olveraStreetBeforeSterlingUrban historian Richard Schave's site-specific discussion series "The Flâneur & The City" is an ongoing attempt to explore some of the more important issues revealed by the constantly changing heart of the metropolis. The core notion of the series is of culture and history as commodities that are packaged and sold to a target demographic; meanwhile, it's the ignored and seemingly worthless scraps of meaning found on the sidewalks and marketplaces where the true remnants of positive public space can be found. All interpretations and nuisances of the word flâneur are examined — from the modern-day aesthete dreaming of Baudelaire while carried along in the human tide past the stalls and shops of Broadway, to its more recent and perhaps relevant use, someone who is loitering. At its heart this series is a celebration of the simple act of getting out of your car and walking through a neighborhood and learning to see it with all your eyes. In this installment, held on July 25, 2010, we visited Olvera Street, the historic seed of Los Angeles and the first place where issues of urban preservation entered the city's consciousness. On this free 45-minute walking tour, we explored the site's history, from the founding of the city (1781) to the present day, with a focus on the "classic" era: Christine Sterling's nearly thirty years of preservation and reinterpretation, which resulted in the entire Plaza becoming a State park, now managed by the city of Los Angeles. The excerpt presented here is a brief discussion of Christine Sterling's conflicting motivations in preserving Olvera Street, and her alliances with business and publishing interests.

On this informative stroll through a provocative and multi-layered space, we explored such key questions as:

  • What core challenges, goals and strategies are shared by Christine Sterling at the Plaza in the early 20th century and the developers of downtown's Old Bank District (4th & Main) in the early 21st century?
  • Can arts and culture succeed as a tool for economic development for reinvigorating historic neighborhoods? Was Jane Jacobs right when she proclaimed that "new ideas need old buildings"?
  • Is there a point on the continuum where the creeping kitsch of a tourist attraction overwhelms the value of a vital community space? Can a positive public space be ruined by popularity and accessibility?

For more on free events held under the umbrella of LAVA – The Los Angeles Visionaries Association, visit http://www.lavatransforms.org