Leo Politi

An Artist Of City Life & People

The Life & Legacy of Leo Politi

By Jim Schneeweis

Hailed as the “artist of Olvera Street,” Leo Politi captured the heart of Los Angeles through his paintings, sometimes sold for as little as a quarter or less to make ends meet. In the Depression era 1930s with no job, Politi and his wife Helen would set up an easel on Olvera Street (often staying until midnight) and sketch tourists and children using charcoal, pencil or brush, examining ethnic diversity long before it was fashionable.

With a concentration of artists, crafts people, merchants and puppeteers, the early 1930s Olvera Street was more of an alley than a street, attracting motion picture actors, producers and directors at night. Politi fell in love with the Latin American culture and the importance of family, creating characters along the way that would evolve into more than 20 books, and countless sculptures
paintings and murals.

His first book, Little Pancho, was based on a child who never smiled, someone he noticed on Olvera Street. That led to his second book, Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street. Considered a true innovator in children’s books, in 1950, he was honored by the American Library Association with the Caldecott Medal for his most famous book, The Song of the Swallows.

The Politi family rented a series of bungalows on Bunker Hill, which at that time was a large, hilly area of steep, narrow streets and alleys that formed the heart of Los Angeles with Victorian homes and bungalows.

In 1961, the family moved to 415 East Edgeware and lived there for 12 years, then moved to 845 Edgeware in Angeleno Heights. The changing neighborhoods of the city inspired Politi’s water color illustrations for the adult reader, in books that include Bunker Hill, Los Angeles: Reminiscences of Bygone Days, Tales of the Los Angeles Parks and Angeleno Heights.

Leo Politi is remembered today with the Leo Politi School, dedicated in 1991, Monticillo de Leo Politi, an area of Elysian Park close to Dodger Stadium was dedicated to Leo Politi in 1994 and later this year, which marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, the corner of Sunset and Echo Park will be dedicated as Leo Politi Square.

This story appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of the EPHS News. Photos used with permission from the Leo Politi Centennial