Saturday, January 20, 2018

Excerpts from "Frenchtown! The Musical": Part 3

One hundred fifty years ago today, Damien Marchesseault got up early, walked to City Hall, wrote a letter to his wife, and shot himself.

I hope I can do his heartbreaking story justice in my book.

(The curtain opens on a stage set up as an empty City Council chamber. A marquee reads "City Hall, January 20, 1868.")

Song: The Mayor's Lament

Marchesseault (offstage): In the early morning

In the calm before the dawn

No one can see me

I can do no more harm

(The spotlight illuminates the very end of an aisle in the house. Damien Marchesseault appears, slowly walking toward the stage as if walking to the gallows, accompanied only by the mournful tones of a viola.)

Marchesseault: I worked so hard

God knows I tried

We only wanted water

But that dream has died

Did I spread myself too thin?

Was I taking on too much?

Was it a fight I couldn't win?

Or did I just lose my touch?

Another sinkhole

Another glass of whiskey

Another loan I can't pay back

Another night of gambling

(Enters City Hall council chamber. Sits at a desk, picks up a pen and sheet of paper, and begins to write.)

Oh, my beloved Mary

I must ask for her forgiveness

How greatly I have wronged her

I stole her happiness

I never can escape

I've dug a hole so deep

My loving, loyal Mary

She'll be better off without me

(Rises to his feet as the music swells.)

To escape this nightmare

There can only be one way

Oh, I don't want to go

But I lost my right to stay

(Marchesseault, broken and defeated, takes a revolver out of his coat pocket and spins the chamber. The music tapers off as the lights slowly dim to complete darkness.

Beat. Then, in the pitch-black theater, just three sounds can be heard:




Tuesday, January 16, 2018

BREAKING NEWS: El Aliso Vineyard was NOT on the site of Union Station!

Most sources - including older ones - state that Jean-Louis Vignes' vineyard, El Aliso, was "about where Union Station is today."

Here's the problem with that statement: it wasn't. 

A Gizmodo post by historian Nathan Masters mentions the former location of the giant sycamore tree that gave the vineyard its name. According to landscape architect John Crandell (who according to Masters has researched the matter extensively), if the tree were still standing today, it would be here, growing out of a raised island separating the Vignes Street onramp from the 101 freeway.

For months, I tried and failed to find a boundary map for El Aliso. I knew it was along Aliso Street, and (of course) the 101 Freeway arrived roughly a century after Vignes did. Using the river as a reference was completely out of the question - the LA River shifted its course due to severe flooding, and has since been rerouted by the Army Corps of Engineers. I reasoned that the freeway, which separates the former core of Frenchtown from Union Station, had simply cut through Vignes' property - 104 acres IS a good-sized chunk of land, after all.

Not exactly.

The other day, James Lawson, a seventh-generation Californian (and descendant of the Reyes, Alanis, and Casenave families) reached out to me with a LOT of information to share. This information included an 1849 map of LA showing property boundaries and an 1869 map of the Alanis vineyard tract.

James walked me through his research into the location. Basically, Aliso Street's transition into Commercial Street corresponds closely to (now-gone) Labory Lane, which was originally the access path from Alameda Street to the Alanis property - surrounded on three sides by Vignes' land.

Flip the 1849 Ord survey to correctly point north, layer it over the modern street grid using the former Labory Lane as a reference, trim away most of the surrounding properties to better see modern LA's streets, and you get this:

(Yes, I had to print these out and play cut-and-paste. I don't have, let alone know how to use, Photoshop. I should note that the 1849 map printed out a little too big - it's not easy to match the scales on two old maps, with no scale given on either - let alone on an uncooperative 8-year-old laptop.)

This location also makes more sense than Union Station. The giant tree still fits into the property's footprint, we can clearly see Aliso Street in reference to the property, and the property's true location explains why Vignes Street is so far south of Union Station. The (admittedly approximated - and now I have to re-draw it) shaded area to the right, representing the Ballesteros Tract, supports this location - the Ballesteros family, as you can see, owned land right next door to Vignes.

I live for "OH MY GOD" moments like this.

Thank you, James.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Something is Rotten in Frenchtown

History should be presented fairly and honestly. Otherwise, we'll never learn a damn thing from it.

