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Uptown parades drowning out neighborhoods

17th June 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

With the news that the Krewe of Choctaw will join Alla in permanently decamping from its Gretna-centric route for St. Charles Ave next year, media attention has focused on the anguish of West Bankers, as they seemingly bid farewell to their local Mardi Gras.

Almost no one in the local press has asked the question posed by Mardi Gras historian Ryan Waldron in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly. With more and more krewes choosing to parade down St. Charles Ave, he asked, “How Much Is Too Much?”

“As a resident of Uptown New Orleans who lives just a couple of blocks from the parade route,” Waldron explained, “I like to try to catch all of the parades that roll through my neighborhood. For the past couple of years though, this has become a daunting task. I am forced to admit, reluctantly, I gave up this year. I simply couldn’t make it to ALL of them. To simply walk out just to catch a glimpse wasn’t even a possibility; there were simply too many parades.”

“This should not be seen by anyone as a tragedy,” he continued. “Rather it is merely and indicator that the number of parades on the uptown route has reached a certain critical mass. There are much larger downsides to this critical mass than not simply being able to attend all of the parades: It can negatively affect local businesses, it excessively stresses the infrastructure in the area, and it dilutes the Uptown parade experience.”

Choctaw did parade Uptown in 2013. As Captain Chuck Favrot explained, the relocation had been planned as a on-off event, yet the St. Charles Ave. route proved very popular with his riders.

“Why are traditional West Bank clubs choosing to hold their parades elsewhere?” The answer to this is simple: The members of the groups are no longer residents of the neighborhoods that have lent their names to the organizations. As members grow older they propose their sons and sons-in-law for membership in these groups, regardless of the location of the residences of their children. Sons of members, not neighbors – transform the group into a carnival club like any other, not once centered around a specific neighborhood.”

And, the younger members understandably wish to ride the iconic route of Mardi Gras parades, and that translates into floats rolling from Napoleon Ave. to Gallier Hall.

At least, Alla and Choctaw will continue to parade. Four other West Bank Krewes—Aladdin, Marc Anthony, Poseidon and Ulysses—have all folded in the last decade. And, it’s a trend of consolidation and liquidation that has also visited historic parades in St. Bernard and in Slidell.

Yet, Waldron argued, Krewes outside of Uptown need not die a slow death. The spirit of a neighborhood-focused Mardi Gras can be reborn, providing a respite for the overwhelmed homeowners on St. Charles route. His four part plan involves Orleans officials bolstering an alternative major parade route in Mid-City, working with Jefferson and the other parishes to coordinate regional parade schedules, adjusting regulations to allow neighborhoods to hold much smaller Mardi Gras Krewe processions, and encouraging those neighborhoods to form “Krewes of their own”, something between marching clubs and small float processions, in the original Mardi Gras tradition.

“[Neighborhood-based Mardi Gras] changed in 1934, when the West Bank saw its first Alla parade. When this occurred, the streets of the Crescent City knew not yet the wheels of parades with such names as Hermes, Babylon, and Mid City, names that are seen by many today as those of the older organizations. In 1936, Alla had paraded three times, and Uptown still had only four parades, though, this changed in the years prior to the Second World War with the addition of Hermes and Babylon. After the War, Carnival exploded and new krewes popped up rapidly until the Oil Bust of the 80’s slowed things down a bit. In the 90’s NOPD began pressuring groups to consolidate their routes for more efficient policing, a move that was forced as the only alternative after Katrina. Orleans Parish, since Katrina, has had only one East Bank parade roll on a route other than the Uptown route, Endymion.”

Over the decades, in other words, Mardi Gras evolved into larger Krewes, but as long as they rolled on multiple separate routes, the neighborhood feeling continued. Now, according to Waldron, such an attachment has departed, yet it need not.

“Family Gras” proved particularly successful on Super Bowl weekend in 2013. While Orleans shut down its Uptown parades in deference to the NFL, the Krewe of Caesar rolled past the intersection of Severn and Veterans as a hundred thousand spectators stood shoulder-to-shoulder watching. They had come to see Frankie Valli sing on the Lakeside neutral ground and stayed for the parades.

