Thursday, January 3, 2008

French Immigrants in L.A.

French immigrants were more instrumental in the making of Los Angeles than their overwhelming reputation for béret, baguette, stinky cheeses, and serial surrendering would lead to believe.
"Surprising to Angelenos may be that the notoriously xenophobic French would leave their homeland in the first place," coins LACitybeat. Yet, they did. Official records of French immigration to Southern California disappeared in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but historian Hélène Demesteere tracked the immigrants down, and dug through the archives.
What Demesteere found is a rich collection of personal stories that started in 1829 with winemaker Jean-Louis Vignes, who established the first commercial vineyards in California and perhaps the U.S. on what is now the San Antonio Winery. He was soon followed by farmers and ranchers, engineers and manufacturers, entrepreneurs and small business owners, bankers and investors, civic leaders, art ambassadors and Hollywood trailblazers -- to make up today's community of 40,000. Los Angeles even had its own French Quarter on Aliso Street, but in true L.A. fashion, the community has sprawled throughout the region since.
Demesteere's work is documented in the photo exhibit "Pioneers and Entrepreneurs, French Immigrants in the Making of Los Angeles 1827-1927," currently at Pico House, in the historic pueblo of L.A. Though rich in content -- and fascinating to a frog -- the show is poorly curated. Its "evanescent" curving board and plastic installation is supposed to "encourage viewers to ponder their own journey," but it mainly does the photos, stories and "journey" a disservice. Unfortunately, there is no catalog for sale, no website, no readily available material that Demesteere's work truly deserves. How so very French: great idea, poor marketing. A little more history here. Reviews in LA Downtown News and LATimes.
Photos of the exhibit LA Frog: 1. Film director and actor Léon Bary (left) on the set of The Iron Mask, 1929 - 2. Every Bastille Day, the French of L.A. would choose their favorite countryman to lead the Grand Marshall parade; San Pedro rancher Edouard Amar lead the centennial celebration in 1889 - 3. Aviatrix Andrée Peyre worked as an actress for United Artists and performed stunts for various films - 4. Detail of installation.