Filed Under:  Local

Single route keeps parades running smoothly

27th February 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

The West Bank of New Orleans is no longer a hotspot for Mardi Gras parade-watching. Many folks erroneously blame city government, which moved all the West Bank parades to St. Charles Avenue to conserve security personnel and other resources for the Super Bowl, which fell in the middle of Carnival 2013. But the real reasons so many krewes chose to never return to the West Bank are largely economic.

“The West Bank parades were dying down anyway, with so many bad-weather years. The crowds were pretty sparse in the years before the Super Bowl even,” attests Chuck Fontenot, Captain of the West Bank’s Krewe of Choctaw.

After the city of Gretna passed an ordinance calling for a minimum number of riders on each float, says Fontenot, “There were times when we begged people to ride, when we gave away free rides. But we really couldn’t convince people.”

Low membership drained Choctaw’s coffers, so that when their vacation rolling on the East Bank nearly doubled their membership numbers and the size of their crowds, the krewe decided to apply for a permanent permit along the St. Charles route.

“My grandfather joined Choctaw in 1946, and my family has been in this for generations, so it was a very, very difficult decision to move,” says Fontenot. “I lost months of sleep over this. I felt like our heritage was on the West Bank and I didn’t want to feel like I was abandoning our people… But when it comes to economics…if we had stayed on the [West Bank] we wouldn’t have a Choctaw right now.

“We have an 83-year history. My mother was Princess in Choctaw in 1958,” Fontenot says. “So I was not about to let this krewe die on my watch.”

Fontenot is not exaggerating.

Attendance for the almost 50-year-old Krewe of Grela’s parade in Gretna grew so dismal that, after Jefferson Parish suddenly required the group to pay a huge sum to offset security and other costs normally absorbed by the city (the city wanted to instead spend the money on the Gretna Heritage Festival), the parade was permanently discontinued in 2010.

“Back in the 90s when the parades were good, you could have closed for the rest of the year based on what we made during Mardi Gras,” attests Theo Hollier, the manager of Parkside Café, a bar and restaurant on Terry Parkway, where families once parked to watch Alla, Cleopatra, King Arthur and other West Bank parades. These days, only the Krewe of Adonis rolls past Hollier’s door.

James Henderson Jr., president of NOMTOC (New Orleans’s Most Talked of Club), says that what happened to the majority of the West Bank parades is the same thing that happened to Newton Street where NOMTOC rolls. Newton, a once-bustling commercial throughway, is now strewn with abandoned storefronts and other evidence of an economically healthy past.

“Newton was the drive, until the oil industry left Algiers,” says Henderson. “For that same reason the Krewe of Alla has gone through phases: they were the most popular West Bank parade along with Choctaw in the 50s and 60s. Then in the mid 70s, they came back with the Golden Griffin Society, the Endymion of the West Bank, dedicated to oil execs, with super floats and all that. 1994 was their zenith, and you can track that with changes from the oil industry, where those jobs were killed off by technological advancements. When the oil industry changed, the money side of Alla changed, too.”

The Krewe of Alla now rolls on the East Bank as well. NOMTOC, which exists specifically to bring entertainment to Algiers, has neither lost nor gained members, and express no desire to ever leave their community.

Otherwise, moving to the East Bank doubled most of the krewes’ memberships. With the extra money, says Delores Kepner, captain of Cleopatra for 45 years, her krewe was able to improve their already elaborate and generous parade. “We are now able to have a nice party both before and after the parade, which we never had when we were on the West Bank. Moving to the east has really been a blessing for us.”

Mayor Landrieu’s office says that its glad to be able to accommodate so many parades on the East Bank and that it strives to ensure a fun and safe time for all.

“We are proud of the parades that take place on the both the East Bank and West Bank of the city,” said Erin V. Burns, a press secretary for the mayor’s office.

“The City of New Orleans prides itself on its ability to host what many people from around the world call ‘the greatest free show on earth,’” Burns said. “The City is committed to continuing the Mardi Gras tradition, and working to accommodate the requests of all Carnival krewes in a way that ensures a fun, safe event for residents and visitors no matter where the parade route is,” Burns continued.

Burns said that when calculating the costs to the city to host Mardi Gras each year, there are “many variables that come into play.” “Having multiple parades follow the same route does allow the City to focus [on] public safety, sanitation, infrastructure and a host of other resources in one concentrated location,” Burns said.

One possible, small bright spot on the West Bank horizon is the potential arrival of the Krewe of Athena.

“We’re a Jeff Parish krewe, but have never paraded on the West Bank,” says Shonitra Vaughn, president of Athena, which has thus far rolled only in Metairie, but has applied for a move to Terry Parkway. “We had written a letter to the Parish council about getting a West Bank route because our parade runs late. We usually start at 7:30 and don’t leave out the gate till 8:30, and then we take about three hours to roll. So it’s tough if we’re the second parade of the night, we don’t get done till after midnight. If we get this permit, we would be the only parade on the West Bank that night.”

This article originally published in the February 27, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.