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Documenting Past Witnesses Who Loved L.A.

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Thursday, February 14, 2008, at 01:19AM
the curator Ed Fuentes

Mariann Gatto is one of two curators for the El Pueblo Historical Monument. Her office on the third floor of the Biscailuz Building is crammed with personal and professional photos, including a number of her son, an image of the David Alfaro Siqueiros' "Tropical America", and photocopies of photographs dating back to early days of Los Angeles.

In the last three years, Gatto has taken her experience as an educator to enhance programs that present El Pueblo as a living historical document, a staple for children's field trips. It was her personal experience of walking within history as a child that cemented how much impact that can have. Raised in Silver Lake, the Italian-American was embedded in Mexican-American culture sharing those experiences of extended family that included trips to places like Broadway and Westlake.

She recalls walking down Broadway as an eleven-year-old and looking at the buildings, wishing she could just take a toothbrush to them and clean off the grime.

Now, as a curator, she wants to present a greater understanding of the history of Los Angeles and expand on the extensive documentation of the Mexican and Chinese immigrant experience. Just as important is finding the buried history of the Italian and French who also first settled in El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula.

"I wanted to get people as a whole to understand the local history, and avoid the mistakes of the past," she says. Despite having a very full plate, Gatto is working with the Historic Italian Hall Foundation to develop a stronger awareness of the role Italians played in the development of the city. They, along with the French, made agriculture and winemaking a major industry. In 1869, Los Angeles was the California's wine center and until 1877, Olvera Street was on the books as Calle de la Vignas (Vine Street).

Even through the generations of that Italian community dispersed throughout Los Angeles, there has been interest to find personal stories of forebearers who helped shaped Los Angeles. "They feel like they are coming home," adds Gatto.

Gatto herself feels close to a grandmother she never met, and so in many ways, she understands how the mystery of one's past can make finding personal history a romantic search, and important to understand oneself. Asked if she considers herself a Renaissance woman, she laughs; "We were Southern Italians, not the children of the Renaissance. We're the people of the land."

And that shows in her work, respecting and researching the everyday aspects of early urban life. She excitedly points to an obscure address from a 1905 telephone directory appearing on her monitor and says, "This is a fruit peddler I was looking for."

On Valentines Day, it's easy to see that she has a love for the city. Her career consists of discovering the ghosts of those who built Los Angeles. The deeper that discovers goes, the more Gatto finds characters from the city's past who had a similar love for this place and who constitute the real history that Los Angeles is sometimes said not to have.

In 1912 brothers Amerigo and Joe Bozzani opened a bicycle, motorcycle and automobile repair shop next to the Italian Hall at 632 North Main Street. In 1918, they launched the Bozzani Motor Company. Several Italian-owned businesses could be found along North Main Street and in the vicinity. The Italian Hall, built 1907-08 was the social and cultural center for the Italian community of Los Angeles and the site of the Italian American Museum, which will open in the near future. Courtesy of El Pueblo Historical Monument/Italian Hall Collection.

A Chinese father and his two children take a stroll amidst the bustle of the pueblo as seen from North Main Street looking south, circa 1890s. The F.W. Braun Drug Company is the five-story building on the right. It would later become the Brunswig Drug Company. French pharmacist Lucien Napoleon Brunswig came to Los Angeles in 1887 and was among the benefactors who helped Christine Sterling transform Olvera Street into a Mexican marketplace in 1930.

Just south of the Vickey-Brunswig building was the Viole-Lopizich Pharmacy. The Viole family also hailed from France, while pharmacist John Lopizich was Dalmatian. Lopizich established the International Savings and Exchange Bank in 1905. Later, in partnership with two Italians, the bank became a branch of the Bank of Italy, the predecessor to Bank of America. The Pico House was completed in 1870, it was Los Angeles's first three-story building and most elegant hotel of the time. The Plaza area comprised the heart of the city's Chinatown in the 1890s, as well as the city's French Quarter and little Italy. Courtesy of El Pueblo Historical Monument.


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