Old and New, Uptown and Down, Big and Small: Two Carnival loops

Update on Sunday: after posting this on Saturday morning, we heard last night that another fatality has happened on one of the mega float parades, this time during Endymion. This is a terrible situation for the victim’s family and also for the driver and the riders. It is clear that we need to do something more to protect everyone.
Update #3 and #4: Over the weekend, at least 2 riders fell from Uptown floats and 2 people fell from balconies overlooking St. Charles parade.) #dumpsterfireofaCarnivalseason

 

Now, back to the original post:

 

 

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Image of the Berkana Two Loops theory

 

 

First, Happy Carnival to all.  We are now in #deepcarnival which is the time between Muses Thursday to Fat Tuesday, where everything we do has something to do with preparing for guests, working on costumes, visiting with friends, or making plans for Tuesday.

I am most definitely a downtown Carnival person although I have spent many happy days over the last 40 years of my Carnival era on St. Charles and Magazine, catching float parades. I was also known to be regularly on MidCity parade routes with fond memories of Krewes of Mid-City, Carrollton among others  – although not in the more recent Chad-filled years (shudder).

So even though I will always be a downtown girl,  I do appreciate some of the parade energy that now transpires above and on Canal Street, and would love to see small parades come back to all neighborhoods – altho with limits to the number of riders and the height and length of floats. I even considered joining Muses in its first year and I continue to be impressed by their verve and design sense, including their prized, handmade throws made from recycled shoes, their inclusion of exciting dance troupes, and especially their parade in 2006 which was beautifully appropriate to the grief that we were all feeling. And like Muses and Zulu, some of the other krewes do try to do their part in supporting public needs. However, real community effort from others is often murky or their pro bono work pretty brand-new, especially considering their long history.

Notwithstanding what the float parades contribute in return for the use of our public space, one should still read this post as in favor of the downtown Carnival that emerged post-1972*, and in opposition to the mega float parades held Uptown of recent years.

(*That date, by the way, was chosen as it was the last year of the old-line float parades traveling through the French Quarter which is what led to the new.)

I’m linking to a wonderful piece by Charles Cannon written for The Lens about this being the golden age of carnival, which I wholeheartedly agree with. We both also agree that it is mostly a downtown golden age, especially in terms of addressing diversity, in its DIY attitude, in reducing the explosion of cheap, Chinese-made trinkets thrown that clog our waterways, and in powerfully satirizing the powerful and ridiculous which, by the way,  is often the same group.

From his piece:

Krewe du Vieux is quite conscious of itself not just as an insurrection, but also as a resurrection, an effort to recover from the anti-carnivalesque aspects of the 19th century Uptown Carnival model. Their mission statement expresses this ambition explicitly: “We believe in exposing the world to the true nature of Mardi Gras — and in exposing ourselves to the world.” Since Katrina, Krewe du Vieux has been joined by several other downtown parading clubs — ‘ti Rex, Chewbacchus, Red Beans — each of which follows the Krewe du Vieux model far more faithfully than the Uptown one, especially by keeping dues affordable.

But the ultimate expression of the carnivalesque instinct in our time is what happens downtown on Fat Tuesday itself. Here the line between spectator and performer is almost totally erased as thousands — whether costumed, masked or merely bystanders — converge in the streets in a utopian vision of mass civic participation. And on this day — if only for a day — we also witness New Orleans’ idealized sense of itself come down to earth to shape the city’s social reality.

 

(And as much as Charles is right in that KDV has a significant place in the origin story of post-72 Carnival, I’d say that the gay French Quarter Carnival community, the Society of Saint Ann, the revival of the Baby Dolls, the Skull and Bones Gangs, and the continued development of Mardi Gras Indian tribes are truly the founders of this golden age. And I know he’d readily agree with me.)

Let me now address the image I have at the top of this post and link it to Cannon’s theory. The two-loop framework (which I use with farmers markets and food system leaders quite often) is focused on how “change happens in human systems out of a spontaneous series of local actions, and how these actions facilitate the development of integrated networks of relationships in the pursuit of mutual interests and goals.”

Each loop has a growth side (i.e., germination, innovation, maturation, and rejuvenation) and a death side (i.e.stagnation, disintegration, and decomposition).  It is also important to remember that the “new” loop is not always seen as a positive development, especially by those who feel the need to “give hospice” to the old. In fact, the new is not even “seen” for a long while by many of those focused entirely on propping up the old.

