a more complete narrative of Plaza life, those perspectives are interwoven in this study. These multiple genres are employed to create a more multi-vocal and multi-local representation of the Plaza.
This study of Los Angeles and its Plaza explores changes in the spatial and social dimension over a long time span and how these changes reflect the larger story of the city—how the social order is arranged geographically and how it may change over time. Historians have often overlooked this spatial dimension as opposed to changes based upon economic forces, race, class, or gender. Works by Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936 (1995); Moria Rachel Kenney, Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics (2001); Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (2006); William McClung, Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles (2000); Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (1996); and Raúl Homero Villa, Barrio Logos: Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture (2000) have certainly raised our awareness of the need for critical spatial studies about our sprawling metropolis. McClung and Kropp, in particular, offer a regional analysis of the transformations taking place in twentieth-century Los Angeles while also being mindful of the contested nature of historical memory that one finds between such places as the Plaza and the ersatz Olvera Street Mexican marketplace. Even so, there is a paucity of spatial studies on the city itself and much less on the complex history of the Plaza.
Fortunately, the writings of anthropologists, urban planners, and geographers may provide insight into the missing spatial dimension needed for historical studies. Anthropologist Setha M. Low, in her seminal ethnographic study of the Plaza of San José, Costa Rica, found that the Latin American plaza was the most comprehensive representation of Latin American society and social hierarchy. She observed that citizens struggled over these representations because they were critical as to the definition and survival of civil society. Plazas, whether they are in Latin America or the United States, are also centers of cultural expression and artistic display that are reflected in the changing designs and furnishings of the space. They are settings for everyday urban life where daily interactions, economic exchanges, and informal conversations occur, thereby creating a socially meaningful place in the heart of the city. This meaning is marked by the physical or aesthetic transformation of the Plaza and perhaps highlights what David Harvey once asserted as the ways in which landscape design and the reorganization of space are part of the "creative destruction" of forms of society, replacing traditional forms with new capitalist forms. Low concurred with Harvey, stating that "spatial forms such as public plazas [were] systems of representation and social products whose style [was] a confirmation rather than a cause of social differentiation." And as Low found also in the plazas of Costa Rica, the aesthetic, political, and social aspects of the Los Angeles Plaza are dynamic and change continually in response to personal action and broader sociopolitical forces. They also are contested through conflicts about the use, design, and meaning of the space. So by tracing these changes and conflicts as well as their impacts on architecture, social activities, and political meaning, we may come to a better understanding of public space through the study of this specific cultural form. How we examine change in the use and meaning of space, as reflected in the history of this preeminent public space—known today as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument—is the analytical challenge of this book. And with that challenge, it is my hope to contribute to the growing historiography of Los Angeles by providing an analysis of the original core that covers a long span of time, space, and social relations by examining the impact of change on the lives of ordinary people in a specific place.
Chapter Outline and Central Themes
This book is divided into nine chapters and follows a thematic and chronological course. Chapter 1, "Cultural and Historical Origins," examines the influences that led to the founding of Los Angeles and its Plaza as a space of social and cultural interaction. Long before the founding of the pueblo in 1781, the indigenous people who occupied what is now Los Angeles—known today as the Gabrielino or Tongva—had developed a complex culture and knowledge of the local environment that would be transmitted to the new pueblo. This chapter also explores the cultural and spatial origins of the grid-plan Plaza, where pre-Columbian and European urban designs and culture merged with the conquest of the Americas. Spanish colonial town planning was an organized and orderly set of designs, and the rectangular Plaza became the undisputed center of social and economic life. The founding of Los Angeles in 1781 by forty-four racially mixed settlers of Indian, African, and European ancestry extended this planning tradition that began in 1492 when Columbus established the first colonial town of Hispanic origin in present-day Santo Domingo.
