New Twists for Mardi Gras

costumes galore

New Orleans       The song goes, “have you ever been to Mardi Gras,” and I can honestly say, “been there, done that!”  I’m somewhere between Carnival-skeptic and agnostic.

Historically, the city can’t live with it and can’t live without it.  There’s almost nothing about its mainline history that isn’t abhorrent and reeking of noblesse oblige, Uptown airs, private clubs, racism, rich dads and debutante daughters.  Throughout my youth, it was class and race division on display in the streets of the city.  If you had any politics at all, you couldn’t miss the message from power to the rest of us people, even if it was a day off of school, fun to watch, and easy to get caught up in the bead count.  At the same time, with a million or more tourists in our broke-ass city, it’s a big payday for service workers, small businesses, and others who need all the help we can get, so we “go along to get along,” as former Speaker Sam Rayburn counseled.

Eos choir for the Krewe of Aris

So, I make no special effort to stay in town and often have been on the road here and abroad, but this year saw me back home to witness the passing parade.  There’s a push for a bit more diversity.  The Indians are prominent in many neighborhoods within the African-American communities.  There are now LGBT balls and events as the gay community embraces Mardi Gras irrepressibly.

It also feels like younger New Orleanians and newer residents, especially in my Bywater neighborhood are increasingly making Mardi Gras more local and more their own, and that’s a good thing to see.  Costumes are back and they are serious, serious business.

The other morning, still jetlagged, and returning from walking Lucha, I heard drums coming up my street through the early Saturday morning fog.  It was actually exciting, even if it was driving my Australian Shepherd crazy for a bit.  Hundreds of people were out before dawn and engulfing the street and sidewalks as they moved along, almost all in costumes and swaying to the beat.  It turned out to be the Eos Choir of the Krewe of Aris, and I may be spelling all of that wrong!  Wonderful spirit and participation.

St. Ann forming on Burgundy street at Piety

swamp things

Mardi Gras morning before 9am there were already hordes of folks, largely younger, some with baby buggies and strollers, all decked out and masking the whole way as they moved en masse to join the St. Ann Parade.  There was all manner of multi-colored costumes with feathers and sequences galore.  Some were even political.  I saw a tiny Trump on his wall.  A woman was walking perilously through the crowd with wire fencing encircling her and a sign saying, “Donde es mi mama?” or “Where is my mother?”  Beat that, if you can!

trump on the wall

border refugee behind the wall

Maybe there’s a deeper political message underlying all of Mardi Gras now as well?  This year there will be 31 Mardi Gras krewes rolling in New Orleans with 27,727 riders in all.  In the metropolitan area there are estimates of 53 parades with 1061 floats, 581 marching bands and 135,000 participants.  Whether it’s the truck parades of my youth or the giant new krewes enlisting anyone with a couple of thousand like Endymion and Bacchus, the Mardi Gras of Rex and Comus with its history seeped in wealth, class, and privilege, may be the exception now.  The people may have finally taken over and claimed Mardi Gras as their own in their neighborhoods and communities, and that’s a good thing, and maybe should be a warning to any and all that when we’re marching, we’re unstoppable.

carrot person

Please enjoy Pistol Annie’s Best Years of My Life. Thanks to KABF.


The Mural Mile on New Orleans’ St. Claude Avenue

graffiti on former hospital on St. Claude

New Orleans   For decades the ACORN headquarters has been somewhere around the intersection of St. Claude Avenue and Elysian Fields Avenue.  We were ten blocks from the Mississippi River for many years, and we are again.  The old riddle used to be, “What street has its head in the river and its feet in the lake?”  The answer would be Elysian Fields.

Decades ago, there was no riddle that clung to St. Claude Avenue.  It was a no-man’s stretch of old furniture stores, fast food outlets, repair shops, garages, and whatever that stretched from Fauberg Marigny at the base of the historic French Quarter to the St. Bernard Parish line.  The avenue has a neutral ground, as it’s called in New Orleans, meaning a green space between the lanes of traffic on either side, and happens to be a state highway, which means that there is always an argument over whether the broke-ass city repairs it or the broke-ass state.  Need I say more?

Part of the legacy of St. Claude’s hardcore, working class history is being challenged by increasing gentrification in both Marigny and Bywater.  House prices have soared.  Hipsters are ubiquitous.  A new restaurant or bar seems to open – or close – every week.  Magazines and newspapers regularly list Bywater as one of the best or most livable or whatever the flavor of the month might be, neighborhoods in the country.  This is a city, so one of the responses somewhere between anarchistic vandalism and guerilla resistance has been a proliferation of graffiti.  Increasingly, what had been random splotches praising Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or wall defacings by someone calling himself, “Achoo” has been replaced by what I am going to start calling the “Mural Mile,” a colorful and sometimes deeply historic, cultural, and beautiful confluence of advertising, homage, and street art.

Fair Grinds Coffeehouse and office mural


First, murals were a last-ditch effort at property defense.  Our building on St. Claude had two long fences, one a wooden fence between Beauty Plus on the corner of St. Claude and our property and the other a plain cinder block wall behind our gate leading to Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in the back of our building.  Four years ago, we recruited a young muralist named Danae, someone knew from Montreal, who painted an allegorical mural from street to building about ACORN, Fair Grinds, and the recovery of New Orleans from Katrina.  Graffiti was a constant problem at Beauty Plus.  Every few months the owner grey-washed the building, but nothing seemed to stop the vandalism.  The same problem was constant on our wooden fence.  Finally, in desperation I told the Beauty Plus owner I was going to have a mural painted on the fence.  He scoffed at my waste of time, but said “good luck” to my foolishness.  A former barista and artist, Maddie Stratton took the job on, and got it done, and damned if it didn’t work.  Graffiti continued to be a problem at Beauty Plus, but not at our building.  Problem solved!

Beauty Plus murals

Fast forward until now, and we have Mural Mile.  Beauty Plus learned the lesson and is now covered with murals.  Tourists and passersby regularly stop traffic to take pictures.  Part of our old building has a mural.  Harriet Tubman is across the street on a fence.  Down the block a Big Freedia does her thing.  Fats Domino and Aretha Franklin have their places in the mile along with second line and neighborhood bands.  Businesses from nurseries to the local food coop are part of the trend now.  Even in the midst of the neighborhood changing since Katrina from 70% nonwhite in the Bywater to 70% white under gentrification assault, the roots and reality of the city continue to be everywhere, larger than life in the Mural Mile along with catfish and pelicans.

next door to our building

Harriet Tubman

Big Freedia

Fats Domino

This is street art and still part of the resistance, since the Historic District Commission which includes these neighborhoods still wants to insist that they should be allowed to permit and license muralists and murals between $50 and $500.  Rumor has it that some group is paying muralists to spite the regulations believing free speech should be allowed on private properties.

Food Co-op

area St. Claude & Franklin

The movement creating the Mural Mile is art and civic beautification.  Even past the Mural Mile on St. Claude there are still signs that the people are everywhere in one sign past the railroad tracks that warns the police that people – and their cameras – are watching.

warning to police that cameras are watching