Mardi Gras is arguably the best use of a city street to have ever been conceived. The typical unkempt medians of New Orleans grandiose boulevards (lovingly called neutral ground) are used year long by streetcars and joggers save for 2 weeks when the 4 mile parade route transforms into a magical scene. Carnival is a season filled with as much joy and pride as Christmas for most New Orleanians. Spanning more than just a single calendar day, it encompasses far more than the stereotypical scenes that outsiders tend to imagine. More than anything else, it is a celebration of family, history and a city with a culture that is, in this writer’s opinion, unmatched by any American city today.
While the vast majority of people in the French Quarter during Carnival are tourists and wandering from location to location, the Locals have had “their preferred spot” along the parade route for many of generations. Young and old crowd the streets, staking out their territory on either the sidewalk or neutral ground, waiting for one of the many parades which roll by rain or shine.
Krewes throw elaborate balls throughout the week. Crawfish boils spread along the sidewalks. Ladders, chairs, and benches line the curb.
Massive floats, lively musicians, horses, dancers, and flambeaux carriers process along the thoroughfares day and night. Young kids hang out above the crowd on brightly painted ladder boxes, teens throw snappers against old brick walls, college kids bring out their couches, and grandparents sit on balconies taking in the entire scene.
What helps make Mardi Gras so unique is that it seemingly stops New Orleans “business as usual” in its tracks. The event takes over the city – nothing else matters and that is good.
When the crowds finally disperse and the sweepers come through, the city is perhaps the cleanest it’ll be all year (with the exception of the few beads that hang from tree limbs until hurricane season comes again). It is a wonder how such a laissez faire metropolis pulls off one of the greatest, most organized events every year. Undoubtably one of the reasons why is because the city and its public rights-of-way are allowed to be commandeered as people see fit.
If you do ever have the privilege to attend, wander as much of the route as you can – you are sure to find the most eclectic variety of people co-existing in one jubilant festival and it all takes place on New Orleans’ cracked, sinking, oak-lined and beloved streets. Two members of of MGLM’s crew have strong ties to the Crescent City (hence the bias in this post) and both certainly have been affected by the city’s wonder and architectural charm and significance.
We wouldn’t recommend seeing this incredibly city for the first time at Mardi Gras – you’ll miss too much of the rich heritage that is reflected throughout the city’s building stock, historic neighborhoods, streets and public spaces. But Mardi Gras or no, New Orleans should certainly be on every urbanist or architect’s must-visit list.