Yesterday was my first Mardi Gras. I had mixed feelings about coming down here during what turned out to be a massive street party signaling the comeback of the city’s tourism industry. Is it ethical to come to New Orleans and have fun right now? Should I spend money here – and if so, where? Are the parades and parties good for the city, or just certain segments of the city? Is is okay to drink and have a good time while there remain hundreds of thousands of survivors still struggling to come back home?
The common sense wisdom is that New Orleans is the #1 city for hospitality. It’s economy is based off events like Mardi Gras, therefore the more the celebrations pick up and resemble the 1 million plus attendee galas that went down every year before Katrina, the better off the city as a whole will be. But this assumes that the money flowing in from tourists makes its way to everyone, hoteliers and bar owners as well as their working class employees. Is there a substantial amount of “trickle down” to the people who cook and clean? Do working class New Orleanians get anything out of the commercialization of the Carnival? The holiday certainly has cultural significance to the city's poor and working class peoples, but how does it translate into power and politics?
My friend Sam “Action” Jackson picked me up early yesterday morning and we headed to the uptown corner of Claiborne and Jackson Street to catch the Zulu parade. Zulu is the only parade that begins on the back of town side of St. Charles. It was founded in 1909 by members of a benevolent society – an organization of blacks that offered insurance and mutual aid to African Americans during an era when most companies denied them coverage – and eventually incorporated itself into the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The parade has forever been the black parade. Its symbolic importance in the whole of Mardi Gras is revealed on Lundi Gras, the day before Fat Tuesday when the King of Rex (the official king of Mardi Gras) enters the city, meets the mayor and declairs the next day to be a day of celebration and no work. The Mayor must concur, and the King of Zulu, almost as though he were the representative of black New Orleans also takes the stage to concur (of course this doesn't mean that works stops in the city, just that the only people working are those cooking up the food and cleaning up the mess). On Mardi Gras day the two major parades are Rex and Zulu.
Sam and I stood on the corner of Jackson and Claiborne catching beads and other “throws” from Zulu. The crowd was jubilant. After this we headed back downtown underneath the Claiborne bridge to catch up with the parade as it neared its terminus. What makes Zulu amazing is that it winds up along Claiborne Ave. where the Mardi Gras Indians march and where thousands upon thousands gather for what is easily the most happening party during the entire two weeks of Mardi Gras celebrations. Under the I-10 free way on Mardi Gras day black New Orleans gathers like nothing else on earth. Sam and I wandered around, he occasionally meeting up with an old friend, and I shadowing one of the Mardi Gras Indians, big Chief Allison Tootie Montana’s son (Montana died on June 27, 2005 while addressing the city council about police brutality and the rights and importance of Mardi Gras Indians). At one point Sam and I spotted Mayor Ray Nagin. Not to let him off the hook Sam walked right up to Nagin, gave him a pat on the back, shook his hand and whispered in his ear, "so when are you going to reopen the public housing?" The Mayor just smiled back.
The Indians are amazing for reasons that are indescribable. They gather under the shade of the freeway and walk up and down Claiborne Ave. When two Chiefs confront one another they face off in symbolic battle. Yesterday even saw an actual brawl between several of them, something that according to Sam and others hasn’t happened in many, many years. The Indians are followed by men and women who give them water, adjust their headdresses and feathers and help to carry things when the going gets tough. Others beat tambourines and drums producing beats to which the Indians and all of us dance and clap to. The whole tradition harkens back to the links between black slaves and the regions native Americans who were at times united in their struggles against the planter elites and racist white society.
The celebrations along Claiborne Ave. are those of New Orleans’ black community. Uptown and downtown residents congregate here to experience and take part in the Zulu parade and Indian struts. I was shocked by the near total absence of whites, especially locals. White New Orleanians tent to stay planted along the parade routes down around St. Charles Ave. and the lower portions of Canal Street. Very few attend the celebrations along Claiborne. Although the official segregation that used to deform Mardi Gras is long gone, the mores and comfort of people still seem to hold them back from intermixing and experiencing one another’s music, food and dance.
One thing that amazed me during the last few days was the level of entrepreneurship and autonomous economic activity going on. Along Washington Avenue near the St. Charles parade route I saw dozens of men setting up parking lots in the driveways of their houses and empty lots nearby. I asked several of them about it and they informed me that it was just another way of earning some money during Mardi Gras and that it’s done during other celebrations also. Depending on the lots proximity to the parade route these men will charge anywhere from $5-20 for a spot. Another example of small time business was the food vendors along Orleans Avenue and Claiborne. Families set up big pots of gumbo and red beans and grilled meat to serve during the day. $2 for a beer, $5 for a big cup of gumbo or a sandwich, many of those selling food cooked it in a friend or family members kitchen down the street. A few people selling the food set up on the lawn of the Lafitte projects – closed down since Katrina. According to Sam, the Lafitte residents always came out for Mardi Gras to sell or give out food and drink, and perhaps a few of these people yesterday were displaced residents come back to make some money on their doorstep.
After a few hours of following the Indians around dancing on Claiborne I went home and took a nap. Afterwards I headed down to Frenchman street where the punks, bohemians and other locals were gathering. There were drum circles blocking the road and crowds of characters pouring out of the bars. Someone was selling nitrous hits and the crowd was sucking them down leaving the sidewalks littered with little black balloons.
The buzz about the city is that this year was big and that New Orleans really is back now. Yesterday did show that the tourism industry can throw a big-ass party once again, but for me it showed that the Katrina Diaspora are still working hard to secure their comeback. The party under Claiborne bridge was a good sign as was the street vending and parking lot gigs, two sorts of jobs out of many that represent the unofficial economy of the city – an economy that is terribly important for the Katrina Diaspora who are working hard to raise the funds necessary to secure a right of return for themselves and their communities. Perhaps some of the money made on Bourbon Street and Canal even trickled down to the people who make the party happen?