I strive to do that on this blog (barring the musical interludes).

I *could* petition the city of Los Angeles to turn a weedy vacant lot in the industrial core (formerly the original French Colony) into a French-themed tourist attraction à la Olvera Street...but I am not Christine Sterling and I don't think it's the best possible answer. There are still authentic surviving sites associated with the French in Los Angeles, and at least one of them would make a great museum.

And history museums, unlike tourist attractions, are expected to present the truth.

I've uncovered some uncomfortable truths in the course of my research (and the more research I do, the more I cringe at all of this):

  • Seemingly reliable resources can conflict with each other. There are things I haven't blogged about yet because I'm not yet sure which version of a story is correct (and unlike some people, I actually care about getting the facts straight). 
  • The city of Los Angeles itself is an unreliable source at best. The most glaring example: Damien Marchesseault was elected Mayor SIX TIMES. He was one of LA's most popular mayors of all time. Yet, he does not appear on the city's official list of former mayors, and the memorial plaque in the Plaza that bears his name includes incorrect information (two months ago, the venerable Jean Bruce Poole had me take her to the marker and show her what was wrong with it). He has been erased from LA's narrative so thoroughly that we don't even know what he looked like (no surviving pictures have ever been found). The fact that Marchesseault Street is slated for a return to the map is nothing shy of a miracle. (Part 2 of that story coming soon.) Was Marchesseault erased by political rivals after his death, or was he forgotten so readily because his final term ended under an ugly storm cloud of scandal and suicide? (I'm going to find out. I'm not sure how, but I know I'm going to do it.)
  • Wikipedia can bite me. In spite of the fact that it's a nightmare to edit, anyone can edit Wikipedia, and it's just too easy for someone with incorrect information (or worse, an agenda) to misinform anyone gullible enough to take the site's content at face value. Example: The last time I checked, the site claimed that LA's New Chinatown was previously Little Italy. While there were significant numbers of Italian immigrants in the neighborhood, the article fails to note that it was part of Frenchtown first. In fact, that's WHY Italians were attracted to the area. LA's French welcomed Italian immigrants - two founding members of the French Benevolent Society were, in fact, Italian. St. Peter's Church, long linked to LA's Italian community, was originally a cemetery chapel built in honor of French-born André Briswalter (the current building is from the 1940s, and it isn't clear if Briswalter is still buried on the site). And the various French-owned vineyards already clustered in the area would have spelled job opportunities to Italian immigrants with winemaking skills. No one talks about any of this (except me)...yet the vast majority of people reading that entry are going to take it at face value (in spite of the fact that to local historians, it is glaringly incomplete).
  • LA's various French organizations (and the French consulate) have never responded to any of my requests for information and/or interviews. At one point, I even asked my dad if his boss would mind sending my contact information to the consulate through a French government employee he knows (the French are formal; we like introductions). Yeah...that didn't work either. (I've had many a question about why I have yet to publish anything on current French entities in LA. Now you know. I'm used to being ignored - but not by people/organizations with whom I have a shared goal. It's indescribably frustrating.)
  • I'm ALREADY getting pushback on my idea for a museum. Someone I met recently very pointedly told me (more than once!) that the Pico House hosted an exhibit on the French in LA "a couple of years back". That exhibit ran from late 2007 to early 2008 - TEN years ago. Also, it ran for less than six weeks, wasn't well executed (photos on a wavy plastic wall with no physical exhibits? Are you kidding me? The French are responsible for some of the finest museums in the world...we can do SO much better than that), and has been forgotten by pretty much everyone else. I realize getting a museum open can easily take 10+ years, cost an absolute fortune, and require dealing with a lot of red tape (the Historic Italian Hall Foundation, which was founded to restore the Italian Hall and reopen it as a museum, was founded in the 1980s...and the museum opened in 2016). But, given what we're constantly up against, shouldn't historians and other concerned Angelenos work together to keep the rare surviving scraps of Old Los Angeles alive instead of writing off ideas that don't necessarily fit into a personal agenda?
  • I keep finding factual errors in other historians' work. I don't want to diminish the importance of their research and accomplishments. I really don't. However, LA's forgotten French community was filled with amazing people who did amazing things, and I believe we owe it to them to AT LEAST tell their stories correctly. 
There are times when researching and writing this blog makes me cry. There are times when I want to scream in frustration. 

But guess what? I'm never going to quit. True to my French roots, I'm a fighter. 

Southern California will once again know the names of Marchesseault, Garnier, Beaudry, Mascarel, Nadeau, Henriot, Lazard, Brousseau, and so many others. I'm going to make sure of that.

P.S. In the meantime, I'm speaking at StaRGazing 2018, Greater Los Angeles Area Mensa's annual Regional Gathering. I'm scheduled for 3:20-4:40pm on Saturday, February 17. See you in San Pedro! (Get your ticket NOW. Seriously.)

Monday, January 1, 2018

Excerpts from "Frenchtown! The Musical": Part 2

If you read my first installment of this theatrical theme, you know there isn't *really* a musical about Frenchtown. My short-term objective is to write a book, my long-term objective is a museum. But who knows, the process may make a playwright out of me yet...

(The curtain opens on a stage split between two different locations and two different years.

Stage Right, a marquee reads "City Hall, 1867." The scene is Mayor Damien Marchesseault's office.

Stage Left, a marquee reads "Marchesseault Street, 1868." The scene is a brick office building.

Damien Marchesseault and Jean-Louis Sainsevain enter, stage right. Sainsevain is carrying rolled-up technical drawings.

Prudent Beaudry, Solomon Lazard, and Dr. Griffin enter, stage left. Beaudry is carrying a notebook, Griffin is carrying a few medical texts.

Marchesseault (spoken): Sainsevain, if anyone in Los Angeles is up to the task, it's you.

Sainsevain (spoken): I tried four years ago, Mayor. I could use some help.

Beaudry (spoken): Gentlemen, Marchesseault tried.

Lazard and Griffin (spoken, removing their hats): Poor Marchesseault.

Song: Water!

Marchesseault (sung): This town needs water.

Sainsevain (sung): We're parched.

Marchesseault: The zanjas just don't cut it.

Sainsevain: No one likes a filthy ditch.

Marchesseault and Sainsevain: We need water!

Beaudry (sung): This town needs water.

Lazard (sung): Fresh, clean water.

Beaudry: No more mud and garbage.

Griffin: Clean and safe and sanitary.

Beaudry, Lazard, and Griffin: We need water!

Marchesseault: Dryden's water wheel was a start.

Sainsevain: The judge wasn't thinking big enough.

Marchesseault: You're an engineer.

Sainsevain: You want a new one? But of course!

Marchesseault and Sainsevain: We need water!

Beaudry: Let's keep the reservoirs to start.

Lazard: We'll need those during drought years.

Beaudry: Keep them close to town (spoken) but not on prime real estate.

Griffin: Lined with bricks to keep the dirt out.

Beaudry, Lazard, Griffin: We need water!

Marchesseault: We need pipes!

Sainsevain: We can't get pipes! We're too remote!

Marchesseault: We'll make our own.

Sainsevain: From what, the sycamores outside?!

Marchesseault (spoken): That's it!

Marchesseault and Sainsevain: We need water!

Beaudry: Our predecessors meant well but they couldn't cut the mustard

Lazard: Beaudry, it was a disaster

Beaudry: Never send a politician to do a businessman's job

Griffin: Or a doctor's!

Beaudry, Lazard, Griffin: We need water!

Marchesseault: We've got trouble, Sainsevain

Sainsevain: Another sinkhole? Damn it!

Marchesseault: Downtown is a muddy mess

Sainsevain: Did I become an engineer for this?

Marchesseault and Sainsevain: We need water!

Beaudry: The world is watching, gentlemen

Lazard: We've got to get it right

Beaudry: It's a 30-year contract

Griffin: But everyone expects results

Beaudry, Lazard, Griffin: We need water!

Marchesseault: I've borrowed from everyone I know

Beaudry: We're on the right track, gentlemen

Sainsevain: I'm about to lose the vineyard

Lazard: Together we can make it work

Marchesseault, Sainsevain, Beaudry, Lazard, Griffin (in unison): Los Angeles needs water!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Rebirth of a Lost Frenchtown Landmark, Part 1

I'm still sad about the French Hospital's recent closure.

