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Italians Have a Legitimate Los Angeles History, Too : Olvera Street: Given the legitimacy and limited scope of the museum proposal, the argument against it is a red herring.

June 19, 1990|GLORIA RICCI LOTHROP | Gloria Ricci Lothrop, a professor of History at Cal Poly Pomona, is a consultant to the Italian Hall Historic Structures Report and a member of the Committee for the Restoration of the Italian Hall and

In the course of the controversy surrounding plans for historic Olvera Street, several canards have captured the headlines and demand correction. Italian-Americans have no desire to alter the traditional Mexican marketplace on Olvera Street. The Italian-American community would like to help restore the historic Italian Hall at the corner of Main and Macy streets. Finally, the accusations that efforts are being made to "internationalize" Olvera Street intentionally obscure a different political dispute, one in which the 28 vendors who are not members of the Olvera Street Merchants Assn. are struggling for equitable treatment.

A review of the facts would reveal that there has been no attempt to internationalize a street that in the early 1930s was refurbished as a Mexican marketplace by community activist Christine Sterling to serve as a living memorial to the Latino heritage of Los Angeles--and has since become a symbol of that tradition for us all.

The apparent cause of the heated debate is the grass-roots effort by 43 Italian-American organizations to raise funds to help refurbish the second story of the Italian Hall, which is entered from Main Street, not Olvera Street. The space would contain a museum depicting the Italian presence in the area and serve as a meeting hall for Italian-American organizations as well as El Pueblo Park groups. This volunteer citizens effort is the extent of the purported "internationalization" approved by the Recreation and Parks Commission. It is no more of a threat to Olvera Street than the existence of a Chinese Museum in the south sector of the park.

The district around Olvera Street has been important to the Italian-American community as a result of a long record of land ownership, continuing business activity and a series of historic events. In 1823, a year after Mexican independence, an Italian immigrant opened a shop and built a home where the plaza firehouse now stands. Soon Italians were living on the east and west sides of the plaza and their winemaking enterprises so dominated Olvera Street that it became known as Wine or Vine Street. Even the Avila Adobe, the oldest structure in Los Angeles today, became known as the Hotel Italia Unita.

More than one-third (39,077 square feet) of the total area to be restored on Olvera Street was historically associated with Italian ownership in the General Plan for Historic Restoration approved in 1981.

Italian business ownership in the plaza area continued until the 1950s. In the late 1920s, Sterling and her supporters, in the process of creating the Mexican marketplace, acquired many of the Italian properties, including the Pelanconi building (now La Casa Golondrina), which from 1857 until 1929 had been in the continuous possession of Italian families.

The final Italian property owners were displaced in the early '50s, when the state initiated condemnation proceedings on the remaining private property to establish El Pueblo State Historic Park. They sold their interests and thriving businesses, which were a vital part of a Little Italy extending west to Figueroa Street and east along North Broadway to Lincoln Heights. Nevertheless, Italian-Americans continued to work on Olvera Street.

Italian-Americans also have a historic attachment to this area. Their earliest fraternal organizations, the Italian Mutual Benevolence Society (1877) and the Garibaldina Society (1888), were established and met regularly on Olvera Street. The groups established offices in the Italian Hall built in 1909 and the hall for the next two decades was the organizational and social center for Italian-Americans.

It is this history and this historic building that have rallied the interest and support of the Italian-American community. Given the limited dimension of this project and the legitimacy of the claim, one cannot avoid asking if the protests generated by the Olvera Street Merchants Assn. do not exceed the scope of the issue. Nor can one avoid asking if, to advance a very different item on the political agenda, the association provided this distracting issue as a red herring that the media have unwittingly consumed.

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