Wednesday, June 14, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 3: The San Fernando Valley

Continuing my series on surviving places linked to Southern California's forgotten French community, we come to a place that hits close to home.

Because it IS my home. I'm a genuine, authentic Valley girl (hang around me long enough and you just might detect bits of my old accent).

(Well, it was my childhood home, anyway. I've lived in various beach towns continuously since 2001.)

Let's start in Calabasas and work our way east...


Michel Leonis, nicknamed "Don Miguel" out of fear rather than respect, discovered a dilapidated adobe house on the grounds of Rancho El Escorpion (huge naming opportunity missed here: Rancho El Escorpion sounds so much more badass than Calabasas - Spanish for "squashes"). He and his Chumash wife, Espiritu Chijulla, fixed it up (enclosing the rear staircase and adding the balcony), moved in, and lived here until their respective deaths.

The house - long empty and once again severely neglected - was nearly torn down in 1962 for - you guessed it - a supermarket parking lot. Thankfully, it's still with us today.

(I will devote separate entries to Leonis and to the Leonis Adobe Museum.)

Moving east, we find...


Running north-south from Ventura Boulevard to Granada Hills (okay, fine, it's interrupted in a couple of places), Amestoy Avenue was named for another French Basque ranching family - the Amestoys.

(The Amestoys will get their own entry.)

Just a few blocks east of Amestoy Avenue is one of their former homes - Rancho Los Encinos.


Four French Basque families - Garnier, Oxarat, Gless, and Amestoy - owned the rancho in turn. The original adobe is on the right. The two-story house on the left was built by the four Garnier brothers to house the rancho's employees, and is said to be a copy of the family home in France.

Although slightly beyond the scope of this entry, but worth noting, is the fact that Eugene Garnier once testified against Michel Leonis in court. Leonis, a brutal and terrifying thug who added to his vast land holdings through harassment and intimidation, burned the Garniers' newly planted wheat field and beat their employees. Eugene stated in court that he was testifying only because he was forced to do so, and later returned to France. His brother Philippe Garnier, bloody but unbowed, went on to build the Garnier Building and lease it to Chinese tenants.


I include this photo as proof that culture and beauty do, in fact, exist in the Valley if you know where to look. The Garnier brothers were legendary for their hospitality - so much so that Pio Pico's brother Andrés used to bring very special guests all the way to Rancho Los Encinos (from what is now downtown) - ON HORSEBACK. For BREAKFAST.

And those very special guests dined in the Garniers' grand salon, which boasted the most striking faux marbre walls in the history of Los Angeles. (I hope someone else takes the time to notice that the plastic food on the table is French in theme - grapes, brie, asparagus, and crusty-looking bread.)

At some point, an incredibly foolish individual elected to plaster over the faux marbre. The adobe was severely damaged in the Northridge earthquake of 1994, but with one silver lining - much of the plaster covering the salon's elaborately painted walls fell off. (Portions of the offending plaster remain. This is a very delicate old house, and that paint is well over 100 years old. Some things are best left well enough alone.)

(All four families merit, and will get, their own entries. Ditto Los Encinos State Historic Park, where the adobe and the ranch hands' quarters are located.)

The Amestoy family - the last French owners of the rancho - held onto much of the land (including these buildings) until 1944. After World War II, Rancho Los Encinos was subdivided into (what else) Encino and (my neck of the woods) Sherman Oaks.

On a personal note, my mother was completely shocked to learn that the Los Encinos adobe was a) still standing, b), continuously French-owned for much of its existence, c) right above Ventura Boulevard (a thoroughfare my family knows pretty well), and d) less than six miles from our old house in Sherman Oaks. She's said that if she had ANY idea, she would have taken me there when I was a child (in addition to Olvera Street, Chinatown, etc.).

Moving further east...


A street in Mission Hills was named for onetime mayor Joseph Mascarel. I suspect he owned land in the area (he owned significant amounts of land in FOUR counties). Today, he is so little-known that whoever made this sign didn't bother to check the spelling.

Heading further east...