Thankfully, I have happier news to share.

Marchesseault Street - renamed, rerouted, paved over, and forgotten long ago by most Angelenos - is, in a way, returning to the map. (Beret-tip to Munson Kwok at the Chinese American Museum for the info.)

Union Station's forecourt and esplanade are slated for a facelift. Don't panic - the project will improve bike and pedestrian access (and add some shade trees). Union Station itself will remain just as beautiful as it looked in 1939.

The improved pedestrian/cyclist plaza will feature contrasting pavers to show where Marchesseault Street once ran (the former path of the zanja madre will also be indicated by pavers in another color).

The new tour bus drop-off zone will be RIGHT ALONGSIDE MARCHESSEAULT STREET.

View details here. I'm thrilled that Marchesseault Street, named for the most important mayor Los Angeles has ever forgotten, is returning to the streetscape. (This is also a win for the Chinese American community - besides the Los Angeles City Water Company, much of LA's original Chinatown was located along Marchesseault Street.)

I am in touch with LA Metro's Elizabeth Carvajal, who is managing this project, and will post an interview with her soon.

Welcome back, Mr. Mayor.

P.S. Don't forget - I'm speaking at StaRGazing 2018, Greater Los Angeles Area Mensa's annual Regional Gathering. I'm scheduled for an afternoon slot on Saturday, February 17. See you in San Pedro! (Book your hotel room NOW. The Doubletree ran out of discounted rooms for Friday a while ago.)

Monday, November 27, 2017

Integrity: Judge Julius Brousseau

A previous entry was about Frenchtown's own Renaissance woman, Dr. Kate Brousseau. Today, we get to meet her father, Julius - an impressive Angeleno in his own right.

Julius Brousseau was born in New York in 1835. His parents were French Canadian immigrants.

Brousseau became an attorney. His career soon took him to Michigan, where he married Caroline Yakeley. Oldest child Kate was born in 1862. The Brousseaus moved to Illinois and had three more children (Mabel in 1871, Edward in 1875, and Ray in 1877) before moving to Los Angeles in 1877.

A few words should be said about Los Angeles in the 1870s: it was still the wild, wild west. The Brousseaus arrived less than seven years after Michel Lachenais was lynched (by his fellow Frenchmen, no less) and about six years after the deadliest race riot in U.S. history - the Chinese Massacre. In the 1860s, greater Los Angeles averaged 20 murders per year (with a population of about 7,000 people) - up to 20 times the murder rate for New York City at the time. Just three years prior to the Brousseaus' arrival, notorious bandit Tiburcio Vasquez was finally caught in modern-day Santa Clarita. Los Angeles had a well-deserved reputation for being tough, lawless, and just plain scary.

Somehow, that didn't deter the Brousseaus.

Julius set up a law office in units 56 and 57 of the ornate Baker Block (which would later be demolished in 1942 to make way for the 101 freeway). If you are driving on the 101 through downtown, the building would have been in the middle of the northbound lanes just north of where the freeway crosses Main Street.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Brousseaus joined the French Benevolent Society. In 1878, after just a year in LA, the Society selected Julius as a committee member (Constant Meyer, who had to leave town for an extended period of time, was stepping down).

By 1886, Julius had partnered with D.P. Hatch in a law firm. Brousseau & Hatch were based out of units 31, 32, and 56 in the Baker Block (presumably, Julius had kept his old office upstairs). Their names occasionally appeared in the real-estate transaction section of local newspapers - including  two plots of land in the San Gabriel Valley's Arcadia tract that year to Prudent Beaudry.

Julius was a patron of the Acacia chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic organization which is open to both men and women. The 1887 city directory also lists him as "Master of Robert Bruce Chapter, no. 6, Rose Croix". Julius was also a Shriner, belonging to the Al Malaikah Temple. Today, the Temple is headquartered at the Shrine Auditorium.

The fabled Brousseau Mansion - one of the first grand homes on Bunker Hill - was built around 1878.  Located at 238 South Bunker Hill Avenue (between Second and Third Streets), this was the house where eldest child Kate began her decades-long teaching career. Sadly, the house was torn down in 1966. The Broad now takes up most of the block.

