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Left Coast Creole

Once L.A. supported a thriving hub of New Orleans immigrants. But times have changed. The traditions and culture exist now only in scattered pockets as younger people abandon the old ways.

April 26, 1996|ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roland Davidson vividly remembers the day in 1956 when he tooled into town after a four-day drive from New Orleans and found his Louisiana Creole culture waiting for him in South-Central Los Angeles.

He heard the familiar dropped Rs of New Orleans' 7th Ward along East 61st Street. And a short drive away, on a strip of Jefferson Avenue between Arlington and Crenshaw Boulevard, he found restaurants that served authentic crab etouffee and gumbo Creole-style, barbershops where news from New Orleans was discussed as if the patrons had never left there, and shops where a working man could buy a fried fish or shrimp Po' boy on a crispy French roll.

"Everybody we hung around with was from New Orleans . . . [including] people who I went to school with in New Orleans," Davidson recently recalled. "It was just like we all moved up here and got together again."

Forty years later, Davidson can't say the same.

Gone are many of the markets, barbershops and social halls that lined Jefferson Avenue during the 1940s and 1950s and catered to newly arrived Creoles.

Like other ethnic groups, many Creoles have abandoned their old neighborhoods for the suburbs. The Catholic churches around which Creole enclaves sprang up, once nearly all-Creole are now heavily Latino. The physical dispersion is accompanied by apathy among many younger Creoles toward a culture some consider outdated.

Davidson, a retired aerospace worker who still lives in South Los Angeles and a student of New Orleans Creole history for 20 years, says such demographic changes and even the ambivalent attitudes of the young were inevitable, given the different social circumstances that faced Creoles once they left their insular neighborhoods in New Orleans.

Arthe Anthony, an American studies professor at Occidental College who has studied Creoles in Los Angeles, agrees, likening the phenomenon to what eventually happens to most immigrant communities in the United States.

"You can maintain some of the features of the culture, but it changes significantly over time," said Anthony, a Creole who came west from New Orleans as a child.

The culture's standard-bearers--perhaps the last in Los Angeles--are natives of Louisiana who practice Creole traditions through social clubs, church activities and campaigns to promote a way of life that is older than the United States.

*

Inside St. John of Evangelist Catholic Church, the day before St. Patrick's Day, Helen Bordenave, 52, stood watching six men march in a solemn procession out of the sanctuary, gingerly carrying a 3-foot statue of St. Joseph.

Followed by about 60 mostly Creole congregants who had just celebrated a morning Mass, they headed across Victoria Street, off Crenshaw Boulevard near 60th to the parish hall. There, the statue, inside an open-faced box, was placed on an altar already spilling over with red carnations and white Easter lilies, loaves of French bread, wine and ornately decorated fruit baskets.

After Father Melvin James blessed the altar, the bread was cut so that everyone had a piece to eat for good fortune.

Then a day of feasting began, at the end of which as many as 300 people would have been served free breakfast, a spaghetti lunch and a traditional New Orleans dinner of red beans and rice with spicy sausage.

Throughout, celebrants socialized, occasionally breaking into a joyously secular "second-line," with dancers twirling brightly colored, tasseled satin umbrellas and waving handkerchiefs like celebrants at Mardi Gras.

But this was a celebration of St. Joseph's Day. The rites were imported from New Orleans, where Creoles from the tightknit 6th and 7th wards, borrowed the ritual from nearby Italian immigrants and added their own elements.

The St. Joseph's Day rites at St. John's are sponsored annually by the Jefferson Council, one of several Creole social clubs in Los Angeles. In one of its main activities, the council raffles off the wine and fruit baskets from the altar to raise scholarship money to send youngsters to Catholic schools.

The Catholic Church, along with the social clubs and annual Creole festivals in Los Angeles and in Acton in the Antelope Valley, are the glue that holds together widely dispersed Southern California Creoles.

The annual festival in Acton, put on every summer by the Socialites, another social club, drew 4,500 people last year.

Bordenave, an officer in the Jefferson Council, said the explicit purpose of most of the clubs is to "carry on our culture from New Orleans and to give it to our kids born in L.A."

In her family, she has begun a tradition of making the fancy umbrellas used by second-liners and passing them down to the children in her family, with the expectation that they will pass them on to their children.

She knows, however, that not many young people are involved in social clubs and that most members tend to be over 60.

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