Solomon Lazard was both French and Jewish, and was so popular with Angelenos of all ethnicities that he was nicknamed "Don Solomon" and often acted as floor manager for fandangos. He was the first President of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, co-founded the City Water Company (later LADWP) with Prudent Beaudry and Dr. Griffin, founded the City of Paris department store (which he later sold to his cousins, Eugene and Constant Meyer), and was active in the Golden Rule Lodge and the Hebrew Benevolent Society. Today, he's been reduced to a street sign on a cul-de-sac in San Fernando. (There was a different Lazard Street long ago, and Mayor Mascarel lived there until his death. It was renamed Ducommun Street. I'll explain why when I get to Charles Ducommun.)

Heading even further east, we reach our final stop in the furthest reaches of Glendale...


You know who Georges Le Mesnager was. This stone barn was built for his vineyard, located in what is now Deukmejian Wilderness Park. When it was damaged in a fire, his son converted it into a farmhouse - which the family lived in until the 1960s.

The barn has been undergoing a remodel/conversion into an interpretive center.

I knew nothing about any of these places until I began to research LA's forgotten French history - and one of them was just a few miles from my house. Small wonder that most Angelenos have NO idea about Frenchtown.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Deed Restrictions and the Renaming of Frenchtown

Last weekend, I gave a presentation on the French in Southern California at San Diego Mensa's Regional Gathering in Palm Springs (video coming soon - IF I can get the darn thing uploaded).

The first, and most revealing, question in the Q&A concerned why LA's historically French neighborhoods are now associated with other ethnic groups.

The original Frenchtown - bordered by Main Street, 1st Street, Aliso Street, and the LA River - is now largely split between Little Tokyo and the industrial core, with the Civic Center bleeding into the northern end of the neighborhood.

As Frenchtown expanded to the north, it grew to include modern-day Chinatown. Why is Joan of Arc standing outside Chinatown's only hospital? Because it was the French Hospital until 1989, and until the 1930s, it was a French neighborhood. Naud Junction, the Fritz houses, and Philippe the Original (creators of the French Dip sandwich; in that location since 1951) are all in Chinatown for the very simple reason that it wasn't always Chinatown. (LA's original Chinatown was demolished in 1931 to build Union Station - long after the Sainsevain brothers lost their uncle's vineyard).

Pellissier Square is now called Koreatown. Why? Because much of central LA declined after the 1930s, making it an affordable place for Korean immigrants to live and start businesses by the time the Korean War ended.

They weren't the first Koreans in Los Angeles. Historically, Korean Angelenos tended to live in Bunker Hill.

(Incidentally, "Koreatown" is something of a misnomer. HALF of Koreatown residents are Latino, and only about one-third are Asian. Korean Angelenos do, however, account for most of the area's businesses.)

There are still clues to Koreatown's French origins. Normandie Avenue, one of the longest streets in Los Angeles County (stretching 22.5 miles between Hollywood and Harbor City), runs smack down the middle of Koreatown. The Pellissier Building, including the legendary Wiltern Theatre, proudly towers over Wilshire and Western. And if you look at the neighborhood's architecture - sure, it's largely Art Deco, but some of it is also French-influenced.

In the early days, Los Angeles was a fairly tolerant place. It wasn't a utopia by any means (case in point: the Chinese Massacre of 1871), but Los Angeles was more tolerant of non-WASPs than most North American cities.

By the 1920s, a plague began to infest Los Angeles on a grand scale.

Deed restrictions.

Sometimes called restrictive covenants, deed restrictions barred ethnic and/or religious groups from buying homes in particular areas.

Why? Who would do something so hateful?

Let's start by rewinding the clock to the 1850s.

In 1850, California became a state. Legally, Los Angeles should have started opening public schools at this point (due to separation of church and state), but LAUSD wasn't founded until 1853. By this time, there was a growing number of Protestant families - most of them Yankees - in town. The few schools that did exist in the area were all Catholic, and Protestant parents objected - loudly - to the idea of sending their kids to Catholic schools. (Many Catholic schools do accept non-Catholic students, and many non-Catholic parents may prefer them if the local public schools aren't good enough. But things were a little different 164 years ago.)

Fast-forward to the 1880s.

When railroads first connected Southern California to the rest of the United States, newcomers flooded the area. Most were WASPs, and the majority were from the Midwest.

