The sparkling beads fly off the ornate French Quarter balconies to the eager bead hunters on the ground on Sunday afternoon. Two days before Mardi Gras, Jackson Square bustles with street dancers and artists painting New Orleans landmarks on canvas. As tens of thousands of people dance down the street, the crowd erupts in a screaming frenzy when actor Luke Perry - king of the Bacchus parade this year - is spotted at a downtown restaurant.
No other event in the United States compares with the annual craziness of Mardi Gras. The citywide party, a counterpoint leading up to the Roman Catholic observation of Lent, has always been a somewhat raucous affair here in heavily Catholic southern Louisiana.
But in recent years, Mardi Gras has less to do with religion and everything to do with commercialization.
The same can be said for the historic French Quarter - and for many of its residents, the party is over. Exhausted by the crowds and tired of living their lives to an ever-present jazz soundtrack, residents have pressured the legislature and filed an increasing number of lawsuits in an effort to clamp down on the brass bands and keep the carnival out of their front yards. (Jackson Square, for example, is zoned residential.)
Many residents have already ceded the neighborhood to the revelers, packing their bags for quieter climes. People who make their home in a tourist destination - from Orlando, Fla., to Aspen, Colo. - have to grit their teeth when dealing with vacationers. But some observers see signs that the French Quarter may go from a living neighborhood to a picturesque faade, like Main Street at Disney World.
"Who wants to live in a 24/7 tourist zone?" asks a local real estate agent who asked that his name not be used.
Today only about 3,000 residents live in the French Quarter. At its height, Vieux Carre, as it's formally known, was home to 20,000 people. Throughout the Quarter, 'For Rent' signs hang on decaying apartments that look as if they were built before the Louisiana Purchase.
The exodus is hardly new. In the 1990s, the less than 1-square-mile area was listed as one of the most endangered historical sites in the US three years running by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In 1991, a city task force was appointed to strike a balance between tourists and residents. It has since disbanded. The legislature passed a noise ordinance that would have applied to churches and hospitals across Louisiana, but a state court struck it down as too restrictive.
During Mardi Gras, chain-link fences are erected to keep rowdy crowds out of churches and private gardens. And both this year and last, police cracked down on flashers in an effort to cut down on lewd behavior.
It's not just Mardi Gras that lures the flocks of tourists - 11 million of whom party their way through the Quarter each year. The annual Jazz Fest brings tens of thousands of music lovers to New Orleans, and a quick look at the Chamber of Commerce schedule shows events, conventions, or festivals happening weekly - creating a nonstop party.
Indeed, Mardi Gras and myriad other events bring in millions of dollars in revenue to New Orleans. But while Mardi Gras was once celebrated for five or six days, the event now kicks off on the heels of New Year's Eve and doesn't stop until the police hose down the French Quarter at midnight on Fat Tuesday.
While the Mardi Gras tourists leave today, more will arrive to bask in the carnival atmosphere that seems to engulf New Orleans as much as crawfish, Louis Armstrong, and beignets.
Even residents who don't live in the French Quarter get tired of Mardi Gras.
"It's just hard to deal with the people and the craziness after a while," says Diane Sussman, a 30-something New Orleans native who usually flees to the Gulf of Alabama every year. "You just reach a point when you say, 'No more.' "
Over the weekend, the New Orleans airport was crowded with locals escaping to other places. One group of residents travels to Vail, Colo., every year to celebrate their Mardi Gras in the snow.
Other residents simply work in the yard on Fat Tuesday or sleep, preferring to stay away from tourists who crowd the streets and turn the wrong way on narrow one-way streets.
But some loyal residents, who have the patience to live in one of the world's wildest neighborhoods, don't mind kicking back on their balconies with friends to taunt the bead lovers. "I love it," says Maria Hoya. "I wouldn't want to live any place else. You are never bored. And how many people can really say, 'Hey I live in the French Quarter - premier party place in the world?' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society