Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Walking Into the Early Past of Los Angeles


[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Foraging California,” and other books. For more information about his books and classes, go to]

Each year on my birthday, I have attempted to do something special to recall the passage of years and the significant events of my life.  Usually, this has taken the form of a run where I review each year of my life, and look at where I’ve been, and where I think I should be going.

In addition to this review this year, Helen and I chose to go into downtown Los Angeles to look-again at some of our cultural treasures, and to also look at the early history of this town.

First, we went to the “new” Catholic Cathedral at Hill and Temple.   If you’ve never been there, you really should check it out.  No one will ask you whether or not you’re a Catholic, and they will welcome your $22 fee to conveniently park in their lot.  The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is an impressive structure – Catholic’s really know how to build churches.

You enter the vast plaza, planted with unique trees, and you enter into the high-ceilinged church, whose walls are lined with huge tapestries depicting the various saints and special ones of the Church.  There are plenty of little side sanctuaries where you light a candle to the Virgin of Guadalupe, or various other saints.  
There’s a lot to see, especially the little statues scattered here and there. I especially liked the fountain on the east end of the courtyard, whose floor is painted with the constellations.  The store offers you any and all of the keepsakes of Catholicism that you can ever hope to find. 

I was brought up in Catholicism, and so I had a natural interest in this large monument in the heart of the City of Angels.  But, more than that, on my birthday, I wanted to walk in Yangna, the original Indian village from which sprang Los Angeles.

No one really knows where the village center may have been.  The Cathedral is probably the western edge of the living area that extended eastward to the Los Angeles River. Native people used the river, but would have lived in the slightly higher ground, such as where the Cathedral is located.  The Civic Center is often believed to be the center of Yangna, as well as the center divider of the 101 just south of the MTA headquarters.  No one really knows, but this village occupied the triangle roughly bordered by the Pasadena Freeway, the 101, and Los Angeles River.

According to research by Dr. Harry Kelsey of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, A Yangna settlement existed on the land of the current Los Angeles Civic Center, and it was a favorite trading place for native people.  Governor de Neve, six months prior to the establishment of the Los Angeles pueblo in 1781, had undertaken preliminary diplomacy with the natives who lived there, in order to develop friendly relations before Spanish settlers began moving into the area. De Neve was apparently making some progress, but was replaced by Pedro de Fages later that year. Then, by 1828, a German immigrant purchased the land of the Yangna community and obtained the help of Mexican officials to evicted the entire Yangna community who had been living there for possibly up to 3000 years.

Spanish missionaries in the 1700s impacted the Yangna people, and after the fall of the Spanish mission system, Mexican families founded the new pueblo where the native people once had their village.  We think of it today as Olvera Street.

After we left the Cathedral, we drove to the Terminal Annex Post Office where it’s easy to park, and walked to the Our Lady Queen of the Angels Catholic Church, across the street from Olvera Street.  This is the original Catholic church, going back to the early days, with its courtyard bearing a resemblance to the early mission style of architecture.  This is a small church compared to the Cathedral, and it was full of the serious, mostly older, Catholics, who are there to pray and to cry. There is none of the hipster atmosphere that you witness at the Cathedral, and none of the cameras hanging from every hand looking for a photo op. This is the real thing, and you’re quiet here, or you’re told to leave.  This church is very reminiscent of the many old churches that you find still in small towns of Mexico.

After a bit, we crossed the street to the Olvera Street plaza, and read the names of the founding fathers of Los Angeles on a somewhat inconspicuous plaque while mariachis played in the background.   The 11 founders were Villavicencio, Rodriguez, Quintero, Vanegas, Lara, Mesa, Moreno, two Rosas, Camero, and Navarro, of the town they called El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles sobre el Rio de la Porciuncula – the Pueblo of the Queen of the Angels on the River Porciuncula – Los Angeles for short.

I was a bit amazed at how little traffic we encountered getting into downtown on a Friday, and I was struck by how quiet Olvera Street was. It was the first time I was there when it was not shoulder to shoulder. Of course, I usually go there on the weekends or on Dia De Los Muertos. I learned that the mobs of office workers of downtown Los Angeles have learned how to adjust their schedules so that they are no longer there on Fridays.  It turns out that the busiest freeway day is now Thursday.

We browsed at many of the items sold at Olvera Street, mostly interested in the molcajetes and some of the beautiful art and woven objects from Mexico. 

We finally wanted to get an early dinner, and so we went to a Mexican restaurant I’d been to before – I am very much a creature of habit, often going back again to my familiar places.  We went to Casa La Golondrina, at 17 West Olvera Street.  Inside, it was like going back more than a century to early Los Angeles as we could see the original wood, and fire was burning in the big stone fireplace in the corner. The restaurant was part of the Pelaconi house, built in 1855, and because it was such a quiet time, we enjoyed talking about the history of the building with the waiter and the proprietress.  We could imagine how this early city could function in the pre-electric days, with cooking by fire, and the springs and river bringing the water into the town via the zanja. 

Of course, if you only go to this part of downtown as a tourist, you miss the depth.  Within these several urban blocks was once the center of Indian culture, slowly pushed back by the Spanish missionaries, and then pushed back by the Mexican ranch owners, who were pushed  back again by the new Americans.  As you dig beneath the surface, you realize there was much pain and killing and suffering along the way.  Another part of the story is Chinatown, just to the north, where the Chinese workers came until they were marginalized and considered no longer needed.  It’s all a long a sordid history, painfully documented in such books as “The Other Californians: Prejudice and Discrimination under Spain, Mexico, and the United States to 1920” by Heizer and Almquist.

George Santayana  is famously regarded as telling us that we who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Los Angeles is probably not unique in the way that each culture builds atop the old one, and then tries to forget its past.  But such a great city as the City of Angels with its unique diversity provides us with the opportunity to learn from our past, and to respect and embrace all those who came before.  It would be a remarkable destiny for this great city if everyone chose to do that, though the jury is still out as to whether we are collectively learning from the past, or just repeating old mistakes.