February 25, 2006
Mardi Gras Diary Amid Revelry, Evidence of City's Cruel Transformation
By ADAM NOSSITER
NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 24 — For a long time I hated Mardi Gras, and tried to flee the city in those weeks.
It was the opposite of what made New Orleans beguiling, or so it seemed to me: loud and raucous, the city's ritual self-abasement enforced mass jollity. The workaday New Orleans, underpopulated, green and quiet, was best in its absolute regard for individual states of joy or gloom.
For years I failed to see the point, a distaste reinforced when visiting hordes from the mainland let their hair down and turned the French Quarter into a "Disneyland for drunks," as a dyspeptic bookseller friend put it. The history of Kings of Rex going back decades was commemorated in some of the city's grandest homes, while the city's crumbling social compact failed to receive similar attention. I knew too that some Jewish families in the Uptown neighborhood left town during Carnival because they would not be invited to the fancier balls.
Yet over the years a different aspect gradually began to sink in. Streaming through the streets of my neighborhood in the Garden District, after the parades, were the city's poor — black families, on the way back to their homes a few blocks away, children skipping with their loot next to strollers festooned with beads.
These were the days of the year when the neighborhoods were joined, however tenuously. The local grandees in their columned mansions had to suffer it. Orders of precedence were reversed. Difficult lives had this release, at least. Outsiders amazed at the lack of internal clamor for change in New Orleans fail to account for these ephemeral satisfactions.
In recent years, going to the parades with my young children opened my eyes again — bead-catching turned out to be serious business — and I made my peace with Carnival.
This year has been a shock. Black people are largely absent in the trek back from St. Charles Avenue, the parade route. There were some black families at the Krewe of Muses parade Thursday night, but where were the children and mothers streaming back to the tattered houses close to the Mississippi River? The crowd was thinned out, boisterous only in patches. It was mostly white, and mostly local.
The Muses parade carried some telltale signs. Instead of bands from each of three traditionally black Catholic prep schools in New Orleans — St. Augustine, Xavier Prep and St. Mary's — there was a small single band uniting the three, a so-called Max Band. Another group styled itself the Ninth Ward Marching Band, but it was almost all-white — clearly commemorative, rather than representative, of what had been a black neighborhood, now gone. The band members wore military-style helmets with "9" on them. The once-obscure Ninth Ward is now a world-famous war zone.
Nothing has brought home Hurricane Katrina's cruel demographic shift like this. A friend — a native, unlike me — said after Sunday's parades that it reminded her of the Mardi Gras of her childhood, four decades or so earlier: smaller, more homogeneous, peopled more largely by locals. The city was still majority-white in those days. It may be so again at this moment. Every "expert" has a different set of numbers and projections.
Two years ago there was a shooting at the Muses parade — rival teenage gangs from the Mid-City neighborhood shot at each other, and a young woman, a paradegoer, was fatally wounded in the crossfire. The shooting terrified the city's tourism mavens and led to a beefing-up of security. This year, two New Orleans police officers, posted close to the spot, looked bored and sleepy as they surveyed the thin, peaceful crowd.
Carnival is still a sort of release this year, even if it proves to be a tourism bust. The giant dummy refrigerators and the floats lampooning local politicos squeeze humor from a grim time. (William J. Jefferson, a New Orleans congressman, was skewered for having commandeered a National Guard truck to check out his house during the flood: "Uh, General, may I borrow a Black Hawk? I think I left the oven on," was painted on one float.) In Louisiana, elected leaders can always provide a laugh when nothing else can.
But one thing the Mardi Gras season may not constitute this year is that amazing, temporary social upending, the same as in popular festivals going back to the Middle Ages — a kind of escape valve for social tensions. The poor, no longer hidden away, used to come out.
In the terrible days after the storm, they came out, too. Before the rescuers arrived, along with the troops and the hordes of reporters, New Orleans was, briefly, a city almost entirely of impoverished African-Americans. The ruined neighborhoods belonged to them. I was struck by the sight of people, hanging out in the street, in a dry zone by the river on one of those days. Then the people were gone, and the city was empty.