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Volume 41. No. 1.
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Olvera Street
Chinatown
Downtown LA walking tour
#2
Explore L.A.’s Chinatown, Little Tokyo and Olvera Street.

These three diverse and historic districts all are within easy walking distance of Union Station. For advice and highlights, we turned to Sociology Professor Emeritus Robert Herman, who literally wrote the book on downtown L.A. An updated version of his Downtown Los Angeles: A Walking Guide is just off the press.

Olvera Street and El Pueblo Historic Monument is billed as the birthplace of L.A., but that’s not quite right. After the original 1781 pueblo along the nearby Los Angeles River washed out, the settlers moved to this site in 1818. The oldest church in Los Angeles, La Placita, still remains a spiritual center for many Latinos. A plaque reveals L.A. was multicultural from the start: Of the 44 settlers, more than half were of African descent and most others of mixed Indian and Spanish heritage. Herman describes the main attraction here. Olvera Street, as a “facsimile of a Mexican village marketplace with vivid colors, sounds and a buoyant atmosphere.” With more than 80 stalls and shops, vendors hawk everything from candied cactus to castanets to posters of Pancho Villa.

The area known as Chinatown is not the original Chinese settlement in L.A. In the 1930s, city leaders chose the heart of the Chinese community as the site for the new Union Station. Residents were forced to move up Alameda Street to the current location. Despite discrimination and hardships, these Chinese-Americans built a thriving shopping and residential district. Shops sell ginseng, teas, dried octopus and herbal medicines. Aquariums brim with live fish, and bakeries tempt with sugar rolls and cookies. Nowadays, this urban Chinatown faces competition from Chinese shopping districts of the suburbs. But Chinatown leaders are fighting back, promoting the district as a haven for authentic Chinese food.

Little Tokyo
remains in its original spot but has changed dramatically since the 1880s. It’s more of a business district of stores, banks and hotels than a residential neighborhood. Most of the historic buildings are gone, save for the row of shops and apartments on First Street between San Pedro and Central. Still, restaurants are plentiful and so are cultural destinations. The Japanese American National Museum is housed in what was once an ornate Buddhist temple, and the collection has expanded into a second building. Among the displays is a barracks saved from a World War II internment camp in Wyoming. “Visit Little Tokyo for a fascinating mixture of old and new, Western and Eastern, kitschy and classy,” writes Herman in his book. “All attractions lie in a safe, compact and walkable area.”
 
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