Ordinance threatens city’s historic ‘street culture’
15th October 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
According to a study on behalf of the Jean Lafitte National Park, the first Black benevolent society in New Orleans was established in 1783. Originally, these societies provided a type of insurance to assist members of the community with funeral expenses by raising money through dues and fundraising activities. According to the study, by the early 1900s, approximately 80 percent of the city’s Black population belonged to some type of mutual aid society.
The social aid and pleasure clubs’ Sunday afternoon anniversary parades, now popularly called second lines, were their way of attracting new members. Because it was the societies that provided jazz funerals for its members, the parades acted as an advertisement of sorts of what might be expected if someone joined a particular club.
Through the decades and as life insurance became available to African Americans, the social aid and pleasure clubs and their parades have changed. Some of these changes happened through natural evolution, others were imposed by the powers that be. What hasn’t varied is that the clubs have maintained a position of self-reliance and a sense of community despite the fact that they often found little respect from and often were often obstructed by the city.
On Thursday, October 4, 2012, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that prohibits selling food and beverages at the parades except by those obtaining permits. Though the $25 annual permit fee is reasonable, this law, which the mayor is expected to sign, stands as yet another intrusion into the traditions of the historically significant street culture.
“Ever since I’ve been parading, they’ve always been out there,” says Alfred “Bucket” Carter, who has been a member of the Young Men Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association for an amazing 73 years. The YMO, the oldest organization on the streets, celebrated its 128th anniversary on September 23, 2012 with a dazzling, six-unit, six-band procession. At the parade “stops” and along the way, happy, hungry and thirsty second-liners were greeted with vendors selling hot sausage sandwiches, water, soft drinks and cold beer. The law, which doesn’t included any provisions for the sale of alcohol, will effectively prohibit selling beer on the streets.
The beer vendors, some of whom have participated in the anniversary parades for years, are part of the second-line culture just like the club members, brass bands, second-liners, rope men, food sellers and the folks watching the activities along the route. The Backstreet Cultural Museum, which celebrates second lines, jazz funerals and Mardi Gras Indians, acknowledges the beer vendors’ importance in the community. A blue and white ice chest stands on display with a sign, “Beer $1.” It belonged to a one-time vendor, the late Tyrone Peters whose picture hangs above. This tribute shares a room with legends like guitarist/banjoist Danny Barker, Grand Marshall Alfred “Dut” Lazzard and trumpeter Al Hirt.
“They don’t realize that they’re going to hurt a lot of people,” says Belden Battiste, a member of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian gang, a second line regular and community activist. “Believe it or not, a lot of people pay their bills with that money.”
Belden is also concerned about the social aid and pleasure clubs that depend, in part, on the money they raise selling beer and water at other clubs’ parades during the season. The less-wealthy organizations often depend on these funds to buy their outfits and accessories, pay the bands and other expenses for their own anniversary celebrations. “By them eliminating that, you might have less clubs parading,” he observes. “Some members don’t have the money to parade.”
Last year, when discussions began concerning the vendors, Scott Hutcheson, the mayor’s adviser on the cultural economy, indicated that the City would look into the possibility of temporary alcohol permits for the street vendors that might be similar to those procured for special events. “They are moving festivals,” he said. There has been no public mention of the City following through on that idea. As of press time, neither Hutcheson nor the mayor was available for comment.
Some members of the City Council have stated that bar owners at the second-line “stops” have complained to them that they have been losing revenue because of people buying beer on the street. None of the bars have been mentioned by name.
“If the bars had a problem, I would have thought they’d gone to the Council meeting (on Thursday),” says Battiste, while expressing his belief that the majority of proprietors don’t share that concern.
During a typical second line, the designated bar “stops” play host to the clubs and often, to avoid over-crowding, don’t allow the general public to enter. Many of the stops are private homes and businesses that are affiliated with the organization. Beyond that, most barrooms are simply too small to accommodate the large crowds that attend the parades that have become increasingly popular due, in part, to the HBO series, “Treme,” and the advent of Internet communications. It used to be that an abundance of New Orleans residents were unaware of the social aid and pleasure club anniversary parades that primarily take place, back-of-town in Black neighborhoods. Perhaps the second lines’ popularity spurred on the City to wield its power.
“With all that we went through with Katrina and all the things we did to keep things the same or make them better, the last thing the City should be doing is to displease a whole culture,” says trombonist Edward Jackson who once compared a Sunday afternoon parade without hot sausage and a cold beer as a “second line in Houston.” “They should be doing everything they can to generate money into it instead of taking money away from it.”
The Council has also claimed support for the ordinance from members of the street community, specifically mentioning the Second Line Task Force. “The Task Force says that it represents everybody but that’s not true,” says Battiste who believes the clubs that aren’t involved with the Task Force to have little to no voice in the decision-making.
“A long time ago, we used to go downtown and come back up because we had a lot of time,” remembers Bucket of the era before the second lines were restricted to four hours. In more recent history parade permits and police escorts became required. According to the Lafitte study, in 1979 the New Orleans City Council even attempted to outlaw the parades calling them a “cultural eyesore.” That attitude carried into the modern era as exemplified by the period when the police showed their disdain by running amok, sirens wailing, pushing the crowd along with their cars and horses. Meetings were held, things got better. Now the social aid and pleasure club parade tradition is being attacked once again.
Alfred “Bucket” Carter put it simply: “I don’t think it’s right.”
This article was originally published in the October 15, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper