Sunday, May 15, 2016

Welcome to Frenchtown (1827 - 1989)*

Look at a map of Los Angeles that includes the names of its many neighborhoods. Take the time to scrutinize it thoroughly.

Something is missing. In fact, it has been missing from the urban landscape of my hometown for about seventy years.

Modern Los Angeles is a very big, very diverse city - so much so that it is impossible for this native to imagine LA without its historically ethnic neighborhoods.

Chinatown. Little Tokyo. Little Ethiopia. Little Armenia. Thai Town. Little Bangladesh. Koreatown. Historic Filipinotown. Little Persia (or, if you prefer, Tehrangeles). Not to mention the many African American, Mexican, and Central American enclaves throughout the city and the San Gabriel Valley's huge pan-Asian community.

Take another look at that map. Los Angeles' first ethnic enclave - at one time accounting for an astonishing one in five Angelenos - is missing.

Few Angelenos are even the slightest bit aware that this community ever existed, let alone aware of its many impressive accomplishments.

We grew crops. We raised livestock. We made wine (way back when Napa and Sonoma Counties were mere farmland) - some of which was good enough, even way back then, to send to Europe.

We opened stores and sold hardware, jewelry, picture frames, art, mirrors, clothing, shoes, books, cutlery, perfume, groceries, animal feed, lumber, sewing machines, coffee, toiletries, and bricks. We manufactured everything from soap to coffins.

We developed tracts of land (some of which now account for the few surviving older neighborhoods in the city) and established streetcars. We served as priests, and donated generously to churches.

We established the city's oldest surviving hospital, practiced medicine, taught medicine at what is now USC, dispensed drugs at pharmacies we founded, and tended to the city's deceased.

We founded newspapers in our own language, which was for many years the second most commonly spoken tongue in Los Angeles (after Spanish).

We served our communities on the city council, as Mayors, as Water Overseers (by far the most important position in a parched and growing city), as soldiers in times of war, and on volunteer police and fire patrols. We spent year after year after year trying to bring safe, reliable water to homes and businesses (and eventually succeeded).

We harvested salt, made art, sold tar from the La Brea Tar Pits (for roofing purposes), and baked bread, pies, pastries, and matzo for civilians and the local army camp. We provided ice to saloons from Los Angeles to San Francisco. We ran some of those saloons, and brewed some of the city's beer.

We owned and operated hotels and restaurants, ranging from humble inns to the very finest establishments in Southern California, donated funds to help transform Olvera Street into a tourist attraction, and donated funds for UCLA's original campus. We turned a foul swamp into Los Angeles Park, now Pershing Square (not the ugly modern version everyone hates; blame the 1950s for that), founded the city's meatpacking industry, worked as blacksmiths, invested in real estate, and built Santa Monica's first restaurant, grocery store, and wharf.

We founded one of the city's oldest private schools in addition to the Music Teachers Association and the city's longest-running glee club. We founded a freight company that grew large enough to serve much of the Southwest. We co-founded the Farmers & Merchants Bank. We rented property to our Chinese neighbors, who could not legally own land or buildings at the time.

And in spite of our long list of contributions to the city, virtually no one bothers to remember that we've been a part of Los Angeles (and the rest of Southern California) since 1827.

We are French Angelenos. These are our stories.

*1827 - year LA got its first French resident (Louis Bauchet). 1989 - year the French Benevolent Association sold the French Hospital (now the Pacific Alliance Medical Center).

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