The chapter continues with an examination of the colonial pueblo from 1781 to 1821. During this period the Plaza would undergo its first major physical transformation by changing locations at least twice (and perhaps three times) due to the periodic flooding of the Los Angeles River. The first streets, adobe buildings, and zanja (ditch) water system were constructed. At the core of this agricultural community was its interdependence with Yaanga, the Gabrielino community that served as the main source of labor for the pueblo. But as Los Angeles developed and prospered, the priests at nearby Mission San Gabriel perceived this arrangement as a threat to their authority over the Indians and the pueblo. And while the pobladores (founders) often committed the same abuses as the missionaries in their relations with Indians, the social and cultural exchanges that were taking place between the Gabrielinos and the settlers, including intermarriage, would come to symbolize the decline of colonial authority and the rise of the pueblos and surrounding ranchos under independent Mexico.
Chapter 2, "The Rise and Decline of the Mexican Plaza," examines the Plaza as an expression of norteño (northern) Mexican culture and society during the period of Mexican rule from 1821 to 1848. The breakup of vast mission properties led to the growth of the private rancho and an export economy in hides and tallow. During this time the Plaza was the heart of Californio society in Southern California. It was a place where a regional community engaged in a dynamic economy based on cattle raising and where traditional religious and secular events were centered at the Plaza. This period also witnessed the development of the Plaza's physical appearance. By the 1830s the flat-roofed adobe townhouses of the leading ranchero families clustered around the square, which was the center of social, political, and commercial activity. The Mexican era in Los Angeles was marked also by the settlement and acculturation of foreigners from the United States and Europe; many of them became Mexican citizens by converting to Catholicism and marrying into Mexican families. Some would eventually play the role of an incipient Trojan horse when the Plaza became the scene of conflict between the invading U.S. military and the Californios, who finally capitulated in 1847. Yet despite the change in governments, Los Angeles from the 1850s to 1860s would remain a predominantly Mexican city in terms of population, culture, and the ongoing use of the Plaza as the center of the community. By the late 1860s, however, the end of the Gold Rush and Civil War brought many new settlers and new racial attitudes that had divided the nation. And perhaps more than any other event, the Chinese Massacre that occurred in 1871 on the eastern edge of the Plaza came to symbolize the rise of a new Los Angeles.
In Chapter 3, "From Ciudad to City," the Plaza comes to reflect the transformation of Los Angeles from a Mexican ciudad to an American city, beginning with Lieutenant Edward O. C. Ord's survey of Los Angeles in 1849. Ord's survey was a signal that the expansion and consolidation of the Anglo city meant that future urban growth was directly at odds with the existent Mexican urban form. Instead of the Mexican preference for urban living near the Plaza, Anglo business and political elites chose to reside away from the center and created a new civic center southwest of the Plaza. As a result, a new social landscape for Los Angeles emerged and would be segmented along racial and class lines, as seen in the rise of Sonoratown to the north of the Plaza and Chinatown on its eastern edge. The dramatic physical transformation of Plaza architecture from adobe to fired red brick would also mirror this change. During the 1870s and 1880s, streets were realigned, adobes were razed, and the Plaza was landscaped to reflect the growing American ideal for public park space. But as the new civic center took form near Temple Street, the Plaza was more often out of sight and out of mind. More and more, the old square was characterized by poverty, segregation, and vice. By 1896, the deteriorated condition of the Plaza led to a call by local elected officials to abandon the old square as a city park and to construct new buildings in its place. This led to the first preservation effort to save the Plaza from demolition. But by the end of the century, the Plaza's redesign and expectations that it would become a quiet "garden park" for the Victorian city had not been fulfilled. Increasingly, as the business and political center continued to shift farther southwest and as a growing labor movement was strengthened by the arrival of new immigrants, the Plaza came to reflect the growing racial and class segmentation of the city. And as Los Angeles entered the twentieth century, the Plaza became the unrivaled focus for immigrant working-class life and politics that frequently stood in opposition to the authority and politics of the new civic center.
