New Orleans’ Neighborhood Parties
Taking it to the street
Deacon John performs at the Pine Street annual neighborhood party.
Dino Perrrucci Photograph
Ruth Stone describes her neighborhood near City Park saying, “it’s like a little country town.” Eighteen years ago, when she lived in Lakeview, she, “didn’t even know my next door neighbors.” Then she moved to Allard Boulevard: “Now I know them all, their kids’ names, even the dogs’ names!” Allard Boulevard even has a neighborhood book club. (“It’s just ladies from the street – we meet at somebody’s house and the hostess does the refreshments. Talking about the book is secondary!”) Most importantly, this street has a big neighborhood party.
Back in 1976, Val Dansereau and other Allard Boulevard residents decided to celebrate the bicentennial with a party. “The first year, we got the permit, the city strung up lights for us and built a bandstand.” In later years, with tighter municipal budgets, the neighbors took over and strung their own lights, and the band played at street level. (Past bands have included Rockin’ Dopsie, Gal Holiday and the Creole String Beans.”)
The Allard Boulevard party is held in May. “We get together, everybody cleans the street in front of their house,” Dansereau explains. “Everybody invites whomever they want, does their own food and sets up a bar.”
This party has crossed generations. “We had a 100th birthday party for one neighbor,” he recalls. “When our kids were young they participated, and now our grandchildren come.”
The Allard Boulevard party is now held every other year. One side effect: “When you invite people for a couple of years, and then, when you don’t have a party, they think they did something wrong,” Dansereau laughs.
On Pine Street, the annual neighborhood party takes place on the Saturday night before Mardi Gras.
“Deacon John always performs,” says Marvin Russell, who participates as a party sponsor with his wife, Susie. “There’s a committee who provides the beer truck and the music. Anything else, you have to provide yourself.” Invited guests can bring something themselves, or just enjoy a beer and the dancing. The committee gets the right city permits, blocks off the street and there’s always a police presence, Russell explains.
A party for the Upper Audubon area (Broadway, Audubon and Walnut streets) was held on the Sunday before Halloween, but since Hurricane Katrina it’s no longer an annual event. Yvette Semmes says a space walk for the children was a popular attraction. ”For a couple of years, one of the neighbors who was a doctor would get his buddies and they would play music for us,” she remembers. “We never had lights – the party was at 5 o’clock. We would get a permit and block off the street, or sometimes we had it at a shelter in Audubon Park.”
John Lafargue notes that the area party gathered neighbors and highlighted the need for local support for security patrols. “We’ve gone to a security district now.” While Semmes recalls passing out 350 party invitations, Lafargue points out that email is the most popular neighborhood communication tool these days.
Octavia Street (Uptown, off Prytania Street) may hold the record for the longest running party. Gary Baker remembers hearing of an Octavia Street dance held in the 1940s and ’50s, but she notes, “we started ours in the ’60s.” Attendees lived on Octavia Street and nearby Joseph Street.
“It was all families, mostly adults, with an adult king and queen. We used a plunger for the official scepter – it was decorated with crepe paper. We had dime store crowns. Somebody had two mantels, and they were used every year. They were ragged.”
“It was always the Saturday before Mardi Gras. We called it the Octavia Street Branch of the Joseph Street Foot-Stomping Cabbage-Eating Society,” Baker adds. “Papa French’s Band played, and they sat on our porch. The adult dance was from about 2 to 5 o’clock, and before that there was a children’s parade in a different block of Octavia.”
Nowadays, the decades-old Octavia Street Mardi Gras party is held two Saturdays before Carnival, says Bill Ellison, who participates with his wife Felicia Rabito. “We call it the Krewe of Khaos – it’s a kids parade. They have a king and queen, fourth graders or so, and the kids toast and they give a little speech. There are other kids on tricycles, and little kids riding in wagons, and they all roll down the street and throw beads to their parents.”
Octavia Street parties year-round. “Halloween is pretty big around here, too. Everybody participates. We have a lot of trick-or-treaters, and we sometimes show a movie on a blanket,” Ellison adds.
The big Octavia Street affair these days is the Ping-Pong Party held in May. Ellison and his friend and neighbor, Zack Lemann, run the event. “Everybody loves to play pingpong,” Ellison declares.
Tables are set up and the pingpong tournament will have trophies for the masters, the seniors and the kids divisions. There are lights and stadium seating. “We have Raising Cane’s chicken for the kids and red beans and rice,” Ellison explains.” We probably average about 85 people – everybody in the neighborhood is invited.”
Maybe one day your neighborhood will throw a party. Why not have it at your house?