Wandering the West
November 10, 2009
The other night, on "Perry Mason" on Channel 11 (I love Perry Mason the cars, the smoking, the highballs it captures the ’50s), Perry dispatched his dashing private investigator Paul Drake to Olvera Street to find a certain senorita who ran a Mexican restaurant. It immediately brought back the sights, sounds and smells of Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, where L.A. sprang to life in the late 1700s. SoCal was Mexico then, and one of the rulers at the time dispatched 44 families to settle the barren land and start a city. They succeeded wildly, although they couldn’t have known what lay ahead.
Their settlement thrived as the Mexican heart of L.A., even as other nationalities, like the Italians and Chinese, set up their own communities nearby. Today a trip to Olvera Street is like stepping into a noisy Mexican border town. The restaurants and shops are distinctly Mexican in food and products (it’s a good place for leather goods). Between the shops, the street is filled with stalls, hawking all things Mexican. There’s a plaza with a stage alive most days (and especially Saturday) with dancing, mariachi bands, salsa and merengue music, Peruvian flutes and more.
Olvera Street is included in the El Pueblo Historic Monument, which preserves 27 historic buildings from L.A.’s past. A few are open for tours, including the oldest, Avila Adobe, built in 1818. You can sign up for a free walking tour Tuesday through Saturday at the El Pueblo Visitor Center. You could call Avila Adobe the original California ranch house, a sprawling single-level home restored to reflect the Californio lifestyle of the 1840s.
Olvera anchors a handful of distinct ethnic neighborhoods, all within walking distance in downtown L.A. Head south on North Main for Little Tokyo, where Japanese culture, restaurants and shops are concentrated. The centerpiece here is the 21-story Kyoto Grand Hotel and Gardens. The gardens are on the roof, with great downtown views. Good Asian fusion restaurants abound near here, or try the tiny Japanese sushi shops, including the kind where you sit at a counter where a conveyor belt pulls an endless line of sushi-filled plates past you. When you see one you like, grab it, and pay your bill based on the number of color-coded plates you emptied.
Or from Olvera, head north on Main for L.A.’s Chinatown. The Chinatown Arch defines the neighborhood, along with several plazas, pagodas and temples. Check out Chinatown Plaza on the 800 block of Broadway and the distinctive five-tiered pagoda that houses Hop Louie’s restaurant. Duck (quietly) into the Taoist Temple at 750 Yale Street and check the tiny shops catering to local Chinese. Inspect the fish market where dozens of packed tanks stock live fish and shellfish. You may want to opt for beef after that visit.
The Chinese began arriving in L.A. around the 1850s. Chinatown’s heyday was 1890 to 1910 when perhaps 3,000 Chinese lived here in some 200 buildings. By the Depression much of it had collapsed, burned down or been torn down, and in 1938 "New Chinatown" opened, complete with plazas, alleyways and streets typical of Chinese lifestyles. You’ve seen it in a number of movies like the "Rush Hour" series and, of course, the Jack Nicholson classic, "Chinatown."
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And while you’re in the area, cross the street from the Olvera neighborhood to Union Station, the grand old transportation hub for the nation’s second largest city. The building itself is spectacular all marble, tile and art deco with cavernous waiting rooms recalling the railroad era. Union Station is in a Renaissance of sorts now as L.A. goes back to the future with new rail options. You can catch the subway, light rail, heavy rail and local and cross-country buses here. Trains are back, and from here you can make nice coastal day trips to San Diego and Santa Barbara. The Amtrak Surfliner makes a dozen daily round trips to S.D., and five daily runs to S.B.
Union Station is also a concert venue and frequent movie background, with appearances in "Blade Runner," "Speed," "Star Trek," "Pearl Harbor" and "The Italian Job."
I think most L.A. visitors head to the museums, amusement parks and beaches when they’re here. Within a few square miles they can also travel from Mexico to Asia.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Insider tip: Watch closely what you buy. Some "Mexican" merchandise is now made in China. (So is the Chinatown merchandise, for that matter, but that’s OK!)