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When Mardi Gras Saved the City
Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for all the joy it brings and economic good it does for the city, also creates its own vulnerability. Carnival’s contrasts, while not original, are all too tempting: grandeur in a city where there is poverty, joy where there is suffering. Those same contrasts could be made in any city in the world but few provide the colorful backdrops as does New Orleans and few whet an audience’s interest as does this city, where the story can be embellished with images of freewheeling Creoles and crazed magnolia-sniffing Southerners. Besides, for someone working on an expense count, there can be few better places to spend their time.
Carnival can count on at least one hatchet job a year. In 2006, it was a documentary that, in preaching against perceived intolerance, was as close-minded, uninformed and unfair to innocent people as the bigotry it portended to erase. This past year there was a magazine article by a former New Orleanian who declared the city legally dead. Carnival wasn’t the sole cause of the demise but, in the author’s eyes, contributed to the illness.
We understand that few editors or grant givers would want to pay money for a study that explored the merits of our Carnival; nevertheless there are cases to be made, including these three examples among many, of years when Carnival helped save the city:
2006. This magazine in its cover story that year described the upcoming Carnival as “The Most Important Mardi Gras Ever.” We still believe that. Not only was the Carnival that year the first after Katrina, it was also the first major event in the city since the storm. Despite the curmudgeons and naysayers who said the parades should not be held (which at one point included the mayor), to the contrary the krewes needed to roll 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’ve 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.
1979. 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. Carnival 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 1973. 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 on the second day 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 un itself again.
As another Mardi Gras approaches, may the season work its blessing and may the naysayers join the revelry, put on a mask and, most of all, open their eyes. Let us know what you think. Any comments about this article? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. For the subject line use: SAVED. All responses are subject to being published, as edited, as a letter to the editor. Please include your name and location.