Friday, June 17, 2016

Where Was Frenchtown? Mapping a Lost Community

In the fall of 2014, I bought an old, well-worn copy of The French in Southern California History and the Southland Today, published in 1932. The book lists no author, but credits Fernand Loyer and Charles Beaudreau (assisted by Catherine Beaudreau) as editors, publishers, and holders of the book's copyright. (A French-language version was also published, but 1. I have never been able to find a copy, and 2. my French is rather limited. So, I only have the English edition.)

I have a tendency to think spatially. So, as I read, I wanted to keep track of who did what and where. I decided to create a Google map documenting the French community - where they lived, where they worked, where important events took place, where they socialized, and even where they are buried.

I have been adding to this map for eighteen months and am nowhere near ready to reveal it to the public (I have SO much more research to do). The focus is on Los Angeles proper, but California's Frenchmen didn't always stay put in LA (farming, ranching, and making wine - three of the more common professions in the community - all require land, which tends to mean moving out of the city). So, while the bulk of the pins are in Los Angeles proper, the map extends from Santa Barbara in the northwest to Ramona in the southeast.

As of this writing, I have 345 different sites mapped. No, that's not a typo.

I began with the one thing I knew I could find: the French Hospital, which still exists under a different name. (Don't worry, the hospital will get its own entry. It's had quite a history.)

Mapping sites in Old Los Angeles is quite a bit harder than it seems. Houses have been re-numbered, streets have been renamed, and some streets have ceased to exist. (Note to self: go to Central Library and see if the maps librarian can help me find Date Street, New High Street, and Requena/Market Street. And, for that matter, help me figure out why Bauchet Street is so strange.) To make matters worse, the aforementioned book rarely gives a specific address, often describing something as close to an intersection or a landmark. I realize that the oldest parts of the city have seen considerable redevelopment, and that in the earliest days, house numbering may not even have been required. But it can still be a bit of a headache.

In some cases, I have had to look at the existing street grid, compare it to old photos, determine the most likely path of a former street or most likely location of something that is not there anymore (in the case of the Long Wharf and Venice Pier, this meant studying the shoreline as well), and make an educated guess. I dislike having to guess at all, but in a city whose 235 years of history have been eradicated by natural disaster, fire, politics, development and redevelopment, etc. over and over again, this is the best I can do.

Thankfully, not too far into the book, its authors give a rough boundary for Frenchtown: Main Street, 1st Street, Aliso Street, and the Los Angeles river. Not surprisingly, this abuts Jean-Louis Vignes' El Aliso vineyard, and is still pretty close to Bauchet Street. (At the time of the book's publication, much of Aliso and Commercial Streets were, incredibly, still French-owned.)

About fifty markers fall within this area (so far; there will probably be more). More are scattered throughout downtown Los Angeles, with the highest concentration around the original plaza.

I hasten to add that the book is not my only source for locations. Old city directories, newspaper ads and articles, a few other books, old maps, and census records (thank you, have proven very helpful.

When I was mapping the "original Frenchtown" area, I had to put an extra point at the intersection of 1st and Central, due to the street's unusual obtuse angle. Then I realized I had seen - and for that matter walked - the same angle the previous weekend. I had gone to see the Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, which now stands at that corner.

Most of the sites associated with the French community in Los Angeles proper, at least in the 19th century, fall within the modern-day neighborhoods of Little Tokyo, Chinatown, the Historic Core, the Plaza, and the Civic Center.

In previous entries, I have noted what now stands where something or someone French used to be, and I will do so whenever possible. I believe it is important to do this in order to provide context for modern-day readers - especially if they are not very familiar with long-ago Los Angeles (and in 2016, hardly anyone is).

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