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:
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.
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.
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.
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.