Oddly for a man known for good moral character, Julius appeared on a list of delinquent taxpayers for a lot in the Starr tract and some personal property in 1893. He was on the list again the following year for two lots in the Leonis tract and some land in a subdivision. It isn't clear if the delinquent properties were all his or if the matter was related to his occasional handling of real estate transactions.

After Miguel Leonis died, much of his massive estate went to attorneys' fees. Per an 1896 newspaper article, one of those attorneys just so happened to be Julius Brousseau. One-sixth of Rancho El Escorpion was claimed by the Domec sisters - Espiritu Chijulla Menendez Leonis' sisters - but their claim was disputed by a Robert S. Baker.

Judge Clark also changed the guardianship of a minor heir during litigation proceedings, making Julius the child's guardian ad litem. The Domec sisters - one of whom was the mother of said child - considered this a conflict of interest. They asked Julius to step down and allow Montgomery & Son to represent them.

When Julius declined, he was accused of making disparaging comments about Montgomery, which he denied. As if the Leonis case weren't already convoluted enough, the accusations and the alleged conflict of interest had to be hashed out in court. Rabble-rousing Major Horace Bell, who was Baker's attorney, pointed out that he himself was in a similar position.

Brousseau, at one point, appeared confused about exactly how much of Rancho El Escorpion his clients were claiming. Judge Clark asked for clarification about how much of the rancho the Leonis estate was entitled to. Brousseau responded that if he had made a mistake in his earlier statement, he would amend his answer. He also asked to be relieved of his duty as the minor heir's guardian ad litem.

A few months later, a different newspaper article identified Julius Brousseau not just as an attorney, but as a judge. His father Julius Brousseau Sr., by now 83 and a widower, had been defrauded out of his house and property by Mrs. Lizzie Sage - Julius' sister.

Judge Brousseau testified in the ensuing fraud case. He gave his age as 61, prompting many in the courtroom to comment that he didn't look over 50 (many French people don't own family is proof of this). He stated that before and after his mother's death the previous year, his father (who until then had consulted with him on financial matters) had behaved in an uncharacteristically irrational manner.

Dr. D.J. Le Doux, who had been the late Mrs. Brousseau's attending physician, backed up Judge Brousseau, stating that the elder Brousseau appeared to be mentally unbalanced by his wife's illness and death. Ultimately, the deed of conveyance was deemed null and void. Mrs. Sage was ousted from her father's house on Star Street, and the case effectively estranged her from her father and brother.

On October 15, 1903, Judge Julius Brousseau, who had been suffering from Bright's disease, passed away at his daughter Mabel's house. His obituary identified him as a former president of the Los Angeles Board of Education and a former Democratic nominee for Superior Judge (despite the judge's popularity and spotless reputation, he lost the election because Los Angeles was overwhelmingly Republican at the time). Brousseau's obituary added "No citizen of Los Angeles had a better reputation for integrity and good citizenship than Brousseau. Both as a lawyer and as a citizen, he commanded the respect of all who knew him, and he was greatly loved by his friends and intimate associates."

Six members of the Bar Association were appointed as pallbearers. The Brousseau sisters asked that as many members of the Bar as possible attend the funeral. The Masons took on the responsibility of transporting Judge Brousseau's body to Evergreen Cemetery and concluding the funeral ceremony.

If only every attorney in Los Angeles had Brousseau's good character...

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Getting Ready for StaRGazing 2018!

I'm still bummed about the French Hospital.

However, I am pleased to announce that I will be giving another Frenchtown lecture at Greater Los Angeles Area Mensa's 2018 Regional Gathering on Presidents' Day weekend.

This won't be a rehash of my first lecture. I'll have more time to speak, which means I can cover more people and places. Also, since the RG is taking place in San Pedro, I will be covering the South Bay's forgotten French citizens (something I haven't had time to squeeze into previous talks).

Book your hotel room and get your ticket SOON if you want to attend - the discounted rooms are going fast.

As of this writing, I'm scheduled to speak in the Doubletree's Catalina ballroom at 3:20 pm on Saturday, February 17, 2018.

See you soon!