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Beginning at the Beginning

Ted Soqui

There’s finally some good news about the future of the downtown park known as the Pueblo of Los Angeles.

Since the 1960s, most of the Pueblo, one of the most striking historical sites in California, languished under the very noses of federal, state, city and county government. Yet this collection of old buildings on a handful of short streets has remained a tremendous regional attraction: packed on weekends, a major magnet for tour buses. While most tourism goes to Olvera Street’s shops and restaurants, the 19th-century buildings on the Civic Center side of the old square are more significant: They’re among the region’s best amassings of 19th-century urban architecture.

In fact, with the exception of one or two buildings, "old" Olvera Street’s structures are relatively recent pueblo-style "reconstructions," recalling the city’s Hispanic heritage as both a Spanish and a Mexican colony. But the "other" row of buildings, east of Olvera Street between Main and Spring streets, are originals. These structures represent the proud development of the city’s first boom years. The Romanesque, multistory buildings constituted this region’s first fashionable commercial district — complete with "emporia" full of fancy goods and an expansive hotel with steam heat and even private bathrooms — a few, anyway. The buildings also bear important associations with a variety of early local ethnic groups, including the Chinese, Italian and French.

These brick-and-mortar originals — and an adjoining brood of late-19th- and early-20th-century structures (two of which the county is about to demolish) — are true survivors of the district where Los Angeles originated in 1781 and, a century later, became a fledgling metropolis. Yet, all most people notice is a handful of scabby façades on the approach from the Civic Center to Olvera Street. Only if you access the area from the opposite side — near the front of Union Station — do you realize what you actually have here: a gorgeous, tree-shaded Victorian townscape, with Mission overtones, right smack-dab in the middle of this chaotic 450-square-mile slurb, where most of the significant architecture is younger than you are.

The decline of these old buildings — the Garnier block, the old Pico House hotel, the Italian Hall and what’s now called the Chinese museum — has been delayed since the 1960s by intermittent restoration. (A recent effort is the Getty Trust restoration of the America Tropical mural, by David Alfaro Siqueiros, on the outside of the Italian Hall.) But this is Los Angeles, after all, where systematic preservation of the past usually seems about as feasible as avocado-growing in Juneau. It’s easy enough to blame Los Angeles’ aversion to its own past for the site’s dereliction, given what this same antipathy has accomplished elsewhere.

But at the Pueblo, an even less attractive factor was at work. This old area has long been the battleground for a miniature ethnicity war, with Italian, Chinese and, most particularly, Mexican-American groups duking it out, as though the history of the turf somehow might end up belonging solely to the strongest contender.

The combat’s been persistent, petty and ugly. In June, I noticed that the word Chinese was freshly gouged out of the text of the old building’s white-painted landmark sign. The vandalism reminded me of the way L.A.’s original Chinatown, under the authority of the all-white city fathers, was gouged out in the 1930s to make way for Union Station.

Late last month, however, it seemed as though the downtown monument war was over. The complete restoration of the Italian Hall and the Chinese Museum is finally moving forward. This advance was attributable not to local government, but to forces in Sacramento — in particular to L.A.’s representatives in the state Legislature.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo held an on-site news conference to announce that, thanks to his efforts, a million dollars in state funding would be split for renovations between the two old buildings. Mayor Dick Riordan was there, as were Latino legislators U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra and state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, along with Board of Equalization member John Chiang for the Chinese-American side. The Italian-American faction was represented by City Council President John Ferraro and lobbyist-eminence Joe Cerrell.

One apparent omission from the event’s guest list was newly elected 14th District City Councilman Nick Pacheco, even though both Riordan and Becerra had endorsed him. And even though Pacheco’s district includes the Pueblo. Pacheco resisted the impulse to criticize, merely citing the omission as "highly unusual," but one would think that other officials would want Pacheco onboard, considering how badly the Pueblo was neglected by his predecessor, Richard Alatorre.

Despite the oversight, this event had symbolic significance. Underneath all the masculine bonhomie, this was really a kind of treaty between the old power structure and the new. And the new Latino elite was demonstrating that, having finally attained its voice in state and local matters, it could also honor the roles of other ethnicities in the city’s historic past.

What will this restoration of the city’s true history bring forth? Well, there are long-standing plans for more museums, public spaces, even a French restaurant on the first floor of Pico House. (Did you know that French immigrants did much more here than introduce sourdough? They helped create much of late-19th-century Los Angeles, including old St. Vibiana’s Cathedral.) Despite its appeal, I wonder how a French restaurant would endure on the gastronomic border between Olvera Street and Chinatown — such restaurants have a hard enough time surviving in Santa Monica.

What I’m most afraid of, however, is that the restored town center will become the same sort of lifeless architectural "petting zoo" we have in Heritage Square, where unlived-in Victorian homes from Bunker Hill stand empty except during organized weekend visits. As it happens, the old Pueblo’s wonderful old ficus-lined plaza could offer the most desirable residential area remaining in downtown Los Angeles: It’s near Civic Center, right across Alameda Street from the regiontransportation hub, and close to the commercial amenities of Chinatown. Why not bring it back to life with housing in the upper floors of its buildings? It worked 100 years ago.

In the 1960s, residents were pushed out of downtown as the Community Redevelopment Agency demolished most of the area’s original housing. And so far, the city’s attempts to get people to move back have had mixed results. The failures include Spring Street’s Premiere Towers, while Ira Yellin’s Grand Central Square has been disproportionately costly to the city.

But the Pueblo provides something neither of those offered — an attractive urban environment. Maybe to renovate downtown L.A. as a place to live, you have to begin where the city itself began.

CNS Flash

 

Many of this town’s newspeople cut their journalistic teeth reporting for Los Angeles’ local wire service. What’s less well-known is that many or most of City News Service’s more than 130 media clients would probably subscribe even if the wire ran no news stories whatsoever.

That’s because of the CNS morning "budget," the feature that media clients use the most. This product, which often has more than 100 entries, is the unique, hour-by-hour regionwide guide to coming news events — including court appearances in high-profile trials, press conferences, Hollywood events, social gatherings and charitable affairs. These listings are essential for those who have to make news assignments. And CNS clients pay very handsomely to receive it.

Now, however, the closely held company’s owners have turned this service into a moneymaker on the other end of the news channel. CNS has begun charging those who want their events entered. According to a recent CNS flier, a $54 payment — $24 for nonprofit organizations — assures you that your event will be listed. Of course, it might be listed anyway if CNS deems your press conference or demonstration newsworthy enough. But who wants to take a chance on being shut out from media access?

Certainly this fee is a potential imposition on activist organizations such as El Rescate and CISPES, which once used free access to the CNS daybook to help change the social landscape. This policy also gives resourceful PR firms advantages over local concerns that want to get on the date book.

Meanwhile, there’s no indication so far that the profits of CNS’s new way of doing things will be directed toward the agency’s notoriously underpaid (and overworked) reporters.


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