I’m sure there must be whole blogs that center on visiting local tourist attractions because some of the best places to visit are in our own backyard. We all know that. We just don’t take advantage of it. I mean, how many times have we been in one of those conversations where the other party mentions some-such museum or some-such historic site nearby, and we reply with, “oh yes, I have heard of that place! I have always meant to visit, but just haven’t made it there yet…” Blink and duck your head in acknowledgement because you know you have been there and done that.
And that is why, there is a saying that I have heard – who said it, when, and in what context are a mystery as of now, and I haven’t taken the initiative to Google it yet – that really sums up most of humanity’s tourist activities:
Visit a place for a week, you’ll see everything. Visit a place for a month, you’ll see some things. Live in that place, and you’ll never see anything.
We really don’t take advantage of the art, history, and culture that is right in our own neighborhood. I am just as guilty of that as anyone. I live in a major urban area chock full of those academic subjects – some of the finest museums, historic centers, and cultural attractions are right here in Los Angeles – and I spend most weekends riding my bike or in the Barnes and Noble drinking Starbucks coffee.
But these past couple of weekends, I have tried to venture out of that routine, and explore some of the amazing history right here in the City of Angels. I know most of the world believes that LA was founded in 1955, and sprung up as the fully formed concrete jungle it is today just like the Greek goddess Athena did from the head of her father, Zeus. But, take my word for it: this city is almost as old as our country.
It was officially founded in 1781 when the Spanish governor of New Spain sent a group of families north from Mexico (then known as “New Spain”) to Alta California to establish a settlement. The Spanish crown was concerned that their wild and untamed territory in the north was being steadily encroached upon by the French and the Russians, so they wanted to establish a stronger foothold in that area. The pobladores – as the settling families were called – reached the site established by their governor as the location for their new town, and set about building the government houses, churches, and private homes he had mapped out for them on said site.
By the time Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, el Pueblo de la Nuestra Senora, Reina de Los Angeles, was the largest Spanish-established settlement in Alta California. The town had streets, adobe buildings, and a central plaza with a church. Under Mexican rule, Alta California became the center of a successful ranching industry, with much of the former Spanish Mission lands being disseminated to prominent Californios – wealthy Mexican citizens – to be converted into cattle and sheep ranches. Men like Pio Pico, Francisco Sepulveda, Agustin Olvera, and Francisco Avila owned multiple thousands of acres of land across Southern California, and they built “townhomes” – large, sprawling, luxurious adobe homes near the central Plaza of el Pueblo for them to use when they were in town on official business.
Francisco Avila, who first came to el Pueblo in 1794, owned the extremely prosperous Rancho Las Cienegas and he became mayor of el Pueblo in 1810. In 1818, he built his townhome just off the main Plaza, and he resided in the house until his own death in 1832.
The lovely adobe home built by Francisco Avila is still standing on Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street – the site of that first settlement established by a group of 11 families on September 4, 1781. It is billed as the oldest home in Los Angeles. And it is truly a window into Mexican California’s past.
Part of what makes Los Angeles feel like such a new city is that so little history is right in front of us. The city’s past is hidden in gems like Olvera Street, which now operates as a lively and colorful shopping district with Mexican-themed wares and souvenirs. You have to wind your way through those boutiques and vendors to find historic treasures like the Avila Adobe, the el Pueblo historic monument, and the Pico House – a hotel built by the last Mexican governor of Alta California, Pio Pico, in 1869 to accommodate the growing population of el Pueblo (Pico was in office during the Mexican-American War, whose conclusion resulted in the deeding of Alta California to the United States in 1848).
When you find them, though, the craziness of the modern city fades away. The Avila Adobe is a beautiful replica of a wealthy Californio home with its simple, dark wood furniture, bright and colorful religious art, including a gorgeous wood and metal carving of the Virgin Mary encrusted with gemstones, and its plain light fixtures (complete with thick tallow candles). I love historic homes like the Avila Adobe because it feels like stepping back in time – the ghosts of the people who lived in el Pueblo, who walked those cobblestoned streets, slept in that four-poster bed, and cooked with that outdoor adobe oven, feel alive again. It feels like a whole different world than the one I live in every day.
After wandering through the Adobe, stopping at the monument that commemorates the exact spot where the original pobladores first settled, and walking past the historic Pico House, I headed up the street a few blocks to the relatively new Cathedral of our Lady of Angels. I learned enough from anecdotal conversations to know the Cathedral is a controversy. It was officially opened in 2002 amidst the deleterious priest molestation scandal, and cost entirely too much money to build for a religious order that takes a vow of poverty as part of their lifelong commitment to the church.
I did not know, however, know the church was built on the site of the first Cathedral in Los Angeles – the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana – which was constructed during early American rule in 1876. Because cathedrals are supposed to contain bones and body parts of the saints for which they are named, the 3rd century martyr, Saint Vibiana, was exhumed from her resting place in Rome and reinterred in the Cathedral in Los Angeles. When the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana was damaged beyond repair in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, it was torn down, and the new Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels was built in its place. Good news? Saint Vibiana still rests in the new Cathedral – in the mausoleum below the main church – along with many other notable Los Angeles residents… Gregory Peck among them.
This new cathedral is a little too ostentatious for my taste. My dad was in town and I knew he had never seen it, so I took him in. The post-modern architecture with the sweeping vaulted ceilings and marble interior is … not the way I feel brings a person closer to God. I was, however, extremely impressed with the 17th century painted wood altar that is displayed as a museum piece in the back of the church! Even though it is also ostentatious in its gilding and ornamentation, it didn’t feel like a show-off piece. The Cathedral of Our Lady doesn’t feel like a place of worship, but instead a place of wealth and power and strength. This elaborate wood altar comes out of Ezcaray, Spain and with its depiction of such popular saints as James, Teresa of Avila, Andrew, and Peter, it feels more like a devotion to God even though I’m sure it cost a pretty penny in its day too.
Cost or no, however, I was astounded and amazed to see such an incredible piece of history right here in downtown Los Angeles … and on permanent display no less too.
The Cathedral also has a distinct advantage – it has beautiful courtyards and gardens that are centers of peace and quiet in the wilds of downtown Los Angeles. I am not religious, although I was raised Catholic, and I often feel slightly uncomfortable in churches these days since I have such a derisive attitude towards them. But I cannot deny the quiet peace that settles on me when I am wandering through brightly colored, charming gardens, bathing in dappled sunlight. It’s another happy place. The Cathedral’s gardens also have the added draw of containing beautiful sculptures and tile work – a couple of sheep, a lion, and other Biblical animals reside beneath the trees, and sepia images of saints and Biblical passages grace the walls of the courtyards – making it even easier to get lost in the serenity of the surroundings.
Then you pass by the church’s Gift Store (?!?!?!) and there goes that.
All told, it was a delightful Monday I spent with my dad and his boyfriend, wandering the streets of downtown Los Angeles, immersing myself in local history and culture. It inspired me to continue that quest to visit more local attractions, and then when I am next involved in a conversation that mentions some-such museum or some-such historic site, I can say, “why, yes, I have been to see it. It is incredible …”