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A Little France in West Harlem, anyone?

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Most New Yorkers have heard of Little Italy and Chinatown. Maybe a few Gothamites have even heard of Klein Deutschland ("Little Germany") and various 19th-century enclaves of African-Americans that were ascribed Little Africa. But Little France?

The French have long been well-dispersed throughout New York City's historical fabric, yet have rarely been associated with a pinpoint on the map. Not that no one thought of the idea.

Louis-Napoleonic urban plan

In 1871, when much of upper Manhattan was still wooded and rural, the notion of a French colony surfaced as enticingly as an ile flottante confection. It might have been half-baked, or even wholly apocryphal, but it was nonetheless food for thought.

Having got whiff of the supposed scheme, the New York Times reported the giddy rumor on August 10th that year "that just before the breaking out of the [Franco-Prussian] war the Emperor [Napoléon III, or Louis-Napoléon] was negotiating for the purchase of the land at Manhattanville comprised in the old Jumel estate."

The estate in question was of course the present Morris-Jumel Mansion, home of French merchant Stephen Jumel's American widow Eliza, who had once moved notably in napoleonic circles here and in France. Manhattanville was the present West Harlem neighborhood about two miles south of the mansion, still a distinct town in this period whose boundaries splashed liberally in surrounding directions. It was also the vicinity of the Academy of the Sacred Heart--later Manhattanville College--that had been established by the same French order as the Sacré Coeur in Paris.

Extraordinary gardens proposed

The Emperor's ambition, it was said, was "to lay out this property in hundreds of beautiful gardens, with correspondingly beautiful cottages attached, and to stock them with numbers of delightful French people." The Times added its speculation that the Emperor might have been planning "a miniature empire on our island" in preparation of his imminent dethroning.

The paper expressed some wistfulness over the idea, which obviously came to nothing. But it pictured "this blessed Arcadia" as perhaps finding in Manhattanville a particularly "eligible site." The same monarch had commissioned the Haussmann Plan, which laid out Paris in the scheme that is so familiar to us today. So the mind does reel at the unrealized possibilities.

New York's French citizens

One might suppose that New York’s French residents would have been fairly game at the idea. The Cercle Français de l’Harmonie, or French Fellowship Society, was already planning a formal expression of gratitude for the city’s acts of fraternity during the recent conflict. Their idea resulted in the statue in Union Square designed by Bartholdi--who gave us the Statue of Liberty--of the Marquis de Lafayette, namesake of the now-vanished Boulevard Lafayette in upper Manhattan.

Perhaps the porch of the Morris-Jumel Mansion is as fine a place as any today to muse over this unfulfilled idea of a Little France in West Harlem.

Source: New York Times, "An Unfulfilled Napoleonic Idea," August 10, 1871.

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