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In terms of Carnival, the two-loop theory is clearly in play and can be seen roughly in line with the uptown/downtown traditions. Uptown Carnival, which centers almost entirely around float parades, and flags hanging from mansions denoting “royalty” grows larger, more unattainable, and ever more cumbersome. This year, they had to cancel an entire night of parades because of high winds. It is true that a walking parade might have also canceled due to discomfort or even danger from flying debris, but the fact that the authorities noted that the high profile of the tractor-pulled floats is what made them too dangerous to roll was telling. Additionally this year, a pedestrian has been killed on the Uptown route by a float.

Over the last few decades, in the name of safety and capacity, the police have asked almost all float parades to move to the St. Charles route, leaving only one mega-parade still in MidCity: the aforementioned Endymion which arguably should also move to that route as its size seems to be more than the police can handle downtown, based on recent tragedies before, during, and after its parade, and especially with the St. Charles route also in action on the same day. (On that note, it is my sense that for now, the Uptown route should be expanded and alternate streets used for alternate nights so that the crowds can move and stretch out more.)

Even as the massive parades grow larger and louder, my favorite downtown parade honors a New Orleans tradition of school-aged children making shoebox floats this time of year.  By going small, the ‘titRex krewe is a wonderful example of the new and the innovative while it also ensures its own sustainable future by having rules about its size and design.

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Caesar Meadows’s annual comix for tR; part of the beauty of this is each has to be handed directly to a person.

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2020 tiny treasures from ‘titRex, honoring two New Orleans musicians lost in 2019.

Moving past the danger from the size of the floats, the mega parades’ throws are most often made of cheap plastic or toxic plush and thrown from high above at groups of people, leading to a frenzy of grabbing and angry responses from those stepped on or pushed aside for these handfuls. Whole bags of toxicity are often thrown, or the plastic bags they are packed in tossed to the ground in the thousands without regard to the damage to the waterways and fragile infrastructure of our city. In contrast, downtown walking parades pride themselves on handmade throws (see above). Below is a picture of the 2020 version of the annual Fitzgerald Letterpress MG Day postcard that is shared with all passersby during his Fat Tuesday meandering.

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Finally, in terms of paradegoers, the takeover of public space for days or weeks by families and clans who believe they have the right to spray paint grass and to set up entire, cordoned-off cities is clearly in lockstep with the megafloat parade system. The brilliant writer Maurice Ruffin pointed out the two versions along the Uptown route this year in a series of tweets:

Those entitled encampments, and the bleachers available only for fees or through contact with “connected” people,  illustrate the one central issue with the old and why more and more people are moving to the new. The divide between those who feel exclusivity or overindulgence is the goal of Carnival (or of any public resource really) and those who think revelry (or insert “social contract” here instead) is at its best when it is critical of unchecked authority and human-scaled is at an all-time high, maybe the highest since the national crisis years of the 1850-1890s. Speaking of that era, many of those newer to the area are clearly as shocked to see the old version of Carnival still as prominent just as they were in finding the number and visibility of the pro-Confederacy statues and names that remained (and remain) in public spaces around the area.

Even younger generations of those families native to the area have made it clear that they have no interest in appearing at their family’s secured space Uptown or in participating in the roles allotted to them at birth. One example was Rebecca Snedeker’s documentary By Invitation Only which showed her own Uptown royalty clan’s tone-deaf response to the racism inherent in their traditions. Interestingly, Snedeker’s mother, who took her turn as a Carnival “queen”of a old-line krewe, has also just published a book and had an interview, sharing her admiration for the new and moving the curtain aside a little more on the long-simmering issues with those traditions. Those women are also part of the new loop.

So the evolution of Carnival, as seen through the tension of old and new, continues and will no doubt exist for generations side-by-side.  Let’s just hope that the new that is centered downtown continues to influence the old Uptown version, and leads to another golden age that spans the entire region.

 

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Mardi Gras: “We Were the Parade”

Click the link below from Country Roads Magazine to catch a glimpse of five different walking traditions from last year’s festivities. This excerpt is from Big Queen (“Reesie”) Cherice Harrison-Nelson of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, one of the legendary Harrison clan who has done so much to keep Mardi Gras Indian traditions visible:

The ceremony commemorates our past and our future as the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society. We humbly share the universal flame of humanity, peace, and light to carry forth every day. The masking tradition may be associated with a Christian holiday and refer to Native Americans, but, so far as I can tell, it’s the most vibrant existing West African tradition in the New World. 

https://countryroadsmagazine.com/travel/mardi-gras-on-foot/?fbclid=IwAR1iV_o6rTzm1hRjtHPBIxkaVcOnz-gCDbR3ZtSbIhhIuYKoaCSwu14aTIs

No biggie. Just a wish for another happy day to you and yours.

Writer Rebecca Solnit calls Christmas Day one of the 3 Punitive Holidays, the other being Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. Certainly seems like the Western world overdoes these with the result that those without formal traditions feel punished.

