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Why LA’s New Museum of Mexican Food Is Polarizing the Downtown Community

La Plaza Cocina could take away much-needed traffic from LA’s historic Olvera Street

Tacos and burritos are about as American as apple pie. Tortilla chips sales experienced a 35 percent increase in 2018, according to the international association for the snack industry, with over $107 million in sales — hats off to Doritos. And tortillas have outsold burger and hot dog buns since 2011. Yet despite a greater demand for Mexican food, most American consumers aren’t aware of the diverse regional styles and ingredients in Mexican cuisine or the details of its popularization in this country.

La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum and cultural center dedicated to the history and culture of the Mexican-American experience in Los Angeles, has a new project that aims to help. La Plaza Cocina, with a projected opening of September 2019, is a 2,500-square-foot museum, retail space, and teaching kitchen, where patrons will explore the rich history and modern interpretations of Mexico’s culinary arts. It’s said to be the first of its kind in the United States.

As anticipation for La Plaza Cocina grows, developers are putting the finishing touches on construction and design plans for a much larger development that it is a part of: La Plaza Village. Four buildings, ranging from five to seven stories, will sit on the grounds, including apartments, restaurants, and other retail space — all nestled between Chinatown and Little Tokyo.

La Plaza de Cultura y Artes is developing the area in partnership with Trammell Crow’s High Street Residential and the César Chávez Foundation. According to Jessica Ureña, the development manager of special projects at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, this massive property, previously two public parking lots, was leased to the organization years ago under the condition that it be developed later on. The larger development of La Plaza Village, which promises approximately $325,000 annually in property tax dollars despite the loss of $565,000 in parking revenue for the county, has little in common with the mission of La Plaza Cocina despite similarities in the name.

La Plaza Village will be the first major new development in the El Pueblo Historical Monument area of downtown — exciting news for many. But the added irony of the effort is that it’s a mere four-minute walk from Olvera Street, the historic tree-lined Mexican marketplace full of restaurants and gift shops. The street has a fraught track record of appropriation (more on that later), but today the Mexican community feels as though they have taken it back. Many Olvera Street vendors fear competition with La Plaza Village and the negative effects that gentrification may bring.

Southwest entrance to Olvera Street in Los Angeles
Southwest entrance to Olvera Street in Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee

Olvera Street is among the oldest districts in Los Angeles, with a cobblestone street, several of Los Angeles’s most historic buildings, and dozens of Mexican businesses locally owned for at least three generations. Some have been on the street since the 1930s. Here, vendor stands sell items like colorful pinatas, Mexican pottery, and multicolored luchador masks in front of a collection of traditional Mexican restaurants.

While La Plaza Village might threaten the livelihood of Olvera Street, this isn’t the first time the street has faced a threat to its development. The pobladores, a group that included Mexicans, indigenous people, and Afro-Mexicans, founded the street plaza in the 1880s. As the city expanded, the original street suffered neglect and was almost destroyed. In 1926, Christine Sterling, a young white woman from Oakland, California, took interest in Olvera Street plaza and orchestrated a campaign to preserve it. She came to be known as the “mother of Olvera Street,” creating and championing the plaza to non-Mexicans as a way for them to appreciate the Mexican and Spanish historical past. However, critics argue that her vision perpetuated Mexican stereotypes, imposing her own fantasy of Mexico on an entire race of people.

Bill Esparza, a food writer and acknowledged expert on Mexican cuisine, explains that iconic places like Cielito Lindo — a tiny stand on Olvera Street that has been serving freshly stuffed, rolled, and fried taquitos since 1934 — did not always have the autonomy they enjoy now.

“When Cielito Lindo started, Sterling had to approve everything everyone did, or served,” says Esparza. “Now, it’s Mexican families that own and run their businesses and it’s a source of pride and public life for Latinos. It still sells tourist goods, but when you’re there it feels and looks like it’s ours.”

Nearby, what used to be a collection of parking lots will now be a mixed-use complex with 355 apartments, 20 percent of which will be priced at affordable rates. To give an idea of the potential for gentrification, the average cost of a La Plaza Village one-bedroom apartment will be anywhere between $2,505 and $3,090, with amenities like a pet-washing center, shuffleboard court, and courtesy patrol. A CVS Pharmacy, Chase Bank, AT&T shop, and Portola Coffee Shop will join the fray. Meanwhile, rents are quickly increasing in nearby Chinatown.

La Plaza Village development in Downtown Los Angeles
La Plaza Village development in Downtown Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee

Next to this large-scale development, some business owners think that Olvera Street is being neglected again. Los Angeles manages the historic street now, and several owners and workers feel that the city hasn’t prioritized their businesses.

