Not long ago, and for many decades, the Westbank of New Orleans could brag of a robust Carnival culture all its own. Families would park in the stripmalls along Terry Parkway and party out of their cars while watching the krewes of Cleopatra, King Arthur, Alla, Athena and more.
Of the many former Westbank krewes, today only two still roll on "the other side of the river."
The shift happened more or less in one fell swoop in 2013, when the Superbowl interrupted Mardi Gras. To consolidate security forces, which were already stretched thin, the city moved all of the Westbank’s parades over the bridge to the Eastbank, primarily to the St. Charles Avenue parade route.
Over the following years, almost all of the Westbank krewes decided to stay in the east.
“I can’t attribute it to anything but people prefer the downtown atmosphere over the Westbank atmosphere,” says Krewe of Choctaw Captain Chuck Favrot. “It basically came to a membership vote and consensus. After they saw the crowds on St. Charles that first time, that was it. There’s no comparison. Many of them told me, 'If we go back to the Westbank, we’re out.'”
Favrot, a lifelong Westbank resident who still hosts the krewe’s meetings at Terrytown Country Club, adds, “I have gotten my share of negative publicity…people have ridiculed Choctaw, Cleopatra and Allah for ‘abandoning’ the Westbank. But I see it as us trying to flourish. Since we moved our parade, our membership has flourished.”
Dolores Kepner, the Krewe of Cleopatra’s captain for 45 years, concurs saying, “Our krewe members were so happy because there were so many more people out on St. Charles to enjoy the spectacular parade we have—I mean, sidewalk to sidewalk, so many more people came out to see us in the east than they did on the Westbank, it was like night and day. So, our members asked us to stay.”
Kepner also reports increased krewe participation. “Moving almost doubled our membership from about 500 to now 800. And it’s people from all over the country. When we rolled on the Westbank we didn’t nearly have as many out-of-towners as we do now, wanting to be a part of it.”
But Kepner, who grew up all over the Westbank before moving to the east herself five years ago, believes the Westbank parades were dying on their own. “I grew up going to the Westbank parades, and it used to be so much more crowded. In the last few years before we left though, we sometimes had streets that were totally empty.”
She believes the culture of the Westbank changed. “After Katrina, we had a whole different class of people move in that didn’t understand Mardi Gras – which, it’s not their fault. But since Katrina, attendance and participation had been going down.”
Attendance for the Krewe of Grela’s parade in Gretna grew so dismal that the parade was permanently discontinued in 2010, after Jefferson Parish suddenly required the group to pay a huge sum to offset security and other costs normally absorbed by the city (the city wanted to instead spend the money on the Gretna Heritage Festival).
The Krewe of Adonis’s Captain, who wishes to keep his name private per Carnival tradition, attests to the downturn. “The last time we had a good parade turnout was 16 years ago, mostly due to weather problems. The end of February is always windy and rainy.”
And yet, the year after the 2013 Superbowl, Adonis returned to the Westbank, and is currently the only parade that rolls from Algiers, down once-festive Terry Parkway. “We’re the last of the Mohicans,” says Adonis’s Captain, who believes that staying on the Westbank has been worth the sacrifice. “Our membership is at 220 this year. That’s a good number. We feel that with those numbers we can keep the culture alive over here.”
But lucky for the Westbank, it will always have NOMTOC (New Orleans’s Most Talked of Club), Orleans Parish’s other famous African American krewe, established in the face of segregation in 1951. “If we’d moved permanently out to the east, our krewe would have grown greatly,” admits James Henderson Jr., NOMTOC's President, and a krewe member for over 40 years. Henderson has participated in Westbank parades since his childhood in the 1950s.
This Saturday, Feb. 25, NOMTOC’s many double-decker super-floats will again roll down skinny, two-lane Newton Street, right through Algiers, making it one of the last parades designed to entertain a specific crowd in a specific neighborhood.
Because NOMTOC occupies such a unique place on the Mardi Gras landscape, Henderson claims that no one in the krewe—which this year numbers around 600—ever wanted to switch to St. Charles Ave. “The people who ride with us in Algiers understand the service we provide," says Henderson. "They have been with the krewe for a long time, so they know what it’s really about. We serve a segment of the New Orleans community who wouldn’t otherwise participate in Mardi Gras. That's important.”
Though the Westbank has changed tremendously in terms of Mardi Gras culture, Henderson says NOMTOC hasn’t, and won't, change one bit. “The Westbank just doesn't have much Mardi Gras flavor anymore. Mardi Gras is all but dead over here,” says Henderson, adding a weary warning: “What people don’t realize is that if you kill Mardi Gras in the suburbs, it will be dead here and gone forever.”