Rich Schmitt / Staff Photographer
|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.
History Lives on Olvera Street
December 16, 2004
Nancy Ganiard Smith ,
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
''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
''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
''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
'''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
'''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
''One-hour docent-led tours are free and are conducted at 10
a.m., 11 a.m. and noon, Tuesday through Saturday. Contact: (213)