In New Orleansâ€™ Central Business District, a prominent billboard advertising Southern Comfort liquor proclaims â€œNothing Stops Mardi Gras. Nothing.â€ The festive ad haunts me, seeming callous and cruel, “you’ve faced a huge loss, and now we want to use your city and cultural traditions to sell a lot of alcohol.”
Citywide, Mardi Gras is everywhere, but not without controversy. Many are angry at the idea of a huge party taking place while bodies are still being recovered in Ninth Ward houses, And in diaspora communities such as Atlanta, there is a lot of anger at the idea of a huge party going one while they are kept out. A past leader of the Zulu Mardi Gras Krewe even sued his organization (unsuccessfully) to stop them from parading this year.
I have mixed feelings. I love Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Not the parades and Bourbon Street you see on TV, but the other Mardi Gras that the media doesnâ€™t show. There are Mardi Gras traditions for nearly every neighborhood and community, a series of cultural customs ranging from King Cake and the lewd displays of Krewe Du Vieux to the dogs parading in Barkus; the clown punks and shopping cart battles of Krewe Du Poux; the fabulous costumes of the St Ann Parade; and more than anything the cultural traditions of Black Mardi Gras, encompassing everything from Zulu, the one Black major parade, to neighborhood celebrations involving the masked Mardi Gras Indians, Skeletons, and Baby Dolls.
I spent a recent Sunday evening participating in an annual tradition called Indian practice in New Orleansâ€™ Central City neighborhood. As preparation for the music, dancing, and rituals involved on Mardi Gras day, more than a hundred people from the community packed close and sweaty into a small bar, singing, drumming and dancing to songs that everyone knew every word to, the room all singing and chanting together the classic song of Black Mardi Gras, Indian Red: â€œHere comes the Big Chief / Big Chief of the Nation / the whole wild creation / He won’t bow down / not on that ground / you know I love you hear you call, my Indian Red.â€
In the midst of this crowd, I could forget for a moment all the devastation outside. However, when I asked Nick, who had spent his life here, living in this neighborhood that decades ago was filled with Black-owned jazz clubs and businesses, how many of his neighbors were back, he estimated less than 10 percent. While official estimates are higher, the fact remains that even in a Black neighborhood like Central City, which was not heavily damaged or flooded like the now-famous Ninth Ward, people have still not been able to return. A range of obstacles, including redlining by insurance companies, the mass layoffs of city workers, closed schools and hospitals, and continued fear and uncertainty about the safety of the levees surrounding the city, has kept people out.
During a recent Sunday service at a church a few blocks away, the Reverend Jesse Jackson asked the 500 people in the room how many of them had evacuated. Every hand went up. He then asked how many still had family and loved ones who had not returned, and again every single hand in the room went up.
Adding to the emptiness, Calliope and Magnolia, two public housing developments in the neighborhood that were mostly undamaged, remain deliberately empty; most residents have not been permitted to return.
In fact, this week our at-large city council representative, Oliver Thomas, declared publicly that many of the residents should not be allowed to return. Reinforcing the stereotype that people are poor because they donâ€™t want to work, Thomas stated, “There’s just been a lot of pampering, and at some point you have to say, ‘No, no, no, no, no,â€ and added, “we don’t need soap opera watchers right now.”
At the same meeting, Nadine Jarmon, the appointed chief of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) declared Thomasâ€™ position reflected their policy, adding if â€œthey don’t express a willingness to work, or they don’t have a training background, or they weren’t working before Katrina, then (weâ€™re) making a decision to pass over those people.â€ These statements were made while, six months after the hurricane, thousands of undamaged units sit empty, thousands more homeless New Orleanians face eviction from FEMA hotels on March 1, and tens of thousands of renters that lived in damaged homes have no where to move to, and no governmental officials seem to care if they come back. In the midst of this crisis, Thomas, two other council members, and the chief of HANO blamed the victims. What about single parents and caretakers? What about the elderly, injured or disabled? Donâ€™t they deserve housing, even if they donâ€™t have training or an extensive job history? Why are only public housing tenants asked if they intend to work?
At a recent demonstration organized by New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team (NO-HEAT), former residents of the St Bernard Housing Development, many of them visiting for the day from their exile in Houston, expressed their desire to return to their homes. One resident proclaimed that he was going to move back into his home as a form of civil disobedience. While his action is inspiring, the idea that it requires civil disobedience to move back into your own undamaged home is profoundly disturbing. Is this what weâ€™ve come to?
At a recent presentation at Tulane University, Thomas Murphy of the Urban Land Institute spoke about the Instituteâ€™s recommendations to the city, including their plan to develop the (wealthier, whiter) areas of the city on high ground first. He also recommended three books to the mostly student audience, including The Prince by Machiavelli and Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, saying, â€œour mission should be to stand up for those with no voice.â€ When I asked him how he reconciled his passion for the voiceless with his recommendations to build up wealthy areas first, and why he wasnâ€™t standing up for renters or those in public housing, he evaded the question with comments about a â€œcriminal sociologyâ€ that develops in public housing.
The victims are being blamed. People of this city, who have contributed so much to the culture of this country, who have created a culture that is now being enjoyed by tourists and others, have always been left out of the profits, and are once again shut out, and put last in line. As Loyola Law Clinic Director Bill Quigley has said, â€œwhat if we turned the priorities upside down, instead of saying that we are going to start with building up the high ground, what if we prioritized restoring housing and justice for those who had the least to begin with?â€
Even for many of us who lived in areas with minimal flooding, like my relatively privileged block in the Seventh Ward just off the high ground of Esplanade Avenue, the coming months hold a mostly unspoken fear. We have little faith in the levees, little faith in the Army Corps of Engineers, little faith in our government. As one friend who lives a few blocks away from me said to me yesterday, â€œitâ€™s just a flip of the coin, and itâ€™ll be us next time.â€
For many of us privileged enough to be here, its bittersweet to see another Mardi Gras. Itâ€™s a time of year we used to look forward to, and while there is much to mourn, we also want to embrace our loved ones, embrace our city, and maybe even embrace the decadence. Meanwhile, the city rolls on â€“ plans are made, funds are distributed, some neighborhoods are declared unviable, more people are evicted, and that Southern Comfort billboard taunts us, â€œNothing stops Mardi Gras. Nothing.â€
Jordan Flaherty is a resident of New Orleans, an organizer with New Orleans Network and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. His previous articles from New Orleans are at http://www.leftturn.org/articles/SpecialCollections/katrina.aspx