From the dreariest of urban places something occasionally sprouts that is joyous and worth beholding. For every Manhattan there is a Bronx – a place where the harder side of life provides for the glamour capital next door. For New Orleans there was once Jefferson City.
Having a legal life of only two decades, from 1850 to 1870, and named after a president but hardly Jeffersonian in stature or prestige, the pie-shaped municipality spanned the riverfront between Toledano and Joseph streets. Its boundaries became narrower as they moved inward toward the swampy land that was yet to be totally conquered by the growing city of New Orleans.
From the Jefferson City levee, rafts could be seen drifting downriver, carrying the produce of the heartland to New Orleans, which by the 1850s would be living the life remembered now as its glory days. Boats landing at Jefferson City were more daring, not for the business atmosphere but for the atmosphere itself, which had the stench of slaughterhouses. For every sauce-topped steak, chicken in a pot or charred-edge pork chop served in the fine restaurants of New Orleans, there was the effort from a Jefferson City butcher shop. Other than the sawmills along the river, the town’s livelihood thrived on the business cycle of butchery. Livestock would arrive at the Louisiana Avenue wharf. Slaughterhouse remains were heaved into the water at the Delachaise Street pier. Carts carrying animals or their refuse cluttered the street. A tallow factory, where animal fat was transformed into soap, sent noxious smoke into the burdened air.
Time and prosperity would gradually change the environment in Jefferson City; politics would change its governance. In 1870 the state Legislature declared Jefferson City – itself derived from former faubourgs – along with the West Bank town of Algiers to be part of the growing city of New Orleans. Jefferson City was no more; its neighborhoods would one day be described as “uptown” to the city that was once another town.
“Jefferson City” the name might have been forgotten or at least hardly ever mentioned, were it not for four young men who, 20 years after its demise, had a hankering to become part of New Orleans’ burgeoning Carnival celebration. Hearing the tales of their old neighborhood, they named their marching group after the faded town. Where there had been slaughterhouses, there were buzzards circling in search of a snack. In the spirit of the season’s whimsy, they called themselves the Jefferson City Buzzards.
And the Buzzards began to march.
They were marching in 1890 when writer Lyle Saxon observed that their queen was “an unusually large fat man who bulged out of a baby carriage, sucking a large stick of red and white striped candy.”
They marched through the early days when the vogue was to appear in blackface and almost always as a woman.
They marched into the 20th century when the blackface disappeared but the comedic female getup of hairy, brawny men remained.
They marched on Rex’s parade route after it expanded along St. Charles Avenue and then onto Canal Street.
They marched while other groups, inspired by them, evolved carrying banners for the Lyons, Corner and Garden District marching clubs and Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast marching group.
They marched, even danced, after jazz trumpeter Sharkey Bonano and his Kings of Dixieland released “Buzzards Parade,” a lively number that is now a classic.
They marched one year although the police shooed them off the parade route – a failure to communicate by the police, not the Buzzards.
They marched into the 21st century, still assembling during the dew-draped hours of Mardi Gras morning at their clubhouse on Annunciation Street.
On the third Sunday before Mardi Gras, they also march Uptown, weaving their way through the old streets of Jefferson City, fueling their practice parade at stops along the way including Franky and Johnny’s. There they are toasted by the Phorty Phunny Phellows, themselves circling over a pile of crawfish.
This year, the Buzzards will be marching in celebration of their 115th anniversary, having so far lasted five and three-quarters times longer than the place for which they were named. Of Carnival’s parading survivors, only His Majesty Rex and the sea shepherd Proteus are older.
For yet another Mardi Gras, the Buzzards will march in their radiant costumes while along the way tossing paper flowers and stealing kisses. Into the group’s third century their march continues and, because of that, so survives the memory of Jefferson City. From the dreariest of urban places something sprouted that was joyous, worth beholding – and enduring. •