It's a crumbling cluster of buildings, the facade shedding bricks so regularly that Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina hesitates to get too close for fear one may conk her on the head.
Molina has never even set foot inside. But for nine years, she has faithfully socked away money the county gives each supervisor to pay for community projects, amassing about $15 million to transform this decaying complex beside the historic Olvera Street plaza into a Mexican American cultural center.
The $70-million Plaza de Cultura y Artes, which the Board of Supervisors approved Sept. 14, could open as soon as 2007, bringing art studios and exhibition space, concerts, films and even a teaching kitchen to the spot near where Mexican settlers founded Los Angeles in 1781.
For Molina -- the eldest daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first Latina elected to the state Legislature, the Los Angeles City Council and, in 1991, the Board of Supervisors -- the project is inexcusably overdue in a county where 47% of the people are Latino.
"It's shameful," Molina said. "Mexicans in Chicago have a cultural center that has been there for decades."
Los Angeles, a region noted for its often blithe obliteration of history, has struggled for 20 years to find a way to showcase its Mexican heritage. In the 1980s, state Sen. Charles Calderon of Whittier tried repeatedly to secure millions in state funding for a Latino museum, but was able to get only $300,000.
Museum trustees, who envisioned a grand edifice, had to settle for a donated bank across the street from City Hall. The Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture opened in 1998 but soon foundered for lack of cash. By 2002, the museum was forced out of its home to make way for the new Caltrans building.
"I think any Hispanic anywhere will celebrate that Los Angeles has finally snapped to the idea," said Thomas Chavez, director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
A number of cities with smaller Mexican American populations have such centers that offer a model for Los Angeles.
The center in New Mexico is featuring an exhibition called "Corridos sin Fronteras: A New World Ballad Tradition," exploring 200 years of the narrative folk ballad in Mexico and the Southwest through recordings, photos, posters and musical instruments.
The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum of Chicago is displaying indigenous Mexican textiles from the first half of the 20th century, and the Mexican Museum in San Francisco has just unveiled its "House of the Spirits" exhibition of popular art created for the annual Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration.
Los Angeles County has about $21 million in county money and state bond earmarked for the project, which, so far, is represented only by some conceptual drawings and a brochure sketching out "dynamic, interactive programs."
"Imagine as children exit laughing from an art studio and spill onto the Campo Santo Memorial Garden to play," the brochure says. "Delight as your senses take in the wonderful smells wafting from the teaching/exhibition kitchen, where a class has just learned to prepare a complex regional dish."
The project calls for restoring two 19th century buildings along North Main Street, constructing a center for community meetings and celebrations, erecting a theater and building a pedestrian walkway that would stretch three blocks up to Hill Street.
For the next three years, Molina and the center's foundation, which she set up and leads, need to raise about $50 million to realize their elaborate vision.
Jonathan Yorba, the foundation's newly hired executive director, said he has already "hit the fundraising trail" with appeals to philanthropists, foundations and individuals.
The foundation's five-member board includes former Rep. Esteban Torres, a Democrat who represented East Los Angeles and has known Molina for 35 years, and Antonia Hernandez, chief executive of the California Community Foundation. Earlier efforts, such as the Latino Museum, were always beset by problems, Torres said. "Either people couldn't come together or the funding wasn't there or there was political infighting. Gloria has been able to melt all of those problems away.
"She has a lot of clout and, when she wants to get something done, she has a lot of staying power," Torres added. "She's really the glue, if you will, to keep this together."
Molina's single-minded drive to realize her dream, however, has left some of the county's Latinos feeling excluded.
At the Instituto Cultural Mexicano, a 14-year-old center near the Olvera Street plaza, Executive Director Susana Bautista wonders why Molina has not reached out to her nonprofit, which includes a small research library, an art gallery and a bookstore.
"You can't be exclusive anymore in this community," Bautista said. "When we perform a really traditional Mexican dance, who are the performers? They're Mexican Americans, who live here. Our audience is Latino," encompassing Guatemalans, Hondurans and others.