Guess where else deed restrictions were common? That's right - the WASPy Midwest. (No offense to any WASPs or Midwesterners who may read this, but I don't believe in hiding the truth. I sure as hell have never pretended French Californians were perfect.)

Before too long, deed restrictions barred people of color from much of the city. Some even excluded Jews, Russians, and Italians. Homeowners' associations and realtors often worked together to keep restricted neighborhoods homogeneous. (My skin is crawling as I write this.)

Excluded ethnic and religious groups, therefore, tended to live in areas that weren't restricted against them.

French Angelenos, however, were a pretty tolerant bunch.

The first baker in the city to make matzo was Louis Mesmer, who was Catholic. His daughter Tina married a Protestant.

Harris Newmark - German and Jewish - was one of Remi Nadeau's best friends.

Prudent Beaudry's sometime business partner Solomon Lazard - French and Jewish - was so popular among Angelenos of all ethnicities that Spanish speakers called him "Don Solomon".

French Basque Philippe Garnier built a commercial building specifically to lease it to Chinese merchants, who weren't considered human beings by the United States government at the time.

No one batted an eye at the fact that quite a few of LA's earlier Frenchmen (including Louis Bauchet, Joseph Mascarel, and Miguel Leonis) married Spanish, Mexican, or Native American women.

Frenchtown didn't have deed restrictions. (It's true that we don't always get along with everyone, but you won't find many French people willing to do something that asinine.)

The original core of Frenchtown was largely taken over by the civic center and industry when the area was redeveloped in the 1920s (and when the 101 sliced through downtown). But part of it became Little Tokyo. Why? No deed restrictions.

In fact, when Japanese American internment emptied Little Tokyo during World War II, African Americans (many working in the defense industry) poured into the neighborhood, and for a time it was known as "Bronzeville". Again, it was still one of the few areas with no deed restrictions. (On a personal note, the original paperwork for my childhood home in Sherman Oaks - built in 1948 - included a restriction against selling to African Americans. No other ethnicities were excluded. Which should give my dear readers a rough idea of what African American home buyers faced at the time - and renters had even fewer choices. Deed restrictions were legally struck down in California in 1947 and nationwide in 1948, but in Los Angeles, they persisted into the 1950s. Nationwide, it was probably worse.)

LA's original Chinatown was emptied and razed to build Union Station. Where did all the Chinese Angelenos go? The area now known as Chinatown was full of French Angelenos first. Wikipedia incorrectly states that it was originally Little Italy. It's true that Italians did live in the neighborhood, but the French arrived before the first Italians did, and made up a larger percentage of the population. Why did the demographics change? No deed restrictions to keep out Chinese residents - or, for that matter, Italian residents. (Catholics of all origins occasionally clashed with Chinese Angelenos over religious differences, but the French community welcomed newcomers from Italy. Case in point: two of the French Benevolent Society's founding members were Italian. And the French Hospital did accept Chinese patients at a time when most hospitals wouldn't.)

LA's Jewish community was largely based in Boyle Heights for many years. Guess who else lived in Boyle Heights back in the day? There were Anglos, sure, but there were also Basque farmers. In fact, Simon Gless' big Victorian house was used as office space for the Hebrew Shelter Home and Asylum for many years (the last time I checked, it was a boarding house for mariachi musicians). Once again - no deed restrictions. (Why does Los Angeles County have so many Jewish residents? Because Jews have, historically, been more welcome in Los Angeles than in many other places. Los Angeles was a tiny frontier town when the first Jewish residents arrived, and in the Old West - where people had to work together to stay alive - how you treated people mattered more than what house of worship you attended.)

I haven't found anything on whether Pellissier Square ever had deed restrictions or not, but there's a reason Korean Angelenos originally clustered in Bunker Hill. Prudent Beaudry - who developed for everyone - developed Bunker Hill. Like Angelino Heights, Bunker Hill was unrestricted.

How did Frenchtown cease to be called Frenchtown?

Simple. As the city expanded westward, and as many French Angelenos moved west or left the city entirely in search of land for grazing livestock/farming/growing grapes, people who weren't welcome in other areas moved to the historically French - and historically unrestricted - neighborhoods.

If you were in the same situation, wouldn't you?