One business owner, who has operated a souvenir business on Olvera Street for more than 50 years and preferred not to share their name, lamented the decision to build the museum within La Plaza Village.

In Spanish, they wondered, “Why don’t they put the museum here? This is where the tradition to preserve should be initiated. The street was founded to preserve Mexican traditions.”

According to development manager Ureña, building La Plaza Cocina on La Plaza Village was a better idea due to limitations around working with historical landmarks such as Olvera Street. “That’s why the new space [La Plaza Village] was such a great opportunity to build what we needed.”

Vendor at Olvera Street selling luchador masks, T-shirts, and more
Vendor at Olvera Street selling luchador masks, T-shirts, and more
Wonho Frank Lee

Jade Bojorquez is a server at nearby La Golondrina, one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, located on Olvera Street and established in 1930. The restaurant sits less than a half mile from La Plaza Village in Downtown Los Angeles. “When you come to a restaurant there’s usually no story [told] behind the food,” she says. “When you go to the museum they’ll provide that. But to have a new development [with La Plaza Village], I don’t think would be a good thing.”

Meanwhile, the new development seems to continue a track record of overlooking the history and character Olvera Street has established over the years in Los Angeles. “Working-class Mexicans and shop owners on Olvera Street, historically, haven’t had much of a say in what is their rightful heritage,” says Esparza. “It’s important to continue to support the small businesses that have defined this historic promenade for a long time.”

Christopher Espinosa, the general manager of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, who manages Olvera Street and says that he works with the merchants, believes that La Plaza Village will generally help businesses at La Placita Olvera: “There will be more eyes on the street and it’ll make it safer with more people around.” He highlights that part of the project is creating a historical-style paseo: a pathway that will connect Union Station to La Plaza Village before bringing more foot traffic to Olvera Street.

The business owner with the souvenir business, however, disagrees. “That is the never-ending story: ‘thousands will come,’” they say. “Where do you see the thousands? If the thousands would come like they say, I would have the four employees that I had, but I do not have one employee right now.” This owner runs the shop alone now, with the occasional help of a volunteer.

Junior Torres, an employee at El Rancho Grande, a Mexican restaurant on Olvera Street, who has worked on the street for 20 years, agrees that he often hears from City Hall when new projects surrounding Olvera Street begin. He says the city assures the businesses that these projects will bring more business, when in his experience it’s never been the case.

“It is a good story,” says Torres. “The same was said of Little Tokyo, of the Union Station lofts. Those people don’t come here. If you speak for the street and what will benefit the street, you have to invest in the street. Do not invest in other surrounding places.”

Vendor stalls on Olvera Street
Vendor stalls on Olvera Street
Olvera Street
La Golondrina Cafe on Olvera Street
La Golondrina Cafe restaurant on Olvera Street first opened in 1930

With high retail rents, a small parking lot with fees between $15 and $25, poorly managed bathroom facilities, and the added challenge of nearby homeless encampments, Torres says it’s a very difficult place to do business.

Torres adds that when he first started work on Olvera Street, business was good. There was hardly room to walk due to all the crowds. Now he says the street is empty, except for some holidays, weekends, and Easter. Before, there were tourists lined up outside Olvera Street businesses. He says that now the only tourists that swing by in the morning are the ones who use the restrooms before hopping on their tour buses.

A young merchant who has worked on Olvera Street for six years, who also preferred not to share their name, echoes that business has already been affected by new developments opening in Downtown LA. They reference how the Feria de los Moles, the festival of moles, was once held on Olvera Street, but organizers moved it to the more spacious Grand Park half a mile away. The organizers of the festival, however, say it had to move because there wasn’t enough room on Olvera Street for the more than 30,000 Angelenos who attend.

“No one is upset at [the museum],” they say. “What makes me a little resentful is that I wish they would take care of La Placita as much as they do that space; there’s a lot of stuff to be done here. Instead of investing and promoting a new generation to visit [Olvera Street] they are [redirecting] them to other parts of the city.”

Javier Marina Vargas, owner of Don Juanitos Imports on Olvera Street, says, “I see [business on Olvera Street] going down little by little. I don’t think they [City Hall] know how to support us. We go through meetings and meetings. They listen to everything but they don’t do anything about it.”

Abelardo de la Peña Jr., director of marketing and communications at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, isn’t concerned about gentrification. The cultural flavor of the local community will be untouched, he argues, and that La Cocina plans to have programming that is accessible to the community.

