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Patt Morrison Asks

Vivien Bonzo: Olvera's anchor

Since taking over her family business in 1980, she's become to go-to gal for the rollercoaster fortunes of Olvera Street.

June 05, 2010|Patt Morrison

If newspaper headlines were still set in lead type, we could keep this one handy and drag it out every few years: "Trouble on Olvera Street."

The block-long alley-cum-marketplace is part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the Tut's tomb of the original city, Spanish Mexican style (Native American traces are long gone). The "birthplace of L.A." was a tumbledown mess in the late 1920s when Christine Sterling saved it and spruced it up and made Olvera Street a huge tourist draw.

For Olvera Street's successive operators — the current one being the city itself — maintaining it has been both an honor and a burden. Tourism waxes and wanes, and in any case, L.A. history is not the grabber that Hollywood is. And yet the street soldiers on, and at the head of the infantry is Vivien Bonzo.

Her grandmother opened La Golondrina restaurant in 1930, the flagship business on Olvera Street. Bonzo left college to take it over in 1980, becoming the go-to gal for the rollercoaster fortunes of Olvera Street.

Your grandmother, Consuelo Castillo de Bonzo, whose picture you're posing with, first opened a restaurant in 1924 on the site of present-day City Hall, and in 1930 opened La Golondrina at the invitation of Christine Sterling.

My grandmother had the vision and the foresight to create the restaurant. We've been here 80 years. Mrs. Sterling was quite a philanthropist and a humanitarian, and she gave people their chance at business.

Were they friends?

They were. They were both bossy females and they were too big for their britches. They had some good fights, I've heard. They ended up friends.

What's your first memory of the restaurant?

Taquitos and Coca-Cola! We were here for every holiday. My parents met here; they fell in love — my mother was a singer and worked for my grandmother, and my father used to sweep. We learned a work ethic in our family.

Olvera Street and the El Pueblo monument have gone through as many close calls and dramatic turns as a telenovela; what's happening now?

Because of the budget crisis, we know that the general fund is out of money, and so the city's move was to cut off El Pueblo from any subsidy and to pass all of the fees along to the merchants to make the area self-sufficient financially.

Long story very short, the city wants to increase rents to "market value" on some of the merchants who the city says did not formalize leases 11 year ago.

Our study [says] rents should be increased by somewhere from 15% to 20%. [The proposed city increases] are between 200% and 900%. The candle shop, for example, [is] looking at about a $60,000 rent increase for the year. It's not doable. People freaked out. So we need to work with realistic figures. The merchants generate a couple of million dollars for the city every year through sales tax, property taxes, rents, so we feel that for this small block, we more than pay our way. We are waiting for various officials to sit down with us and discuss how we're going to get through this dilemma. They want money; we want some improvements.

How long have most Olvera Street merchants been here?

The average is 40 years, I'd say, and some of us since the beginning.

Who's the senior merchant?

Probably Reynaldo Verduzco; he's got a Mexican arts and crafts shop near the snow cones. We have an age situation. Some of [the merchants] are quite aged. This is a way of life for many people. In some cases, they've sent [their children] to college and don't want them to be in the shops. These people just come to work every day. A lot of them die at their shops.

This whole pueblo, including Olvera Street, has been in so many hands; 20 years ago, the state turned it over to the city. There was even talk of private development, and now that's out. Any chance of the state taking it over again?

I doubt it. The state's having a lot of financial problems. I think this is the last place they'd want. I think we're better off where we are right now.

What about making it a nonprofit?

I think [the city is] exploring that very seriously.

Olvera Street is only a part of the El Pueblo park; it sounds like you think the merchants are carrying the financial water for the rest of El Pueblo.

That's correct. We've been waiting for the Pico House to be rented; that would bring in thousands in rents. We've got nonprofits that don't pay rent, utilities, cleanup [fees] — some of those plans ought to be thought out [to] determine whether they can at least cover their fees and/or utilities.

Olvera Street's fabled Siqueiros mural, "America Tropical," whitewashed decades ago and now being restored — what's happening with that? It's taken a thousand times longer to restore it than it did to paint it.

It might be close to opening soon, believe it or not

You've been told that for, what, 15 years?

Yeah, I don't hold my breath!

Given that the area is so small and so historically significant, why is El Pueblo so tricky to operate?

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