Boarding Houses and Handball Courts: The Fleeting Story of Los Angeles' French Town
Stroll down any street in Los Angeles, and you see diversity. You hear different languages, whether at a gas station, 7-Eleven, or supermarket; you are submerged in a multicultural environment. Ethnic groups such as Mexicans, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, and Germans all shaped L.A. in some way, but with few traces of their once vast influence remaining, one group is often left out of the equation: the French.
So how did they contribute to the growth of Los Angeles? Was it through art or agriculture? Or religion?
French Basque artist Paul De Longpre immigrated to Hollywood in 1899, and became a famous artist by portraying different types of flowers on canvas. Jean-Louis Vignes, who came to L.A. in 1832, bought 104 acres of land between the Pueblo and L.A. River for residence and wine production, becaming the first ever commercial winemaker in the state. And we must not forget their accomplishments in religion and institutions, like Jean Auguste Bachelot, the first French Father of the Picpus Order of La Igelesia de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles in 1831, or Jacob Morenchaut, who created the Consulat General de France a Los Angeles on Oct. 29, 1859. These men were just a few out of a whole community of French Basques that made Los Angeles their home.
The French Basque community came from the western end of the Pyrenees on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, straddling parts of north-central Spain and southwestern France. The 3 million inhabitants (2.5 million in Spain and 0.5 million in France) identified themselves as "Euskaldun" and spoke the local language known as "Euskaldinak." As a community, they were rural and family oriented, enjoying farming, raising crops (corn, wheat, vegetables) and livestock (chicken, pigs, and sheep). Twenty percent of the Basque population engaged in agriculture -- it was their enterprise for livelihood. As a rite of passage, the farm would be passed down from generation to generation when a member of the family became married.
Religion was also very important to the Basque. Almost all were Roman Catholic; an unusually high percentage became priests, like Jean Auguste Bachelot, St. Francis Xavier, and Ignacius Loyola (founder of the Jesuit Order). Many were renowned seafarers who were recruited by Columbus for his exploration, comprising the largest ethnic group on board, as well as securing administrative posts in Spanish California.
It wasn't until the Gold Rush of 1848 when the first wave of French Basques began to arrive to California. Many had already migrated earlier to the Spanish colonies in South America and travelled to Argentina, where they developed their skills in ranching, raising sheep, and herding. When the Gold Rush was in full swing, several hundred of the Basques sailed around South America to San Francisco. But due to their lack of success in mining, many left the gold fields for the range lands in Southern California, before settling in what is now Downtown Los Angeles.
Soon Los Angeles was home to a distinct Basque district. Boarding houses, a cluster of which were located around the intersection of Alameda and Aliso Streets, served as commercial residences and home to social organizations. These "Basque Hotels," as they were later called, provided a home for travelling Basque from other states and became a place to share their cultural histories.
The Pyrenees Hotel was the largest of the boarding houses, with room for up to 1,000 guests. But the most notable quality was in its infrastructure -- the ability to house the largest handball courts in town. Handball was a big deal within the Basque community. It was developed from the French "jeu de paume," meaning hand games, and was later modernized by Basque Americans with basket-like extensions known as "Jai Alai." At the Pyrenees Hotel, handball was so popular that they held weekly competitions, attracting Basque people from all over the U.S. to compete and show their support.
By the turn of the century the Basque population was rapidly increasing, and the spoken language was predominantly French. With an increasing French presence and the growth of a strong community, the area (east and southeast of the Plaza) became known as "French Town." However, as the population increased (to around 5,000), overcrowding persisted and the Basque began to spread their wings into other areas around Los Angeles, such as Chino, Santa Monica, and Orange County. Some moved out of state to Nevada, Oregon, and southern Idaho, where they found a booming economy and increased demand for sheep which they could graze, though not without facing prejudice from local ranchers. When the National Forest system was created and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 placed the public area for ranching under federal control, the livelihood of many Basque Americans came under threat. Construction of Union Station on Alameda Street was the final nail in the coffin, as many of the buildings that once housed hundreds of itinerant Basques were demolished to make way for the new transit hub.
French Town may be no longer, but French Basque culture in Los Angeles still remains today, represented through celebrations, cuisine, festivals, and club organizations that preserve the communal traditions and activities. The Basque Village at the L.A. County Fair recreates a village where patrons in the Inland Empire can get a glimpse into the Basque way of life. The Basque Club in Chino brings together people of older generations to reminisce about the music, folk tales, and family life, and of course handball. The Annual Basque Festival & Picnic in Los Banos presents bands, traditional dance, and plenty of news media coverage from Basque outlets such as Deia, EiTB.com, and Le Journal du Pays Basque. Basque people are known for their cuisine, especially seafood, like crayfish, codfish, mussels and bouillabaisse. The La Villa Basque, established in Vernon in 1960, and Taix restaurant in Echo Park (originally established near French Town in 1927) are some of the restaurants that serve Basque cuisine in Southern California today.
Top: Looking east on Aliso Street from Alameda Street. A "French Bakery" can be seen. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Cedric Drake is currently attending Loyola Marymount University. He is of French Creole descent.