Chapter 4, "Homelands Remembered," explores how new immigration in the early twentieth century led to the reclamation of Plaza space by immigrants from Europe, Mexico, and Asia who brought cultural vibrancy and new meaning to the old square. Before World War I, the immigrant working-class population of the Plaza area accounted for more than twenty ethnic groups, but the majority were Mexicans, Chinese, Italians, and Japanese. Central to the discussion is how these new immigrants who were integral to the industrial expansion of Los Angeles created a sense of community. The sites and sounds of businesses such as El Progresso restaurant, Teatro Hidalgo, Piuma's Italian imported food market, the Sun Wing Wo store, and a host of other businesses including food carts, barber shops, bakeries, saloons, and penny arcades featured familiar symbols and cultural offerings that served as important connections to distant homelands and psychological survival. While differences in language and culture produced their share of misunderstanding and cultural conflict, the Plaza created opportunities for disparate immigrant groups to interact with one another beyond the workplace. Mexican and Italian Catholics sat side by side in the old church and shared cramped residential space in Sonoratown, while Chinese herbalists enjoyed a steady flow of multi-ethnic customers, and Japanese-owned grocery stores and pool halls on Main Street catered to the large Mexican population. The Plaza's dynamic ethnic makeup and poverty caught the attention of reformers, writers, and social scientists who sought either to justify Americanization programs or to chronicle the life experiences of the immigrants. The chapter concludes by offering a glimpse of daily life during the 1920s and 1930s through the personal memories of former Plaza residents.
Chapter 5, "Revolution and Public Space," is a natural outgrowth of Chapter 4. As previously discussed, the Plaza in early-twentieth-century Los Angeles served as a gateway for newly arrived immigrants, providing goods and services as well as jobs, recreation, and places of worship as they made the often painful transition to American urban life and industrial labor. Many of these immigrants came to Los Angeles with the radical political traditions of their homelands; from the turn of the century through the 1930s, the Plaza was a contested space between the forces of labor and capital. As the center of immigrant community life, it was natural that the Plaza would become the central meeting place for various working-class social and political movements. Asian, European, Mexican, and American radicals and revolutionaries such as Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Ricardo Flores-Magón, Emma Goldman, and Socialist mayoral candidate Job Harriman vied for the hearts and minds of the crowds that congregated at the Plaza. Through the pages of the Los Angeles Times and the oppositional press, from union banners and police batons, the personal memories of former political activists help to convey the story of the Plaza as the rallying place for radical free speech and politics in the city that was known as the citadel of the open shop.
Chapter 6, "Reforming Culture and Community," examines various early-twentieth-century efforts to reform the Plaza of its long-standing image as an urban slum inhabited by immigrants who were believed to have emerged from inferior cultures, especially the Chinese and Mexicans, who were considered to be the main source of the city's social deprivation and periodic outbreaks of contagious disease. Such beliefs, in the hands of public health officials, business interests, journalists, and history buffs, led to various campaigns to cleanse the Plaza area of its prevailing image in order to safeguard against any potential threat to the larger white community. The threat of "Mexican disease" in the 1920s was shaped by nineteenth-century racial images of slums and disease surrounding Chinese immigrant communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Fear of such diseases peaked in 1924 with an outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plagues in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood near the Plaza. From then on, health officials, educators, writers, and journalists were alarmed by what they perceived to be a variety of "Mexican problems." Writer Louis Adamic described the Plaza area as consisting mostly of "cheap wooden tenements occupied by Mexicans and Chinks" and Main Street as a "moron stream, muddy, filthy, unpleasant to the nose . . . an awful stew of human life." So within this climate of fear and xenophobia, business interests destroyed Chinatown in the name of progress to build a new civic center and Union Station. Christine Sterling, "the Mother of Olvera Street," emerged with a plan to rid the Plaza area along Olvera Street of its "filth" and crime, and in its place, she would reform Mexican culture by taking Mexicans off public relief and putting them to work as colorful merchants in her fantasy-inspired Mexican marketplace. The consequences of these decisions would have dramatic effects in the ensuing decades.
