Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Visions of Romance: Christine Sterling's Quest for Change

By Zoey Smith - 2012 Getty Intern - LAPL Photo Collection

Christine Sterling was born Chastina Rix in Oakland, 1881. She briefly attended Mills College before she married (twice) and moved to Los Angeles. She and her husband had two children before he died and left her a widow.

Portrait of Christine Sterling, order# 00037035
Olvera Street was established when Los Angeles was first settled in the late 18th century. However, by the 1920s, the site of the original settlement had become a dirty, rundown area with a shady reputation. As Ms. Sterling explored the historic area, she was taken aback by the filth and neglect, especially since she had been drawn to the city in part by promises of “old Missions, rambling adobes – the ‘strumming of guitars and the click of castanets.” She thought it important that the roots of the city be recognized, and saw the potential in this “birthplace of Los Angeles.” In a 1933 booklet, Sterling wrote, “I closed my eyes and thought of the Plaza as a Spanish-American social and commercial center, a spot of beauty as a gesture of appreciation to México and Spain for our historical past.”

Olvera Street before improvement (Avila Adobe second building on left), order# 00008510 
Ms. Sterling became especially interested in the Avila Adobe, the oldest existing residence in Los Angeles. The building was established by Don Francisco Avila, the 1810-1811 mayor of Los Angeles, but was set to be demolished. In 1928, after a final condemnation notice had been posted on the door of the adobe, Ms. Sterling posted her own sign in front of the adobe which ended with a call to action: “Let the people of Los Angeles show honor and respect to the history of their city by making sacred and inviolate the last of the old landmarks and that spot where the city of Los Angeles was born."

Avila Adobe as it looked in 1890, order# 00078892
Although Christine Sterling initially had difficulty drumming up support, the increase of media coverage brought her struggle to the attention of influential people. Sterling turned to Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, for help. In her diary, she praised his willingness to “talk Idealism and Sentiment," and noted that it was “a privilege to have talked to him.” Chandler became interested in her cause and helped her gain financial support from prominent businessmen. All the materials necessary to repair the house itself were donated. In addition, the Los Angeles County Sheriff promised to have prisoners perform the labor required to repave the street and repair surrounding buildings.

Portrait of Harry Chandler, order# 00040899
In September of 1929, the street was closed to vehicles, and work began on November 7. In addition to repaving and repairs, reconstruction involved lowering the level of the street and building stalls, or puestos, which would be given to families from Mexico for use as shops. On April 19, 1930, Olvera Street opened to the public. Ms. Sterling dubbed the street “El Paseo de Los Angeles,” thrilled that her dreams of celebrating the city’s roots had come to fruition. Not only had she created a thriving Mexican marketplace, which currently attracts over two million visitors every year, she had brought attention to the historic neighborhood, and ensured the preservation of many historic buildings.

Christine Sterling, however, was far from finished. Not only was she the “Mother of Olvera Street,” she also headed another neighborhood reconstruction project, China City. In the early 1930s, the construction of a new Union Station in the midst of Old Chinatown caused the dislocation of thousands of Chinese residents. Sterling attempted to recreate her Olvera Street success with China City. She envisioned a small town with an “exotic” atmosphere, something that would cater to the public’s romantic idea of Chinese culture. China City was competing with Peter SooHoo’s plan for “New Chinatown,” but was the first community to open. Bounded by Ord, N. Spring, Macy (now Cesar E Chavez Ave.), and North Main Streets, China City opened on June 7 1938.

Gateway to China City in 1938, order# 00057486
China City offered rickshaw rides, traditional Chinese performances, temples, restaurants, and shops. The community provided an opportunity for many Chinese residents who were searching for ways to support themselves. It was, after all, a tourist attraction, complete with replicas of the set from the movie The Good Earth. The American taste for Chinese culture was increasing, and many Chinese took advantage of this.
Chinese vendor in China City, ca. 1940, order# 00073248
However, in 1939, a large fire caused extensive damage to China City. Christine Sterling decided to rebuild the damaged areas, and China City was soon reopened.

China City after the fire, 1939, order# 00057491
China City remained a fixture of the community for almost ten years, serving as a center of business and tourism as well as a place to gather and celebrate festivals such as Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival. However, in 1948, China City would again succumb to a devastating fire, and would never be rebuilt. Although China City succeeded in attracting visitors and creating a Chinese community, it ultimately did not succeed in the way that Christine Sterling’s previous project, Olvera Street, did.

Despite the success of Olvera Street (and the short-lived success of China City), Christine Sterling’s vision was not without problems. She has been criticized for romanticizing Mexican and Chinese cultures and exploiting stereotypes. While Olvera Street was received well and has become a much-loved Los Angeles landmark, many Chinese resented China City for its artifice, instead supporting Peter SooHoo’s New Chinatown plan. As Chinese-American author Lisa See said to the Los Angeles Times, "China City was supposed to be an 'authentic' Chinese city, but was pure fantasy and stereotype." 

Pagoda Gift Shop in China City, order# 00057495
This fantasy can be seen in Sterling’s writings on Olvera Street:
“Life in Los Angeles before the Americans came was an almost ideal existence. People lived to love, to be kind, tolerant, and contented. Money of which there was plenty was just for necessities. The men owned and rode magnificent horses. The women were flower-like in silk and laces. There were picnics into the hills dancing at night, moonlight serenades, romance and real happiness.”
Christine Sterling kept this romantic vision in mind as she worked to bring these golden days to life. She was ultimately satisfied with the result, writing in her diary, “The surface of the old street felt again the touch of dainty slippers and polished boots. Romance sings the love songs of yesterday.”

Flawed though they were, Christine Sterling’s visions demonstrate her passion for Los Angeles and its history, her shrewd mind for business, and her determination to effect change where she saw a need.

Christine Sterling in 1963, order# 00037036


Cheng, Suellen and Munson Kwok. “The Golden Years of Los Angeles Chinatown: The Beginning.” Old Chinatown Los Angeles. Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

Poole, Jean Bruce. “Christine Sterling.” The Historical Society of Southern California.

Rasmussen, Cecilia. “How ‘The Mother of Olvera St.' Got Her Moniker.” Los Angeles Times. 17 Apr. 2005.

Sterling, Christine. “Olvera Street: Its History and Restoration.” Los Angeles: Adobe Studios, 1933. Print.

All photos from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection http://photos.lapl.org/


  1. Check out this great profile done by Monica Pelayo for the Studio for Southern California History in 2010! http://lahistoryarchive.org/resources/Love_Is_Living_Large/profiles.html#sterling

  2. I was at the Avila this past Wednesday, and they have a lot of stuff abuot her, especially in the gift shop. Amused that I'd never heard of her before that, and now twice in one week. . . ;o)

  3. Its really awesome history of the Sterling
    garage door repair sterling