On the Sunday before Mardi Gras, the priest at St. Anthony Church on Canal Street always had to hurry his homily – either that or compete with tractor noise from outside and an occasional trumpet echoing from St. Patrick Street.
Lower Canal Street, from the cemeteries to Carrollton Avenue, experienced no bigger day than Mardi Gras Sunday. The night before, Endymion had drawn its crowd to the Mid-City neighborhood, but its route was a few blocks away. Sunday morning Carnival came to the rest of the neighborhood. That’s when the Krewe of Mid-City lined up. Its staging area was St. Patrick Street, right alongside the church. While Endymion drew a regional audience, Mid-City attracted neighborhood people as the maskers climbed on their floats. With the pot roast still in the oven, folks could go to the loading area and catch some beads before lunch and then go outside and watch the parade after dessert.
That was when there was more geography to New Orleans’ parades – before the routes became standardized along St. Charles Avenue. By the time Mid-City moved to St. Charles Avenue, the krewes of Carrollton, Okeanos, Pontchartrain and Pegasus had already left Canal Street. From the police’s perspective, having parades along one route made their job easier with fewer barricades to move and fewer intersections to cover. From the krewes’ perspective, St. Charles Avenue was better too – the crowds were always bigger and the oak trees seemed to form a majestic canopy for the parades to march beneath. St. Charles Avenue is the Broadway of parade routes. Two krewes – the now defunct Saturn which originated in Kenner and the St. Bernard Parish-born Shangri-La – even left their native parishes to find their true Shangri-La along the avenue.
By the Mardi Gras of 2005, the only East Bank New Orleans parade that was not on St. Charles Avenue was Endymion, which chose to stay on Canal Street where it could take advantage of the spacious Orleans Avenue neutral ground for loading carnival’s biggest parade. For Endymion, drawing a crowd was no issue, because wherever it went, crowds followed.
But even Endymion has become a stranger in its own home. In 2004, it had to march Uptown because of street construction along Canal Street, and now, in the two Carnivals since Hurricane Katrina, the police insist that it may not yet take the road home.
Carnival was better when it was more dispersed throughout the neighborhoods. Before turning on to St. Charles Avenue, the former Krewe of Freret used to roll down its namesake street – the capital of its kingdom being Frank’s Steakhouse where Captains and patrons would toast each other. Endymion was named after a race horse, because when the krewe was young and small it paraded in Gentilly near the Fairgrounds. Pontchartrain used to roll near the lake it’s named after. Carrollton would march along Carrollton Avenue. Mid-City would be in Mid-City. Zulu would wander through back street neighborhoods in need of celebration on its way to enlivening the Tremé area.
We have taken Carnival out of most of the city’s neighborhoods and overburdened another. The assembly line approach to parade marshaling is cost-effective but less urban-sensible. More than ever, New Orleans needs for its people to feel a sense of neighborhood and have reason to live in them.
Getting parades to leave the St. Charles Avenue route will be difficult, but mandating that any new krewe must march in a different neighborhood is possible, and, if asked, some of the businesses might be willing to help pay for the police protection.
Blessed be the day when another homily at St. Anthony church is abbreviated because of a parade, and when the trumpets shall again spread joy.