Mardi Gras' excesses rain on locals' parade

New Orleans residents say commercialism and growing debauchery are overshadowing a family tradition.

Each Mardi Gras season, this city struggles with a unique quandary: How to capitalize on its image as one of the world's premier party capitals without having its reputation overwhelm reality?

While the outside world (and the millions of tourists who flock here for that express reason) view Mardi Gras as an anything-goes bacchanalia, locals reminisce about family picnics and parades that some say are being obliterated by the raucous revelry spilling out of the French Quarter.

"A lot of people think Mardi Gras is 80 percent decadence and 20 percent family," says Gary Froeba, chairman of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"It's really the other way around."

For many people here, Carnival is simply getting so big, so commercial, and so salacious that it threatens to overwhelm a French tradition that dates to the 1700s in New Orleans.

"What used to be confined to the French Quarter has spilled over," says Mr. Froeba. "There's an attempt now to reel it back in."

But so far, attempts to restyle Mardi Gras as a family destination (a la Las Vegas's recent makeover) haven't proved successful. Last year, for example, police and city officials promised to crack down on public nudity. The effort fizzled.

That failure to institute a more moral Mardi Gras exemplifies the city's quandary: It can't afford to tarnish its image as "The Big Easy."

"We're a victim of our own success," says Arthur Hardy, the city's official expert on Mardi Gras.

The success is real: During the 2000 Carnival season, 2 million tourists brought in a record $1 billion in revenues to New Orleans, a poor city that increasingly relies on tourism.

And at least that many people are expected to have crowded the French Quarter by the end of Mardi Gras tomorrow.

"It just seems like an excuse to do anything," says resident Scott Blackwell. "Anything from peeing in the bushes to doing cocaine."

A lot of locals agree.

In a survey conducted by The Times-Picayune newspaper and two Internet sites, 70 percent of 3,000-plus respondents agreed: "It's time to tame the party animal."

Not for children, anymore

One respondent said: "You have to practically keep your children in or take them out of town for Mardi Gras. They cannot grow up with the tradition of Mardi Gras because of the nudity that takes place all over the city."

That nudity, locals quickly point out, is a recent innovation, starting in the 1980s.

For most folks here, this state holiday has always been about enjoying the spectacular floats, marching bands, and celebrities who lead some of the parades.

Every year, thousands of families set up camp along the tree-lined boulevards where the parades roll; they cook hamburgers, hot dogs, and crawfish while aunts, cousins, and grandparents lounge in lawn chairs.

They're there to revel in the excitement of the parades, organized by clubs, called krewes, whose masked float riders throw brightly colored strings of beads, doubloons, and toys to the crowds.

But it seems the bigger and wilder Mardi Gras gets, the more people like Maria Kron, president of the Uptown neighborhood association, say, "It's a great time to go out of town."

Creeping commercialism

And for purists, like Carnival historian and float designer Henri Schindler, the glorification of nudity by the media and the visiting public is spawning another other ugly development: commercialism.

For example, some parades are leasing floats to corporations, a breakdown of the family nature of krewes.

And while New Orleans laws still forbid political or business sponsorship of events, some suburban parades now sport advertisements for everything from casinos to restaurants.

"I, and quite a lot of people, find it alarming," Mr. Schindler says.

Last year's crackdown was prompted by Playboy magazine's plan to have topless models on a Bourbon Street balcony. City officials were also incensed by a nine-page spread in the magazine depicting the "nonstop bacchanalia" of Mardi Gras.

Police circulated 1,000 posters throughout the French Quarter telling tourists what they could expect if they exposed too much: $1,000 fines and up to six months in jail.

And the move was on elsewhere in the metropolitan area to tame Carnival.

In Covington, a conservative-leaning town across Lake Pontchartrain, the city council voted to outlaw drinking and smoking by riders in parades.

Police Chief Jerry DiFranco said at the time that the tough ordinance would ensure public safety and preserve "a family atmosphere."

Meanwhile, other parish and city officials in the area passed a spate of regulations on parades, calling for bans on everything from Silly String to firecrackers.

But in the end, police arrested about 360 people - the same number as 1999.

So far this year, officials have been quiet.

The New Orleans police aren't distributing posters, and Lt. Marlon Defillo, a police spokesman, said the city is not planning a strict enforcement of the nudity laws.

It looks like it will be business as usual. And everybody here knows why: The fun times bring the people.

"You're kind of in a conundrum," resident Martha Sharp says.

"On the one hand, you're asking yourself what kind of image you want to portray to the rest of the world," she says. "But then again, Mardi Gras brings in so much money."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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