That jump of 20,000 parade goers over 2012 signaled that quite a few Orleanians flocked to experience a Jefferson Mardi Gras and proved that many suburbanites were willing to attend a parade in the parish when there was no Uptown option. And, it let John Young to consider concentrating most of the parish’s East Bank parades on that weekend, between the musical acts and costume competitions.

Young confessed to this newspaper that he would be interested in negotiation with City officials a cessation of Uptown parades on at least one of the “Family Gras” days, in exchange for removing some of the competition from other parts of the two weeks of the parading schedule.

Moreover, the Parish President implied (though did not specifically promise), were Mayor Landrieu and the Orleans Council open to his suggestion, he might intercede with Sheriff Norman to provide some limited police aid to the city on the nights when parades do not run in Jefferson.

Earlier this month, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of appeals lifted a temporary stay of a federal consent decree for the NOPD. The decision will immediately cost the city $2 million out of the police budget.

The Judges ruled that City Hall must fund federal monitoring of the department without delay. And, before the year is out, the costs for NOPD oversight will jump to $7 million per year. When the other federal consent decree for Orleans Parish Prison reform is factored on top, the city will have to shell out almost $55 million in the next half decade.

The 5th Circuit said the immediate charge for the monitor only amounted to .24 percent of New Orleans’ $835 million budget for 2013, of which $134 million is dedicated to the NOPD, yet, those funds will most likely be drawn from special event policing, the budget that covers parades and festivals. Reducing parading routes, and moving to a much less ambitious multi-day schedule, would provide some financial relief to pay for the increased NOPD oversight.

As District C Councilwoman Kristen Palmer explained to The Louisiana Weekly, “I don’t want to have to choose between patrolling neighborhoods and providing for special events.” However, if left with no choice, she emphasized, “I won’t leave neighborhoods unprotected.”

Since parading days might have to be reduced regardless to make up the difference, Palmer admitted to being “intrigued” at the potential of working with Jefferson to make up the difference.

(She particularly wondered if there was potential to jointly fund a Mid-City route that could run from Claiborne Ave to Jefferson Drive, across the parish line. Orleans Krewes of Mid-City and Carrollton complain to her every year about being forced to roll down St. Charles Ave. route, instead of their traditional, self-explanatory routes that transept Claiborne Ave. and Carrollton, and Jefferson’s Krewe of Centurions ran down Jefferson Highway as late as 1980. Would the JPSO provide the resources for the three to run in tandem from Mid-City to Old Jefferson, she asked?)

The alternatives for major Krewe relocations do make both financial and neighborhood sense, Waldron replied, yet they are not enough to truly bring Mardi Gras back into connection with the city’s neighborhoods. To do that, Carnival must go back to its roots. “The City could encourage other neighborhood parade routes by not allowing parades uptown opposing those in other locations. I can’t see how this would be disagreeable to NOPD? It could still be arranged that the parades all end in the CBD area for easy access for tourists. We could have one or two days of parades originate in Mid-City, one would originate in Marigny/Bywater, and the remaining days would be left as ‘Uptown days’. With the new Rampart streetcar line, [some of these new, small Krewes] could even exist on streetcar lines.”

“These parades would not have to be elaborate,” Waldron stated. “In fact, it’s better if they are not. Simple, small floats [like those seen in French Quarter’s Krewe de Vieux] matched with marchers in costumes would resonate with the neighborhoods in ways that the big parades often cannot.”

The City could help the process by lessening its minimum float requirements in locations off the St. Charles Ave. route, and seeking to further concentrate the Krewes on a fewer number of days and nights Uptown.

“Alla was named after Algiers. Now that the Krewe’s leaving the West Bank, Algiers Point is the perfect place to return a neighborhood parade.” The creativity of this and other neighborhoods could evolve new small parades—or expand marching clubs into them. “That’s the essence of Mardi Gras organizations. When one group got too large to march together, and filled up, another was formed. We need to get back to that spirit on the local level. That is, after all, how many of the original Krewes like Momus and Proteus got their start. They began when Comus had full membership rolls and a long waiting list.”

“In fact, it is a perfect example of what I like to call ‘The Life-Cycle of a Carnival Krewe’,” Waldron maintained. Historically, new organizations formed as Krewes aged and changed. And, that is the answer to saving a West Bank Mardi Gras. Do not lament; instead, create new parades!

This article originally published in the June 17, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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