In 1881, a girl named Chastina Rix was born in chilly Northern California. Chastina lived a very comfortable life — her father was a scientist and her grandfather had been a leading San Francisco judge. From an early age, Chastina was a fearless dreamer who loved to read the romanticized history of the Wild West, particularly that of exotic, sunny Southern California. “The booklets and folders I read about Los Angeles were painted in colors of Spanish-Mexican romance,” she recalled in her journals. “They were appealing with old missions, palm trees, sunshine and the ‘click of the castanets.’” Chastina would dedicate her life to making this idealized past L.A.’s historical reality.
As a teenager, Chastina, who changed her name to Christine, studied art at Mills College. After a failed first marriage, she married an attorney named Jerome Hough. The couple had two children, June and Peter. By 1920, they had moved to Los Angeles and lived on Bonnie Brae Street, close to downtown. But the city of her childhood dreams was a disappointment. “At last Los Angeles was home,” she wrote. “The sunshine, mountains, beaches, palm trees were here, but where was the romance of the past?”
Within a few years Hough had left the family, and Christine reinvented herself once again, changing her name to a new, dynamic moniker: Christine Sterling. Around 1926, she set out to find the past that had inspired her all those years before. “I visited the old plaza, the birthplace of the city, and found it forsaken and forgotten,” she recalled. “Down a dirty alley I discovered an old adobe, dignified even in its decay. Across the front door was a nailed black-and-white sign, ‘CONDEMNED.’”
Sterling had stumbled upon what was left of the fabled Avila Adobe. Built in 1818 by pioneering rancher Francisco Jose Avila, the home had once been the social center of the pueblo of Los Angeles. In 1847, it had briefly been used as military headquarters by Commander Robert Stockton during the American invasion. It had then reverted to the Avila and Rimpau families before becoming a transient rooming house. By 1926, holes in the roof had finally caused the city to mark it condemned and slate it for demolition.
The “dirty alley” was Olvera Street (originally known as Wine Street), and it had once been a multicultural downtown of wineries, adobe homes and small businesses. It was now filled with cheap boardinghouses and abandoned buildings. “Olvera Street at this time was not only a filthy alley but was a crime hole of the worst description,” Sterling recalled in typically dramatic fashion. “Bootleggers, white slave operators, dope peddlers all had headquarters and hiding places on the street.”
Sterling had found her life’s purpose. She began to petition city leaders, urging them to rehabilitate the old heart of Los Angeles. For a white woman of her time, she took an interesting tack, saying that since Los Angeles was home to more than 200,000 Mexicans, “It might be well to take our Mexican population seriously and allow them to put a little of the romance and picturesque into our city which we so freely advertise ourselves as possessing. The plaza should be converted into a social and commercial Latin American center.”
Throughout 1926 and ’27 she sold her vague vision to whoever would agree to see her. “I called on everyone imaginable, went from office to office, chair to chair; waited long hours, alternately humiliated and encouraged,” she remembered. By the fall of 1928 she felt utterly defeated. She stood in the Avila Adobe. Descendants of the family had given her free rein to try to save it, but she was at a loss as to what to do. According to her journal:
Today I stood in the silent rooms, saw the crumbling walls, the boarded-up windows, the dirt and neglect. I remember taking from the public library a book on the “History of Los Angeles.” It was a picture of this old house labeled “American headquarters in 1847.” I walked out into the patio. The fine old pepper trees were now just barren stumps. A pile of rotting garbage replaced the flowers which once blossomed there. But in spite of it all, the spirit of those men and women who lived and loved here in this old home still lingered about the place.
It was then that Sterling realized she should start small. Instead of focusing on saving the entire historic area, she would work toward saving just the Avila Adobe — for the time being. Taking a page out of the Martin Luther playbook, she had a proclamation 10 feet high and 12 feet long printed. She had it sent to the Avila Adobe by express wagon and nailed to its rotting door. “SHALL WE CONDEMN” touted the history of the Adobe and the importance of keeping its history alive: “If this old landmark is not worthy of preservation, then there is no sentiment, no patriotism, no country, no flag. Los Angeles will be forever marked a transient, orphan city if she allows her roots to rot in a soil impoverished by neglect.”
In the proclamation, she took a clever if troubling new approach, emphasizing the American history of the Adobe over its Mexican roots. “Appealing to an Anglo audience, she conjured up the Anglo heroes [in the fashion of] … 'George Washington slept here' — not the fact that Francisco Avila built this adobe and was a rancher and onetime mayor of the city,” writer-historian William Estrada explained to the Los Angeles Times in 2005.
The gimmick worked — with a little more nudging from Sterling herself, who called the local papers anonymously to tip them off about the gigantic proclamation. Soon she had the ear of none other than Harry Chandler, scion of the ever-powerful Los Angeles Times. At a luncheon on the patio of the Adobe, Sterling sold her vision of pre-American Los Angeles to the most powerful men in the city.
They bought in. Soon all the major papers were writing pieces about saving the Avila Adobe. “Let the people of Los Angeles show honor and respect to the history of this city by making sacred and inviolate the last of our historical landmarks,” the L.A. Times trumpeted. Donations began to pour in from businesses, and several charitable organizations also chipped in. In February 1929, the Times reported:
Donning their overalls and provided with hammers, saws and other tools, members of Ramona Parlor, Native Sons of the Golden West, will go to the Avila house at 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning to save this old landmark. Shingles from the old Bradbury mansion, which now is being wrecked, will be laid on the roof of the old adobe.
However, Sterling was not interested in just cosmetically fixing the Adobe. She wanted it to be a landmark, a place people felt comfortable bringing their children. ”It was soon very apparent, however,” she wrote in her journal, “that unless the street in front of the Adobe could be paved and the surrounding buildings repaired that the future of the old house was very limited.” And so she decided to turn her attention to the entire alley — hence the concept for the Olvera Street of today was born.
With work on the Adobe proceeding nicely, Sterling focused on her grand plan. She gave fiestas and luncheons to reintroduce the forgotten street to L.A.’s Anglo movers and shakers, and included members of old families like the Avilas and Sepulvedas. At one luncheon, “Participants inspected the old adobe and in the yard out in the open were served frijoles and coffee, cooked right there in Mexican style.”
By July of 1929, Sterling had many city leaders, including Chandler, on board with her broader vision. According to the L.A. Times:
Plans for turning Olvera Street, from the old plaza to Macy Street — now one of the dingiest parts of the downtown district — into a picturesque and colorful Mexican market which will interest every visitor and be a tie of both trade and friendship between Los Angeles and all of Latin America, took definite form at a luncheon at the Avila Adobe, the oldest and most historic house in Los Angeles, yesterday, when a score of men representing the City Council, the newspapers and business interests pledged support to the program outlined by Mrs. Christine Sterling, executive secretary of a new organization known as Plaza de Los Angeles.
In November, work began on the “Mexican street of yesterday.” On the first day of construction, Sterling was joined by her two children and incarcerated laborers who helped pave and tile the street. “One of the prisoners is a good carpenter, another an electrician,” Sterling wrote in her journal. “Each night I pray they will arrest a bricklayer or plumber.”
As kiosks were installed and buildings were restored, Sterling went about finding Mexican-American vendors and craftsmen to move to the street. Her biggest get was restaurant maven Consuelo Bonzo, who agreed to open a Mexican restaurant, called La Golondrina, in an old winery. Both strong-willed women, Sterling and Bonzo would become great friends, and the two cornerstones of Olvera Street for decades.
On April 19, 1930, the new Olvera Street — officially known as Paseo de Los Angeles — was opened to the public. An elated Sterling wrote in her journal:
The street opened last night in a blaze of glory. Thousands of people came and everyone seemed happy. Music was everywhere. It all seemed a thousand miles away from a poor dirty alley of just a few months ago. Senora Consuelo, true to her promise, has given to the Paseo a Mexican café, and the spirit of hospitality and happiness linger here as it did in the old days.
Sterling moved into offices at the Avila Adobe and became overlord of her fairyland. She worked almost exclusively with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, whom she held in great esteem, but some felt she was patronizing and paternalistic. “Out of the hearts of the Mexican people is spun the gold of romance and contentment,” she explained. “No sweeter, finer people live on this earth than the men and women of Mexico, and whatever evil anyone believes about them has been bred in the darkness of ignorance and prejudice.” Well aware that prejudice could cost her customers, she took to assuring visitors that “there are no arrests, no disturbances, no crime, and yet Mexicans in great numbers are upon the street.”
“The mother of Olvera Street” soon set her sights on new projects. The first was a carriage thoroughfare that would run from Olvera Street all the way to Griffith Park. “I drive an auto but I would sooner drive horses,” Sterling, an avid equestrian, explained. “I visualize an opportunity for the businessman to ride to work astride his favorite mount and for his wife to gain the shopping district in her carriage.” She also pointed to economic opportunities, in scant supply during the Depression. According to the L.A. Times, “She pointed out that development of a highway for horse-drawn vehicles will help unemployment by creating a demand for hay, harness, saddlery, carriage and kindred products, as many people again would be interested in driving.”
A portion of this lane did eventually open for a time, running from La Placita to Elysian Park.
In 1937, Sterling turned her attention to another prominent Angeleno culture. Disturbed by the displacement of Chinatown due to the construction of Union Station, Sterling decided to create a new Chinese neighborhood, as fanciful and artificial as Olvera Street. She told the L.A. Times:
China City is to be to the Chinese what Olvera Street is to the Mexicans. … Los Angeles is under obligation to the hundreds of Chinese, many of them early-day residents here, who have been uprooted from the place where they have made their homes for years and years. The new China City will give these Chinese a new opportunity to preserve their racial and cultural integrity by bringing them together in one district. As it is now, the Chinese are being dispersed over all the city, under a continuance as such a widespread distribution of the Chinese population they would soon lose their unity.
Sterling quickly raised the needed funds, and construction of this new tourist attraction began at Macy and Main streets, near Olvera Street. Fantasy was the order of the day, and construction was overseen by Tom Kemp of Paramount Studios. “A motion picture set made of 1,000 feet of imported Chinese bamboo was delivered to Los Angeles’ new ’China City’ yesterday, courtesy of Paramount Pictures,” the L.A. Times reported. The set had recently been used in the film Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.
On June 7, 1938, China City opened. Around 10,000 Angelenos thronged the new attraction’s streets, amazed that the indomitable Sterling had done it again:
Americans took jinrikisha rides through the narrow streets, lighted by Chinese lanterns and brightened with flowers of every hue. They thronged the cafes and shops. They ate Chinese delicacies and purchased coolie hats, fans, idols, miniature temples and images. Chinese boys kept the incense burning. Chinese girls, in flaring silks, were everywhere on the winding cobblestone lanes. “Standing room only” was the rule at the bamboo theater, showing color films of the land, rice fields and great temples.
Not surprisingly, many in the Chinese community were appalled, claiming rightly that China City was inauthentic and filled with stereotypes. “Like many ’liberal’ whites of the time,” the blog YOMYOMF explains, “she took a more paternalistic approach to the ethnic community she was helping to preserve by denying them a real voice.”
Chinese leaders such as Peter Soo Hoo called for a new Chinatown built by Chinese people. Sterling dismissed this idea. “What do they want? An Oriental Westwood Village?” she asked. “Let them build [New Chinatown] if they think they can get away with it, but I think it will fail.” Luckily it didn’t, and the L.A. Chinatown we all know and love was built. China City was damaged by a mysterious fire a year after it opened, and completely burned down in 1948, never to be rebuilt.
Despite this setback, Sterling always had Olvera Street, her “little world of its own” — which she ruled with maternal affection and an iron will. “Oh, she was a beautiful lady,” merchant Benjamin Sousa recalled. “She was strict, I mean she would get mad and her eyes would just be like fire.” After being evicted from Chavez Ravine due to the construction of Dodger Stadium, Sterling moved into an apartment in her beloved Avila Adobe. She died in this apartment, in her greatest creation, in the summer of 1963.
“Olvera Street is an imagined space, an invented space,” William Estrada once told the Los Angeles Times. “There are a lot of innocent interpretations. I've heard, 'This is the oldest street in L.A.' or 'This is what L.A. looked like 200 years ago.' Olvera Street was created in 1930 by an Anglo woman, Christine Sterling, who wanted to create a Mexican marketplace.”