I am one of those without traditions by choice, even though I have access if I so desired. I could show up for gift-giving or a special meal at my non-traditional mother’s place but like many of us in the FQ, her home is for quiet time and so her holidays are calm and simple.  My sister’s life is firmly in the Midwest where she has a fluid set of her own traditions with her friends and her son.  And even though many wonderful friends invite me over to their own ramped-up holiday activities, for the most part I decline. It’s not that I don’t like to eat great food or to see people in a celebratory mood; it’s just that I like those made into everyday, informal activities.

I like regular days and organizing my days around drama-free activities and tasks, keeping my day open for impromptu meet ups with friends and acquaintances. Having coffee with pals in late morning or a cocktail and appetizers at the bar of a nearby restaurant or hotel in midweek is what I think is special. It’s why I like markets and not festivals: markets are a public and regular part of a week’s activities while most festivals are outsized events celebrating some cultural touchpoint that often requires hours away from home which often has a negative impact on regular commerce and far too often an extra fee for participation.

The only holiday I really celebrate is Carnival because the main activity (for locals) is to meet up and hang out with your friends and neighbors. In fact, the entire Carnival season, through customs built by families and neighborhoods,  allows you to join in when and how it is convenient to your routine. Even the actual holiday of Fat Tuesday is mostly about roving, casual conviviality although, as befits the last day of a long season, it does have added costumes and a large amount of mood accelerants thrown in to pump it up a bit.

Most importantly, Mardi Gras has not (yet) been entirely taken over by the retail sector even though many attempts to scale that wall have been made.  It is true that New Orleans’ Carnival has some deep, oligarchic tendencies – some of those hidden from view while others on full display without any irony or shame – but at its heart, Carnival is about regular people in public spaces employing satire and performance to comment and view others’ feelings on political power, class divides and cultural ties. That’s my kind of special time.

I think it’s high time we reduced the emphasis on Hallmark Holidays and use our creativity to instead create more everyday get-togethers. If people resisted the pull of these formal set-asides, more people would then start their day with anticipation upon remembering that it’s Saturday morning again. Or would take a long weekend off as a family to sit around and make a special meal together. Or send cards randomly to exclaim Happy Winter Day or to share your best hopes for a Bright Autumn. The third Tuesday of the month could become a simple gift exchange for your crowd or extended family. Use one’s gift-buying impulse to get some gloves or socks and share with those who are outside regularly. Use the kitchen time to prepare some treats or plates of food and share with those without.  Marathon showings of movies on the shortest day of the year could still happen on those channels that seem to specialize in those. Close the stores early every 21st day. Wrap your homes in lights to celebrate the nearby high-school spirit.  Have a block party on election day. Or just be in silence and quiet reflecting on the specialness of the world around us.

In these ways. we can  use those warm feelings that we seem to only reserve for our fellow man on certain holidays, year round instead.

So happy Sunday everyone.

 

French Quarter living at Carnival time

If you’ve made it to the Quarter, you have seen us. We’re the folks who weave around you, moving quickly and usually with our head down (or at least not swiveling from side to side, and usually looking off into the middle distance) and keys or bags in hand. We’ll keep an eye out for anyone who looks confused and offer help (usually turned down by nervous tourists who assume I guess that we must be about to shake them down) but don’t try to slow us down without cause; we’ll growl or may even bite…
We live here.

Balcony versus couryards
You would probably think that it is better to have a balcony than a courtyard, but for the most part, its the other way around. Balconies mean noise travels to your rooms constantly and although it is fun to be viewed when you want to be viewed, it is not fun to be viewed when you just woke up and are just trying to have your coffee in the sunlight.
Also, it is likely that you’ll have short-term neighbors on a balcony next to or across from you who believe that it is necessary to WHOO-HOO throughout the night or to buy cases of beads to throw down at people. Between my mother and I, we have lived in slightly less than a score of places in the last 35 years in the Quarter, and only two or three times have either of us had a balcony apartment. Balcony apartments are also more expensive and mean stairs to climb, often rickety stairs! However, the best of both worlds is a balcony overlooking a courtyard, as long as the neighbors don’t congregate below late at night. That way, you get air flow and no one above you keeping time to music at 3 a.m.
Noise
This leads to a strange irony in the Quarter; most of your regular neighbors are super quiet and you never see them. If you drink to excess, you have a bar to do that near you. If you like to dance or sing, again places near have that. Most of us live in tiny spaces (a result of 18th century buildings cut up in the 19th century into tiny places for immigrants and po folk) and are fine with it, but it does cut back on home visiting. And after all, “let’s just meet at (enter name of new or fun place to eat or drink)” is appealing to just about everyone who visits you.

