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.)

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