In Chapter 7, "Parades, Murals, and Bulldozers," the Plaza's contesting historical narratives are revealed through conflicts over public pageantry, mural art, and community preservation. Combined, these conflicts represented attempts to distort local history and eradicate Plaza communities by those who wielded cultural and political power in 1930s Los Angeles against African American, Mexican, and Chinese residents who were being systematically left out of the Plaza's narrowing historical and geographic boundaries. Tellingly, in 1931, La Fiesta de Los Angeles celebrated the 150th anniversary of the city's founding with a grand historical parade and pageant that was attended by more than 700,000 people. A highlight of the sesquicentennial event occurred at the Plaza with a "reenactment" of the 1781 founding of Los Angeles. However, in 1931, the founders of the city were thought of as the white European ancestors of the Anglo Midwesterners who were then ruling the city. Consequently, the forty-four people who were selected to portray the "original" pobladores were the friends and family members of leading businessmen and elected officials; the selection drew harsh criticism from the black community for wasteful spending and conscious denial of the city's African heritage. This challenge to the public if not to the official historical narrative was also at the center of the controversy over Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros' mural América Tropical, whose bold allegorical images of oppressed Indians did not conform to Sterling's sanitized history on Olvera Street. History would continue to be challenged, but by the end of the 1930s, Chinese and Mexican communities were uprooted from the Plaza area and simulated landscapes were built in the void they left behind. Olvera Street and China City, which opened in 1938, came to symbolize the fragmentation of the city along racial and class lines.
Chapter 8, "Politics and Preservation," recounts the campaign waged by Sterling and her supporters to designate the Plaza area as a State Historic Park. This was a long and contentious period in the life of the Plaza, lasting from the World War II years to 1953. However, designating the site as a State Historic Park was achieved not simply through the legislative process and working with city hall. The chapter focuses on the effort to gain greater administrative authority over the Plaza area by controlling the interpretive landscape: Whose history would be told, and whose history would be left out? To achieve this and win favor in Sacramento, Sterling and her supporters embarked upon an ambitious program. They first addressed the issue of Mexican youth gangs in nearby barrios as antithetical to the quaintness of Olvera Street. Then, they sought to eradicate all references to the Plaza's multi-ethnic history with the destruction of the old Lugo House (a last remnant of Old Chinatown) in 1951 and aggressive efforts to conceal from public knowledge the true racial identities of the original founders of the city. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the Plaza area after Sterling—from the 1960s to the present—and how as a result of new immigration the Latinization of the city has brought redemptive meaning to the old square as symbol for a new Los Angeles.
Chapter 9, "The Persistence of Memory," concludes our journey into the historic heart of the city with a discussion of the Plaza in twenty-first-century Los Angeles. In the dramatic transformation of the city during the late twentieth century, Latinos returned as the majority population, while the privatization of downtown space supplanted traditional streets and spaces that once brought people together. In the process of downtown transformation, the Plaza has grown in its cultural and spatial significance. The book concludes with a discussion of the competing visions for Los Angeles in the early twenty-first century and how the enduring spirit of the Plaza, embedded in its long history and use, might serve as a model for its recovery.
“This is a much needed, much anticipated book. The entire history of Los Angeles can be told, as William Estrada has done in this superb study, through careful investigation of the city's historic Plaza. The city and its countless stories of human drama, significance, and meaning come alive in this careful, exacting investigation. The very heart of Los Angeles at last has its biographer.”
William Deverell, Director, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West
“William Estrada deftly and warmly guides us through the 'real history' of the Plaza district as well as the effort to create some 'ersatz authenticity.' Through these pages, we see how the Plaza has been a site of ongoing contestation, tragic loss, and redemption. His complicated and ambiguous stories of the place brilliantly enable us to renew our affection for and understanding of the historic heart of Los Angeles.”
Douglas Monroy, Colorado College, author of Rebirth: Mexican Los Angeles from the Great Migration to the Great Depression