Saturday, May 12, 2018

How I Fell Down The Rabbit Hole to Frenchtown

Whenever I'm asked about my blog, one question always pops up: how did I start on this journey?

In the spring of 2013, I was doing two things at once. My mom knew very little about her late father's family, apart from the fact that they were mostly farmers and of French extraction. When she started doing genealogical research, I helped her put her giant redwood of a family tree together.

At the same time, we were clearing out Grandma's house in the Valley to put it on the market.

In the back of Grandma's Danish modern buffet cabinet, I found a very old, deeply yellowed menu from a Chinese restaurant. I couldn't tell how old it was, but based on the condition and font style, I'm guessing it was at least 60 years old (I've spent my entire life around vintage and antique items and can guess the era correctly most of the time).

Later that day, I pulled up Google Maps and entered the restaurant's address (listed on the front of the menu) to see if it still existed. It was long gone - if the building were still there, it would be on Castelar Elementary School's campus.

I zoomed in for a closer look and spotted something strange. Something that made no sense at all.

"Public Art - 'Jeanne d'Arc'".

I clicked on it.

Joan of Arc was standing smack in the middle of Chinatown, outside of a hospital building.

What the hell?!

So I started Googling. I found out pretty quickly that the Pacific Alliance Medical Center was previously the French Hospital.

What the hell?! Since when did LA have a French Hospital?

Since the cornerstone was laid in 1869, as it turned out. That hospital celebrated its 100th anniversary when my mom was in high school. But she never knew it existed until I told her about it. Mom grew up miles away in Santa Monica/Mar Vista, and my grandparents definitely weren't socially active in what little remained of LA's French community.

Every answer led to more questions. Jean-Louis Vignes, the Sainsevains, the Nadeaus, the Mesmers, the Pellissiers...and more. So many more. And one question loomed over all the rest: why was this sizable, once-thriving community missing from LA's narrative?

Five years later, I keep running lists of people I want to profile on this blog. I keep lists of forgotten French families in greater LA whose lives are, as of now, still a complete mystery to me. I keep lists of places where I need to do serious research when I can get some time off. I've plotted well over 400 sites associated with Southern California's forgotten French on a Google Map (and I'm nowhere near done).

I'm still finding out how deep the rabbit hole goes. And now you know: it began five years ago with a yellowed, crumbling menu from a long-forgotten Chinese restaurant. (In an interesting turn of events, some of this blog's biggest supporters are members of the Chinatown community.)

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