When one thinks of L.A.’s Chinatown, many images come to mind. The vibrant Central Plaza strung with lanterns, the beautiful Thien Hau Temple, the small, family-owned stalls filled with Eastern medicines and … a statue of Joan of Arc? There she stands, bronze and oxidizing in the sun, in front of the Pacific Alliance Medical Center, at the corner of West College Street and North Hill Street. A couple of blocks away, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and the Chinatown Heritage and Visitors Center are housed in neighboring small Victorians on Bernard Street. But a quick read of the historical marker in front of the buildings reveals they were originally the homes of a native of Alsace, France, named Philip Fritz. So what gives?
The answer is simple. Before Chinatown was Chinatown, it was Frenchtown. And during the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, the French colony of Los Angeles was one of the most influential and robust communities in Southern California.
In 1832, Jean-Louis Vignes, originally from Bordeaux, immigrated to the small, dusty Mexican pueblo of Los Angeles. He bought 104 acres of land, stretching from the edge of the original pueblo to the L.A. River (roughly between Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and the 110 Freeway) and proceeded to grow cabernet sauvignon grapes from the vines he had brought with him from home. He also planted L.A.’s first orange grove. His winery, El Aliso Winery, named for the grand sycamore trees on his property, eventually became the largest in the region, and produced the first bottle of California “Champagne.” News of Vignes’ success trickled back to friends in France and the French colonies, and soon his family home (where City Hall is now located) was the center of the burgeoning French expat community.
French immigration, particularly from the impoverished Basque region, exploded during the 1850s and ’60s, making the French the fastest-growing immigrant population in L.A. at the time. Many of these new French Angelenos settled east and southeast of the old pueblo Plaza. They became winemakers, walnut farmers, sheepherders, bankers, grocers and clothiers. They supplied the city with ice and salt, opened bakeries and helped build L.A.’s first residential water system. They counted among their ranks two early L.A. mayors, Damien Marchesseault (1859-60) and Prudent Beaudry (1874-76) and supplied the city with its first professional artist, painter-photographer Henri Penelon.
By 1860, French was the second most-spoken language in Los Angeles. The French were a proactive, tight-knit community. Los Angeles was still a dangerous, violent Wild West town, and they brought in a unit of the French Foreign Legion to protect them. The community also banded together to form a benevolent society, called the Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles. Members paid $1 a month for access to the group’s lone doctor, who charged only 50 cents a visit and worked in an office on Hill Street.
In 1869, the group began construction of the French Hospital (now the Pacific Alliance Medical Center) at the corner of Hill and College streets. This hospital, the first private, nonsectarian hospital established in Los Angeles, would become the heart and soul of the French community for decades to come. The society would eventually own plots in Evergreen Cemetery, where many society members rest eternally to this day.
The French quarter soon became a popular place for all Angelenos to eat, drink and be merry. Numerous French-owned hotels and boarding houses clustered around the intersection of Alameda and Aliso Streets. At the large Pyrenees Hotel, Angelenos of all ethnicities played rebote (handball) on the side of the building. Fashionable women shopped at Madame Fusenot’s Ville de Paris, one of the finest suppliers of clothing and accessories in the city. The best bread could be found at the Franco-American Baking Company, for a time the area’s largest bakery. At bars in lodgings like Charles Faure’s Hotel de Alpes, city officials and visiting merchants imbibed great quantities of wine, for which owners were charged extraordinarily high taxes.
And, of course, there were the restaurants. Initially, these adobe-style eateries served hearty French country fare like onion soup and cassoulet. But in the 1870s, the food became more sophisticated and gourmet. There was the Oriental Café, considered the “most European” restaurant in town. Across the street, at the famed Pico House, the hotel restaurant was run by a chef named “French Charlie.” At the Commercial Restaurant, haute cuisine was introduced to L.A. by Victor Dol, a chef who had trained in Paris. “The first oasis in this self-made desert of atrocious food was the Commercial Restaurant,” the Los Angeles Times intoned in 1912. “To a town used to dirt floors and barefoot cooks, the Commercial, reached through an inner court with a fountain in the center, seemed almost unbelievable.”
In 1882, Marius Taix opened the Taix French Bread Bakery, and would later build the Hotel du Champ d’Or in its place on Commercial Street. Years later, his son, Marius Jr., opened the famed Taix Restaurant in the hotel (it moved to its present home in Echo Park in 1964).
Every year on July 14, French colonists from all over Southern California flooded the French quarter to celebrate Bastille Day, the French Republic’s Independence Day. “At 10 a.m., a procession marched from Aliso Street, down Los Angeles to First, to Main, to [the] Plaza, thence countermarching to the hall of the Creole Francaise, where interesting exercises were held,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1885. “About 8 p.m. there was a pleasing display of fireworks from the balcony of the hall (the old Merced Theater) and an immense crowd packed Main Street to watch the whizzing rockets and sputtering Roman candles.” In 1892, the Times reported on the celebration, which stretched from an afternoon parade to evening entertainments at Hazard’s Pavilion:
Mlle. Eugenia Sormano sang “La Marseilles,” the chorus being joined by a large portion of the audience. At 7 o’clock the display of fireworks in the vacant lot opposite the Arcade depot took place. Among the beautiful pieces were the motto “Vive la Republique!” in the fire colors, red, white and blue. … The fireworks over, the crowd streamed back to the Pavilion and the grand ball commenced. The floor was thronged with dancers, and the merriment continued far into the night until another day had marked its pathway far beyond the hour of midnight.
