Does anything miss the spirit of Carnival like a Mardi Gras land grab?

Photo of a Muses shoe
Shoe by Inge Fink

One last look at Mardi Gras before we pack up the beads and sweaty costumes for a year.

- Last Friday, Naomi Martin at Nola.com covered the annual land grab on the Orleans Avenue neutral ground in a story titled "Endymion Campers Celebrate Their Right to Party Their Way." Whoever gave the piece its headline - not necessarily Martin - accepted the premise that people have a right to rope off sections of public land, declare it effectively private, and defend it against "poachers," as one of Martin's interview subjects described people who'd also like to share the public space without investing days and dollars. That's a dubious assumption, one not supported by Section 34-32 of the Municipal Code, which reads: 

It shall be unlawful for any individual, organization or corporation to fence, rope off, or stake out any area of public property along a parade route except when necessary to protect plants, shrubbery, trees and other landscaping materials with the approval of the department of Parkways and Parks. Each private property owner shall notify the Parkway and Park Commission at least 30 days prior to the date of a parade in writing and shall submit a detailed drawing of the planned protective enclosure device. If the private property owner is not notified in writing by the Parkway and Park Commission within 10 days of the parade date, it shall be assumed that the proposed protective enclosure device is approved.

It's possible that the squatters got permission, but Martin didn't question the legality, much less the civility, of the land grab. She wrote:

Some plant flags to mark their temporary fiefdoms. And for the next week, they hang out on their spots, bringing food, perusing books to pass the time, and socializing.

“You've got to come out and show your face, say hi to everyone,” said one neighbor, Corey Boland. “It’s a week-long process.”

Yes, it's a party if you're one of the people who won the race for space. If you're not:

Groups of friends and families were grilling food, drinking beer and throwing footballs. With tents and sleeping bags at the ready, many said they were planning to sleep on their staked-out claim for the night.

“The poachers come early, like 3:30 or 4:30 in the morning,” said Boland’s friend, Philip Martin. “We have, like, five fights before noon, people trying to take our spots.”

Martin doesn't question that either. Instead, she talks about the lengths people will go to protect their space, including hiring rent-a-squatters to occupy their tracts for them.

From their folding chairs, Amy Scafidel and her father, Ron Garrity, sipped wine and took in the scene. They said that on Saturday, they would be hosting a large party on their spot. “This is what it’s all about,” Garrity said. “It’s good to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.”

Yes, it's good if you've got a chunk of land that you have no claim to other than the time you spent sitting on it saying, "Mine!" If you're somebody boxed off the parade route, it's quite as wonderful.

The story is shaky journalism and the practice is shaky social ethics, but the NOPD has to be held responsible for the squatting phenomenon. If people are allowed to spend hours - much less days - guarding their blue-tarped, roped-off land, they'll develop a sense of attachment and entitlement that I can't argue with. If the police pass by numerous times without saying or doing anything, they have every reason to think what they're doing is "right" if not actually right. 

I encountered this on a smaller scale on Muses Thursday when people set up folding chairs in the intersection, something that is also illegal. Three police officers stood in the intersection and ignored them. Once parades started, all but one person left the chairs set up and went out to the parade. When a friend tried to move a chair to make her way through, the one remaining person argued with her, contending that this was their space, and that they'd been there all day. 

That doesn't mean the law went away. Friday when there were no chairs in the intersection, someone tried to set up a folding bench and an officer came over to tell him he couldn't. It looked more like they chose not to enforce the law when it was going to cause a disturbance and be difficult.

Along the parade route, this sense of ownership is a major source of conflict. As Martin's story reported, it leads to fights, and a few years ago during Bacchus, I almost ended up in one trying to cross the neutral ground to rendezvous with a family member whose plane landed during the parade. One man got genuine aggressive and demanded that I "go around" his space as I tried to pass through, although that was exceptionally difficult because of the way his neighbors had bordered their space.

Some of this can't be avoided, but much of it can if NOPD chooses to.

- Best throw: Hermes' light-up, winged headpiece. It was nice as a throw on its own merits, but by halfway through the parade, enough of the headpieces had been thrown that they dotted the crowd as well. Not only did Hermes have well-decorated floats, but it effectively decorated the parade route as well. Tucks' toilet paper does the same thing in a much less magical way.

 - By Krewe D'Etat's standards, its parade was genuinely affable this year, but even at its best its satire feels like the Two Percent with a mad on for the other Ninety-Eight. Still, I loved the joke that seems to have largely flown under radar - a team of Jonathan Vilmas dancing to "Gangnam Style" with lyrics altered to be about Roger Goodell and Bountygate.

- On the other hand, Ancient Druids seems to have traded its usual sullen disinterest for toothless, half-thought-out mocking of other krewes. An improvement? 

- I appreciated Muses taking a chance and going with a graphic style that mimicked bulk grocery stores, but it didn't pay off in terms of laughs. Still, much love for honoring Ruby Bridges, and I'm always impressed by the effort put into their shoes. Photographer Erika Goldring incorporates her photos in her shoes, and a friend did a whole series of remarkable shoes inspired by Andy Warhol's food-related art.   

- Since this year was Orpheus' 20th anniversary, they did a 20th anniversary theme - never my favorite. Still, the parade is right with Hermes for the most beautiful floats in Carnival, and it certainly has the most intricate float design and decoration. Unfortunately, it doesn't get the credit it deserves because so many people are home working on their costumes on Lundi Gras, and because it always rains on Lundi Gras.