So, today we experience a community funk because of what happened in the Superdome yesterday. Fate is good to us, however, because our big disappointment happens to be followed the next day by Twelfth Night and the beginning of a new season to send its greetings.
There are cases to be made, including these four, among many, of times when Carnival helped save the city by giving us reason to celebrate all that is good:
Not only was the Carnival that year the first after Hurricane Katrina, but it was also the first major event in the city since the storm. Despite the nay-sayers who said the parades should not be held (which at one point included the then mayor), to the contrary, the krewes needed to role more than ever. With the world’s media camped out on our mildewed steps to have not celebrated Mardi Gras would have triggered a message that New Orleans was so down and out it couldn’t even stage a parade. Those anxious to proclaim the city’s demise could have made their case. Instead by staging the parades, albeit it an abridged form, the message went out that there was indeed life in the city and it’s coming back. Mardi Gras 2006 gave the world the first meaningful sign of the city’s recovery. It is not irrelevant that it also helped lift the sprits of locals badly in need of reason to believe again in their town.
In 1979, the city’s organized Carnival helped save the city by sacrificing itself. This was the year when the New Orleans police went on strike. Union organizers used Carnival as a wedge. Had their demands been met, the city would’ve been nearly bankrupted and would’ve lost much control over the department. Mayor Dutch Morial strongly opposed the strikers’ demands. In one historic moment, the captains of the krewes stood together with the mayor saying they would “not be held hostage by the Teamster’s Union.” All the parades in New Orleans were cancelled that year but on the day after Mardi Gras, the strike, having lost its leverage, fell apart. Mardi Gras day was nevertheless a festive period as masked revelers romped in the French Quarter without the need of a parade. Had there been no Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans there would’ve probably still been a strike, but the strikers miscalculated the civic responsibility of Carnival’s leadership. The celebration that the strikers conspired to hold hostage instead showed the city’s resolve to stand firm.
On Jan. 7 of that year, a sniper opened fire from the top of a downtown hotel. Over the next 24 hours, several people, including police officers, were killed. Ultimately, the sniper was gunned down from a helicopter but even as his corpse was still on the roof there was uneasiness that the incident, which took place during a time of unrest in the nation, was part of a widespread conspiracy. Because the sniping took place at the beginning of Carnival season, there were concerns that the parades should not be held that year. Those concerns were not answered. The parades were held and nervous citizens regained confidence that they could walk the city’s streets and stand on its neutral grounds in safety. Mardi Gras that year helped the city believe in itself again.
That was the year of the first Rex parade, a parade that had a definite civic mission. New Orleans was still suffering through Reconstruction but community leaders then, like those leading our Recovery now, wanted to give people a reason to rediscover the city. Leaflets tacked up at railroad stations along the tracks leading to New Orleans announced the Inaugural Parade of the King of Carnival. The Russian Grand Duke Alexis happened to be in town that Carnival season and, as he witnessed the parade, he probably did not realize that Mardi Gras was being used as a tool to rebuild in an economy. Other southern cities would try similar ideas but none would have the long-range impact of the New Orleans experiment. Having been knocked to its knees by the Civil War, the city was on the march again.
As we enter another passing Carnival, may the season work its blessings and may old memories from the Dome be forgotten, at least until next season.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book web sites.
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