Like many immigrant communities, the French colony seems to have gone to great lengths to reassure its sensitive American neighbors of its loyalty to the USA, especially during Bastille Day celebrations. The mayor of Los Angeles was always invited to Bastille Day functions (and expected to attend), and numerous speeches were given extolling the “special relationship” between the French and American republics, which stretched back to the days of Lafayette. At the “tightly packed” 1904 celebration in Turner Hall, this sentiment was expressed in one of the human “tableaux” so popular at the time:
The stage and front hall of the auditorium were a gay mass of the red, white and blue of the two nations — the Tricolor and Stars and Stripes. On the right hand front of the stage sat a handsome demoiselle clothed to represent America, her hand resting on the staff of a splendid national banner: and on the opposite side sat an equally statuesque young lady portraying France, with the French standard in her hand. High at the peak of the pyramid of brilliantly garbed young humanity, in the center of the stage, sat the Goddess of Liberty in all her splendor, and down from her feet sloped the flag-waving tots, to the line of girls below impersonating the provinces of France. Greenery and bamboo stalks used in profusion, helped to frame the striking picture.
As in any tight-knit community, there was also a good deal of drama to occupy the colony’s gossips. In 1898, J.P. Goytino, editor of the French paper Eskual Herria, was selected to head the committee in charge of Bastille Day celebrations. This infuriated many in the community, including the pugnacious Pierre Ganee, editor of the rival French paper L’Union Nouvelle, and one of the most vocal members of the colony. He wrote in disgust:
In Los Angeles the last celebration of the 14th was organized without the participation of the ancient residents. We would have nothing to say of the committee if they had chosen for president of the celebration an honest man, even as common as can be — all the people would have followed. But they took an individual who acknowledged himself, by writing, to be the author of a forgery for $3,824. To choose such a man to talk in the name of France was the climax of aberration or absence of moral sense, so that it settled the celebration.
Goytino was furious at this public besmirching of his character. In 1887, he had been accused of forging the signature of his kinsman Miguel Leonis, the Basque “King of Calabasas.” Leonis’ sudden death had saved him from prosecution, but his legions of enemies, including Ganee, had long memories. Goytino sued Ganee for criminal libel, and the subsequent trial riveted the French colony. A long parade of French elites testified against Goytino, leading him to accuse them of being Spanish sympathizers and — gasp — German nationals in French clothing! At the end of the trial, Justice Morrison, the presiding judge, apparently exhausted by the infighting, delivered a little lecture to the French editors, saying that the personal quarrels they were airing in their journals were bringing disgrace upon the French colony and making trouble and expense for the courts. He advised them to bury their grievances and cease fighting through the papers.
Ganee proudly paid a $15 fine, and the two men went on their opinionated way.
Even the beloved French Hospital, which had grown in both size and prestige over the decades, was not immune to serious spats. In 1908, pioneering French businessman Louis Sentous Sr., president of the hospital’s governing body, the Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance Mutuelle de Los Angeles, received a “Black Heart” Valentine on Valentine’s Day. It read:
Curses upon you. May your friends laugh at you and turn against you. May you have many serious quarrels with near relatives. May disease rest heavily on you and yours, and may you grow meaner and more like the viper in your heart until you land in hell.
Sentous immediately accused Mrs. Peter Clos, the hospital’s fiery head matron, of sending the offending letter. Clos, a recent immigrant to America, adamantly denied that she had sent it. “I told him I am an honorable woman. Just as honorable as his wife,” Clos told the L.A. Times. “He told me not to dare say the name of his wife. I told him the name of Clos is just as good as the name of Sentous — if not so rich.” Sentous fired Clos on the spot for this affront. This action ignited a firestorm in the neighborhood, creating the “fiercest scandal ever known in the French colony.” Clos threatened to get Sentous ousted from his position. It was not to be, and Sentous was re-elected president less than a month later. The identity of the Valentine’s author remains an unsolved mystery.
Despite the dramas, the colony, which at its height at the turn of the century boasted around 5,000 or so members, was a remarkably charitable and giving group. New arrivals of French descent were freely given assistance — be it lodging or jobs or both. Money was frequently sent to France and its colonies during times of crisis. Cultural groups like the Alliance Francaise and the Cercle Coquelin Dramatic Club organized lectures, musical entertainments and plays that all Angelenos were invited to enjoy.
“I have been surprised to find so many of my countrymen here,” Parisian M. Robert Dupeny of the Chamber of Deputies told the Times during a visit in 1905. “I think my countrymen here have been doing good to your people in California. Here, more than anywhere else in the United States, you have begun to learn to take your pleasures gaily. When these people go out for a good time, they laugh and they talk and amuse themselves. So many of English-speaking peoples take their pleasures, well, like so many funerals. Of course, it is not so bad in America as in England — there a holiday is the saddest event that could happen.”
However, by the time of Dupeny’s visit, the concentrated downtown hub of the French colony was already slowly dispersing all over Los Angeles. More and more French families moved to the suburbs and new neighborhoods springing up all over L.A., Orange and Riverside counties. The commercial life of the neighborhood was further decimated by the advent of Prohibition and the fast pace of modern American life. In 1919, an owner of a nearby Italian restaurant lamented: “Our patrons were people who liked French and Italian dinners. It takes a long while to serve such meals, and people want something to do between courses, so such a service calls for light wines and beers to fill in. If these cannot be had, the public wants to eat quickly and be done with it, so most of our patrons have taken to the chop houses and cafeterias.”
The construction of Union Station in the 1930s, which tragically destroyed the city’s original Chinatown, also led to the destruction of many of the French boarding houses and hotels centered around Alameda and Aliso streets. Many Chinese-Americans moved into the old French quarter, and the area was soon the new Chinatown we know and love today. In the 1980s, the French Hospital was bought by a group of investors and renamed the Pacific Alliance Medical Center. But the Joan of Arc statue still stands, a reminder of the thousands of French-Americans who once called this neighborhood home.