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Little Africa in Paris is a continent within a city

Sunday, October 27, 2002

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

PARIS - As a child, I dreamed of Paris.

I wanted to sip coffee and smoke cigarettes in the little shops that James Baldwin had frequented.

I wanted to visit the jazz alleys and the smoky cafes in which Langston Hughes had toiled as a young poet.

I wanted to shake my booty where Josephine Baker did her banana dance and became the toast of the City of Light.

Surely, if these black Americans had found a respite from American racism in Paris, then I could do the same.

I dreamed.

As a man, I went to Africa: Ghana, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and South Africa.

The sun-splashed villages, the painful lessons of the slave forts, the pilgrimage of spirit.

Paris would have to wait.

Africa had stirred my consciousness, and whenever time and money allowed, I knew I'd make my way to the motherland, sup on her riches and breathe in her magnificence. There was no place else I wanted to go.

But -- Paris didn't wait. In July, I had the opportunity to travel to Barcelona, Spain, and before departing Europe, I decided to give Paris a whirl.

What I found there was the best of both worlds.

I took a daylong walking tour of black Paris, visiting sites and connecting to the African-American jazzmen, writers and artists who had come before me.

The highlight of the tour was a stop in Goutte-d'Or, a community also known as Little Africa.

It's a mystery why this hilly, crowded community in Paris' 18th arrondissement (or district) is called Goutte-d'Or, or shower of gold.

But the name Little Africa is more than appropriate.

When the neighborhood swept into view, I saw Accra, Dakar and Abidjan.

I saw the whole of Africa, as little slices of the continent thrive here.

Not knowing where to turn first, I stop in the middle of Marche Dejean, a sumptuous, exotic open-air market that is a blast of colors, sounds and people.

I sniff the spices of African life: Gumbo, dried fish and plaintains. Peppers, pineapples and mangoes.

A ginger soda from the Haiti market is a savory late afternoon pick-me-up.

The women of Goutte-d'Or walk the narrow streets dressed in traditional boubous, the brightly patterned dress of their homeland. Many carry their babies in sacks tied around their backs.

Street merchants sell their goods from the sidewalk or from cars. Many African artists call this neighborhood home; African bookshops lure; and there's no shortage of African art shops. The community moves to its own rhythm.

There are Ghananian perfume stores, Muslim butchers, Arab bakers and dozens of shops hawking artificial hair and other products.

Afternoon worship concludes at a community mosque and reveals its rainbow of tolerance and mix of ethnicities.

But all is not paradise.

    If you go ... Black Paris Tours

Ricki Stevenson's tour costs 80 euros (about $80). Lunch is on your own, but Stevenson uses the time to become more familiar with her clients.

It is best to contact her a month in advance to arrange a tour. We contacted Stevenson via e-mail before we left the country and phoned to confirm the evening we arrived in Paris. She gives detailed notes on how to rendezvous with her at the tour shop, a very public space.

For more information on Black Paris Tours, visit http://www.tomtmusic
or e-mail Rickis@club-internet.fr. From the United States, call 011-331-46-37-03-96; in Paris, call 01-46-37-03-96 or (cell phone) 06-62-68-03-96.

-- Ervin Dyer


A police van is parked nearby. It is a mobile station that rounds up les sans papiers, or people without papers, illegal immigrants. There is a growing number of them, said our guide, and Africans are often stopped and questioned. Those without proper credentials are jailed and sent home.

After all, this is the same neighborhood about five years ago where the French police forced a group of immigrants without permits out of St. Bernard Church, claiming their papers were out of order.

I get to Little Africa under the direction of Ricki Stevenson, owner of Black Paris Tours.

A lively, glowing woman, Stevenson meets her small tour group near L'Arc de Triomphe in a nearby tourist center. She is 40 minutes late. She explains her delay by saying she's on FTP, French People's Time, a schedule that allows for late subways and casual stops to chat and shop before arriving at a destination.

She is dressed in black and gives each participant a kiss on each cheek. C'est chic.

Stevenson came to Paris is 1994, pulling up roots in Oakland, Calif., to start over.

She created her tours two weeks after her arrival -- spurred on when friends came over and she took them out to see the city.

A former journalist, she did her research and unearthed dozens of tidbits on Africans and black Americans in Paris. Before we walk an inch, she unfolds a list of more than 100 black Americans who've had some link to France, and begins her lesson.

Africans first came to France as explorers; then as griots, astrologers and entertainers, establishing a long history of French and African connections, she said.

"When it rains here, everybody's hair gets fuzzy," she joked, referring to generations of multiracial intermingling.

Before we start our tour, which will last for seven hours, Stevenson tells us to be wary of child pickpockets, many of whom troll subway stations haunting tourists.

Soon, we're off, in search of the stories of legions of black expatriates who flowed into Paris hoping to escape American segregation and find artistic liberty. These men and women -- intellectual Paul Robeson, author Richard Wright and poet James Weldon Johnson -- are the spotlight of Stevenson's tour.

We gallivant down the expansive Champs-Elysees, the grandest boulevard in Paris, and bits of black history seem to hide on every corner.

One of the first stops: "The Marble Palace," the building that housed the apartment of Josephine Baker; across the street, the former embassy where Thomas Jefferson lived with his black girlfriend Sally Hemings.

It's a wonderful journey.

Around the corner there's the Milliardaire Cabaret, a 1920s hangout for black American musicians and entertainers after World War II. One street over, we walk the block where jazz great Sidney Bechet opened his nightclub Chez Sidney in 1951.

Stevenson's tour uses city buses and subways, but comfortable shoes are essential because we walk a lot.

In her huge bag, she has books, music tapes and photographs to illuminate her factoids. Stevenson dispenses advice and literature on restaurants and entertainment spots for blacks visiting Paris.

Before going on to view evening sites, there is lunch at a French restaurant.

Along the way, we take the tram to the top of Montmartre -- the highest point in Paris -- for a stunning view of the city. Once known as the Harlem of Paris, this area swelled with black culture before the 1950s, when blacks began to shift to the Left Bank.

It's just a few blocks away from Paris' Little Africa, a neighborhood worth a visit.

Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.

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