Could #SaveOlveraStreet continue to sink businesses?

Valerie Hanley owns a gift shop on Olvera Street that has been in her family for 57 years. Since COVID, Hanley says business is the worst she’s ever seen.

“We are a tourist attraction. Right now there is no tourism,” she says. “If we stay a bit where we are right now with the influx of people, I could survive until the end of the year. Maybe.”

Olvera Street – one of LA’s oldest streets – is a marketplace, shopping theme park and living museum – full of restaurants, shops and stalls brimming with candy, Mexican crafts and inexpensive souvenirs . Most businesses, like Hanley’s gift shop, have been owned by the same family for generations.

As a historic site, the street itself is run by the city, so the buildings are here to stay. But the people in the buildings, who run the shops and restaurants with their parents and grandparents sometimes? They may be going out.

Businesses on Olvera Street have struggled for years as the town has diversified and fewer people gravitate to the tourist version of Mexico. Then the pandemic brought traders to their knees. “Most of us will eventually not be able to support ourselves,” says Hanley. “We will have to leave.”

Valerie Hanley and her mother, Norma Garcia, are co-owners of Casa California, a gift shop on Olvera Street. Hanley says, “It’s been so slow lately, one day I sold $80. It doesn’t even reduce the lighting bill. Photo by Mike Schlitt.

In March 2020, a citywide emergency ordinance closed Olvera Street for four and a half months. Back then, Hanley says, “They were still charging rent.” But in July 2020, the city agreed to waive all merchant rent for nine months, followed by a 60% rent reduction for another six months.

Now, since January, the full rent for commercial spaces is due, but not everyone has paid. LA City officials report that for most of the year, the city has collected about half of the rent it is owed. Overdue rent will be scheduled to be collected once the city’s COVID emergency ordinance is declared terminated. Those who don’t pay can be expelled.

Valerie Hanley says traders pay what they can. With business down 30-60%, she and others here are asking the city for more help. She believes the city wants the legacy businesses gone. “Are you kidding me? The heart of Los Angeles? The city wants to develop this place, they’re trying to get money in their pocket,” she says.

“People tend to believe in conspiracy theories,” says Arturo Chavez, chief executive of the LA town of Olvera Street. He says that reducing rents is not the solution.

“Traders have to consider changing their business model,” Chavez says, “and change is the hardest thing, as you know, for anyone.”

This postcard from Olvera Street (circa 1966) features Miguel and Norma Garcia. Miguel Garcia rose through the ranks from bootblack to business owner. His daughter Valerie Hanley now runs the family business. Photo courtesy of Valerie Hanley.

The Mexican Market tourist attraction we know today opened on Easter Sunday 1930. Valerie Hanley’s father, Miguel Garcia, was just 7 years old when he started working here that year . “He was shoe shiner No. 10,” Hanley says.

“Olvera Street helped poor Latino families survive, which is what this place was born on,” says Mike Mariscal, owner of a gift shop his great-grandfather opened in 1930. haven’t changed much in 61 years.”

Mike Mariscal owns Myrosa Enterprises, the family gift shop he’s worked at for 61 years. “When I was 5, I used to help put prices on things, and I’ve been here ever since.” Photo by Mike Schlitt.

Journalist Javier Cabral thinks the “similarity” is a problem. “People take that for granted,” he told KCRW.

Cabral is the editor of the food, news and local culture site, LA TACO. He’s a born-and-bred Angeleno – and a former employee of Olvera Street.

“You have to realize that Olvera Street is a weird, mythical place in LA,” says Cabral. “Because it’s kitsch, it’s a little Disneylandy, a little racist.” And then there are the taquitos.

“Cielito Lindo’s crispy taquitos are timeless,” insists Cabral, “and nostalgia is one hell of a drug. Olvera Street is definitely a place that survives on nostalgia.

Valerie Hanley, at this year’s Blessing of the Animals event, leads the “ceremonial cow” to center stage. Hanley says, “At this event, the cow always leads the procession because historically the cow supported the community with milk, beef and leather.” During current events, the cow is usually pregnant. Photo by Mike Schlitt.

Cultural events also attract a lot. Mike Mariscal is president of the Olvera Street Merchants Association, which organizes celebrations of traditional events – Day of the Dead, Las Posadas and the Blessing of Animals – and attracts thousands of new visitors to Olvera Street each year . “We have our competition,” he says, “but everyone knows Day of the Dead is Olvera Street!”

The Teatro del Barrio performs Danza de la Muerte during Olvera Street’s 2020 Day of the Dead ‘virtual’ celebration. The pandemic has shut down live events on Olvera Street for all of 2020 and most of 2021. Photo courtesy of the Olvera Street Merchants’ Association Foundation.

Not anymore. In 2017, Disney released the cinematic juggernaut Coco, which grossed $800 million and turned Dia de los Muertos into a major global enterprise.

“It’s a fine line between representation, appreciation and appropriation,” says Javier Cabral. “If you grew up Latino and love horror like me, are you going to be grateful or are you going to be bitter?” This year, thousands of people will attend Day of the Dead events at Disneyland and Universal Studios. How does a street full of local family shops compete?

One technique: collaborating.

“I’m expecting the guy from Disneyland here any day,” says Mike Mariscal. “For 10 years the main exhibit manager for Disneyland Day of the Dead, he’s been coming here and buying me stuff.”

Greg Berber, owner of popular restaurant on Olvera Street, La Luz Del Dia, hopes he can innovate for a better future. Berber wants to grow online sales of his most popular dish: tamales. He got a $60,000 loan for marketing and equipment to make more tamales, store them longer, and ship them anywhere.

Javier Cabral thinks traders should appeal directly to the public for help. “If there is some kind of social movement to save the birthplace of Los Angeles, who wouldn’t want to support it?” he says. “Remember #SaveOlveraStreet! »

Everything you need to keep the doors open for another day.

This story is part of KCRW’s Born & Razed series which dives deep into a local community, and is part of the Greater LA series on the streets of our city – how they got their names and what they say about life past and present here.

About Wesley V. Finley

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