Vehicles
Traveling in or out of the Quarter during Mardi Gras is tricky and needs some planning. Well, it’s simple really: you need to get rid of your motor vehicle or pay a princely sum to put it in a garage. That’s right, no parking in 2/3 of the Quarter on the last weekend (and parade days before that) and restricted driving. I use a scooter and have it parked against the building (as required, leaving a 3 ft walkway) at the side of the public building next to mine. The workers know me and can alert me if anything happens to it. During Carnival though, it’s best to move it, as I live on one of the well-traveled spots whoo-hooing spots. So, I park it next to the little Red Schoolhouse (a elementary-level school, our last school in the Quarter, where Elvis’ movie King Creole filmed their high school scenes) and hope that no one messes with it. Don’t mess with it.

Food
There are really 2 ways to go here at all times, but especially during Carnival: either plan ahead and stock up on food or have the delivery menus ready; restaurants are mostly no-go as the lines pile up for hours before and after parades. Dozens of places offer take out and almost all of them can deliver too. Most of us are partial to the Nelly Deli (Bourbon), Verti Marte (Royal), Deja Vu (Dauphine), Mona Lisa (Royal), Matassa’s (Dauphine), Chinese food (two on Canal) or pick up at Wink’s (Decatur), Fiorella’s (Decatur), Petit Amelie (Royal), Bennachin (Royal) are some of the usual places we hit.
This year, I am also adding a new tradition of Lundi Gras brunch at Meauxbar. My pal Kristen Essig is their brilliant and capable chef and has put together a fantastic menu. Let’s hope it’s not a zoo.

Drink
Only one way to go during Mardi Gras: have your house stocked beforehand. I use my favorite liquor store in the Quarter at Vieux Carre Wine and Spirits; fantastic place with an amazing selection and. they. deliver.

Music
I feel lucky that I get to live in a place where New Orleanians of every talent (legal and illegal) can try to make a living. Chief among those legal talents are the musicians who populate every block during Carnival. I do find it deflating to see how many young transient white kids with barely the ability to pick a banjo have taken up so many spots. Still, some are these are good and good local musicians can be found on certain corners. The stories about our street musicians would astound most people, from those who lived in a van parked on the street and raised kids in that van for years and years, making a living and sending those kids onward to good lives from it, or others that have been out there daily for years, rain or shine, heat or cold and now have become the gentry (“eyes on the street”) of that block.

However, when a man who thinks he has the ability to sing “doo-wop” (but does not) sets up across from your doorway regularly or someone who only knows 2 or 3 songs and sings them again and again next to your door, you can grow cynical and be seen in your pjs at midnight shouting at those poor misguided souls. For me, it takes going out in the evening with a cocktail in hand and finding one of the good ones and listening and watching the crowd take extreme pleasure in coming across this or these musicians to renew my love of live street music.

Hustle
I am working on a new project that will detail how we get by here with “a job, a gig and a hustle.” People are sharing their stories with me and I am working on adding essays about the sharing economy and illegal economies to it as well. Stay tuned for news on that…So when I say hustle, I mean that thing some of us have to do to make the ends try to meet; it may be an illegal hustle or an informal hustle, but it is visible across the Quarter most days and certainly during MG. It includes someone standing in line on behalf of the Uptown dining crowd at Galatoires, or selling second line parasols right off Bourbon on the hood of a truck (you know its a hustle when no signs announce things are for sale; you need to ask so that the vendor can be sure you are not trying to bust her), or even driving a pedi-cab, which, by the way, is a good idea to take for those of you out way late and trying to cross the Quarter.
It’s amazing to me how many hustles I see in a block or two, and how much I admire the willingness of people here to try it and for all of us to support it.
Still, some of the hustles are dangerous, and so be alert and know that if locals see something bad about to go down, we’ll help if we can and alert law enforcement too (found this weekend every 3-4 blocks of the main drags). Be extra careful and don’t be stupid is the best advice I can give you. Walk into a hotel lobby or into a bar to look at your smart phone and leave the purses and wallets tucked away in your room or in the safe. Stay with crowds and expect that villains are afoot. And don’t throw trash or pee or puke on our steps or doorways please.
All in all, I am glad to be here even at the foulest and loudest time of year. I appreciate the joy and wonder I see as our visitors can’t believe their luck to be here on a sunny and warm February acting out their inner child as part of our public spectacle.
Welcome. Now get out of my way.

Some of my pals visiting me on Fat Tuesday during an earlier French Quarter life of mine..

Some of my pals visiting me on Fat Tuesday during an earlier French Quarter life of mine..