Saturday, January 27, 2018

Rebirth of a Lost Frenchtown Landmark, Part 2

One hundred fifty years after his suicide, it seems that Los Angeles just might end up remembering Mayor Damien Marchesseault after all.

Recently, I reported that long-lost Marchesseault Street would be making a return of sorts. Elizabeth Carvajal, who is managing the project for LA Metro, kindly answered some questions:

FC: First, I'll need to introduce you properly. Can you tell me a little bit about your role at Metro and how you came to be involved with this project?

Carvajal: My name is Elizabeth Carvajal; I am a Senior Manager with Metro's Transit Oriented Communities group. I manage a robust work program that includes short to long term projects at and around Los Angeles Union Station. I am the Project Manager for the Los Angeles Union Station Forecourt and Esplanade Improvements Project.

FC: I've covered the fact that Marchessault Street has not existed in its original form for some time; however, I've had a very hard time creating an accurate timeline. From the city model at NHMLA, I know it was renamed before 1935. Do you have any idea when the street was altered/renamed?

Carvajal: Unfortunately, I do not. According to the 1888 Sanborn maps, several residential and commercial buildings were in place on the west side of Alameda Street, including the Pironi and Slatri Wine and Brandy Vaults and Distillery on the north side of the project area, the Los Angeles City Water Co. to the north of Marchessault Street, and various Chinese commercial buildings south of Marchessault Street. It appears to have still been in place in 1894. According to our research, by 1950, Marchessault was now East Sunset Boulevard.

FC: Despite being elected six times, Damien Marchessault has been so thoroughly erased from LA history that he does not appear on the official list of former mayors, no surviving pictures of him have ever been found*, and the memorial plaque outside the Biscailuz building is factually inaccurate. Countless former streets in this part of LA have been paved over and forgotten over the past 236 years. How did the upcoming demarcation of Marchessault Street come to be part of the project?

Carvajal: The design concept was developed prior to my joining Metro. I imagine that it was identified conceptually because of its former proximity in the project site. This concept will be discussed further during the upcoming design process.

FC: Will there be anything (e.g. signage, a plaque) to indicate what the contrasting pavers signify? If so, will there be any mention of the Los Angeles City Water Company (DWP predecessor) or the numerous Old Chinatown businesses that once lined Marchessault Street?

Carvajal: The demarcation of Marchessault Street will be evaluated further during the design process as well as any complementary plaques etc. At this time, we are not calling out the LA City Water Company or any specific businesses.

FC: Assuming all goes well, is there an estimated time frame for completion of the project?

Carvajal: If the Board certifies the Final EIR in February, we anticipate that construction would start and end in 2020.

Merci, Elizabeth. (And a beret-tip to Munson Kwok of the Chinese American Museum for putting me in touch with her.)

*I sent these questions in early December, prior to discovering that there is, in fact, a surviving picture of the Mayor.

Monday, January 22, 2018

BREAKING NEWS: There IS a Surviving Picture of Damien Marchesseault!

For years and years, Los Angeles historians have searched in vain for even ONE surviving picture of Damien Marchesseault. The book If City Hall's Walls Could Talk concurred that no pictures of Mayor Marchesseault were known to exist.

Apparently, one did survive, coming up for sale in Italy a little over three years ago.

I wish I'd seen that auction - I would have done anything to make the winning bid myself.

I've contacted the seller to ask where this treasure turned up. In the meantime, here he is:

HUGE tip of the beret to blog reader Jérôme Payelle for this incredible breakthrough. Merci beaucoup!

Edited to add: The picture made its way home to LA. (Thanks again, Jérôme!)

For once, I have no commentary to add. I feel like I'm going to faint.

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 in the face.

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 my shame

I must 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 finally end this nightmare

There can only be one way

Oh, I don't want to leave her

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 - who just so happens to be an urban planner - 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.

Merci, 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!