“We’re trying to expand our attendance to other [non-Mexican] people because when they come here they learn about our community,” says de la Peña Jr. “We have Olvera Street, we have La Plaza, now the La Plaza Village. I think it’ll lead to a co-mingling, rather than to a division or keeping people from coming here and it’ll be more welcoming. This was a parking lot.”

And not all Olvera Street vendors feel threatened by the change. “I’m a person that’s very torn about the gentrification issue,” says Susanna MacManus, owner of Cielito Lindo and sit-down restaurant Las Anitas. “It brings jobs, it cleans up ghettos. But it does have to balance, it has to be socially just.”

Future location of La Plaza Cocina at La Plaza Village
Wonho Frank Lee

Deysi Serrano, chef and owner of Milpa Grille located about two miles away in Boyle Heights, strives to pay homage to simple Mesoamerican ingredients by putting them front and center, which is why she doesn’t serve rice, an ingredient introduced through Spanish colonization. Serrano finds a lot of value in the museum’s focus on food history. “The making of the corn is as important as finding fire. “How you grow it and how it works together. It’s insane, the technology.” She also loves that La Plaza de Cultura y Artes has a focus on “decolonizing” Mexican food. “I think it’s great, it’s an extension of what restaurants do. It’s hard to explain in a few seconds.”

Serrano believes the cooking classes will be a huge asset to the community. “I think it will be a positive thing. Hands-on learning is a win-win ... it’s one thing to see it on YouTube. Someone doing it in front of you is huge.”

“The history of corn and maize in Mesoamerica has led to everybody eating tortilla chips and guacamole for Super Bowl Sunday,” says Jessica Ureña, the development manager for special projects at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes. “Now we’re going to tell the stories of culture through the food. We want to educate the public about Hispanic history and the cuisine [and] talk about the indigenous roots of the ingredients: the corn, squash, and the beans cultivated in Latin America over a millennia.”

La Plaza Cocina will provide multidisciplinary programming that will include an exhibition space, a state-of-the-art test kitchen, leasable space for a Mexican food-oriented vendor, and retail space. La Cocina will broadcast live and taped cooking classes online.

“I think it’s so important, in general, because it’s LA, but also it was once Mexico,” says Maite Gomez-Rejón, a food historian and owner of ArtBites.

Even though Serrano sees similar developments in her neighborhood in Boyle Heights, she is hopeful that La Cocina will be a place for Mexican Americans who want to remain connected to their culture. “I hope they invite the community, show them what they’re about and really engage with them. Be in their shoes. There is a lot of gentrification. I don’t think anything can stop that.”

Christina Lee, Trammell Crow’s vice president, who has worked closely with La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, believes that La Plaza Village will absolutely be beneficial to Olvera Street. “Our project is incredibly unusual with the amount of public benefits that have been provided, but it cannot solve the problems of an entire area by itself. We all want the neighborhood to be better for Olvera Street and for our tenants. I don’t think the development will be at the expense of any one group.”

Lee says that La Plaza Village has gone beyond the demands that public service asks by offering affordable housing units, providing space for two murals by Mexican-American artists, hiring 30 percent locally, and paying a living wage to their employees. Trammell Crow also says it made an effort to work with the Olvera Street businesses; it held a single meeting five years ago to introduce the project to the merchants of Olvera Street and hear their comments. “They had around 40 [merchants] attend that meeting.” said Espinosa. “Their comments were supportive of the overall development.”

Future location of La Plaza Cocina (left) and other parts of La Plaza Village development
Future location of La Plaza Cocina (left) and other parts of La Plaza Village development
Wonho Frank Lee
Additional phases of La Plaza Village development
The expansive La Plaza Village Development’s additional phases
Wonho Frank Lee

“We recognize that a community is an ecology and we hope to be a good neighbor,” Lee adds.

It is also working with the Cesar Chavez Foundation — dedicated to “uplifting the lives of Latinos and working families by inspiring and transforming communities through social enterprises that address essential human, cultural and community needs” — which will be moving its operations to La Plaza Village.

Ureña says no one was directly displaced when construction of the project started. She adds that even individuals who parked at the parking lots where La Plaza Village now stands were accommodated with access to new parking spots at the facility.

Still, the advent of the development will eventually drive commercial rents up in the surrounding areas. Tensions about what will change still orbit the minds of Olvera Street business owners. Time alone will tell if La Plaza Village’s efforts will uplift the community or if related gentrification will harm it.

“Everything is business.” says Torres. “They’ll tell you something at first, and then they’ll change it.”

Edited by Carolyn Alburger and Matthew Kang
Copy Editor: Emma Alpern
Photographer: Wonho Frank Lee

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