The Big Uneasy

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The lavish Carnival banquets already are under way at Antoine's Restaurant, the parading clubs are finalizing their ornate processions and the reviewing stands are in place along St. Charles Avenue. Everything, in other words, looks to be ready for the annual Mardi Gras celebrations beginning here next week.

But a deep unease has settled over the Big Easy with the approach of the first Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina and the disturbing juxtapositions that are certain to result. Floats soon will move down boulevards that just five months ago were under water. Drunken revelers will careen across the same sidewalks where ailing and elderly storm victims dropped dead in the late-summer heat.

And only a few blocks from the colorful tourist havens in the French Quarter, the Garden District and downtown, endless brown vistas of flood-ruined houses still stretch as far as the eye can see.

New Orleans boosters are determined to put on a party this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a festival that is unlike anything else in the nation. They hope to tell the world that the Aug. 29 hurricane knocked them down, but not out; that the city is ready to welcome back the tourists who supply the local economy's lifeblood; and that, despite the fact that two-thirds of New Orleans' residents remain exiled from their ruined homes, this city still knows how to have a good time.

It's a message of particular urgency for Antoine's, one of the city's oldest and most famous culinary landmarks, whose dining rooms are filled with Mardi Gras memorabilia and whose owners are counting on a successful Carnival to defibrillate their stuttering business. Like nearly every other restaurant, bar, antique store and boutique in the French Quarter, Antoine's is open, but hemorrhaging cash.

Their brave front aside, however, the city's tourism leaders acknowledge that the signals from this year's Mardi Gras will be decidedly mixed. They worry that TV images of elaborate parades and raucous Bourbon Street parties, beginning Feb. 18 and culminating on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 28, could undermine the city's plea to the nation, and especially Washington, that New Orleans still needs billions of dollars to rebuild.

"The message that it sends to the rest of the world unfortunately is that, `Oh, they just want to have a party,'" said Jeff Anding, director of convention marketing for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The reality is that it's a psychological shot in the arm for locals who are here, and a test to demonstrate to the world that yes, we can still handle mass events."

Nevertheless, local health officials are unsure how they will handle an influx of tens of thousands of visitors when the city has only two functioning hospitals, with a total of just 400 beds, and a temporary clinic at the convention center. There is concern over how city workers will manage to remove the hundreds of tons of trash typically left behind by Mardi Gras crowds at a time when many neighborhoods still groan beneath millions of cubic yards of storm debris piled along the streets.

And some African-American leaders, whose communities were among the hardest hit when the hurricane destroyed most of New Orleans' predominantly black neighborhoods, fear that Mardi Gras celebrations led by white elites will only deepen racial tensions in this starkly segregated city.

"Eighty percent of those whose homes were destroyed were African-American, while 80 percent of the people who are going to do Mardi Gras are white," said Ernest Johnson, president of the Louisiana state branch of the NAACP. "You have black folks who are still out of the city and can't come back to their homes, and you have white people who want to have a party. You have to draw the conclusion that this is a racial divide."

Even the members of Zulu, the historically black social club whose Mardi Gras parades attract some of the biggest crowds, are awkwardly divided over whether to participate in this year's festival.

The club's leaders are vowing to parade and insist they have a mandate from their members, half of whom lost their homes when New Orleans flooded.

"We were severely impacted by Katrina," Zulu President Charles Hamilton declared at a news conference last month marking the opening of the Mardi Gras season. "But to the man, we feel that Zulu must parade in 2006. We must take the lead in bringing our people back. This will be very important to show the world that we're here."

That sentiment is not unanimous. Lawyer David Belfield, an evacuee living temporarily in Atlanta and the "king" of the Zulu parade in 1994, thinks a Mardi Gras celebration will be unseemly at a time when so many displaced black residents cannot afford to return to the city and rebuild their homes. With the support of some other Zulu members, he is challenging the legality of the club meeting where the decision to parade was made and is seeking a restraining order to stop the procession.

"There is a time to parade and have fun. But my argument is we parade and have fun after we take care of the business, which is giving people a reasonable opportunity to return to their homes and start the process of rebuilding," said Belfield. "It's wrong for you to tell me to come home and party at Mardi Gras when I can't even go back to my house or my job."

Still, Belfield, Johnson and other black leaders opposed to this year's Mardi Gras remain a distinct minority.

"We have people that are still out there questioning whether we should still have Mardi Gras this season," New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said at the Mardi Gras news conference. "Well, guess what? Today we officially announce the beginning of the Mardi Gras season. So we are moving forward."

Restaurant, city struggle on

Katrina nearly killed Antoine's. The storm blew out a wall of the 166-year-old haute cuisine icon, forced most of the 131 employees from their homes and compelled the two families that have run the restaurant since its founding to close their doors for four months.

Ever since Antoine's managed to reopen in late December, with a skeleton crew and only a third of its normal capacity of more than 1,000 diners, the restaurant has struggled most nights to fill even half its tables. Reservations, which used to be required for entry, have been replaced by waiters standing on the sidewalk beckoning passersby to come in--jackets and ties no longer required.

"The idea of New Orleans being a destination city is a huge part of our business, maybe as high as 80 percent," said Rick Blount, Antoine's chief executive officer and a great-great-grandson of the founder, Antoine Alciatore. The other 20 percent came from loyal local customers, whose ritual Mardi Gras banquets and standing reservations, passed down in their wills, used to sustain the restaurant when the tourist season ebbed.

"I don't have the bottom line yet for January, but my gut feeling is that it doesn't look so good," Blount said. "Every single thing that touches our operation has increased in cost by significant amounts--food, fuel, labor. And the whole start-up cost will skew everything to the bad side."

Still, Blount is sanguine. Just being open and ready to receive customers, at a time when more than two-thirds of the city's restaurants remain closed as a result of the hurricane, is a mark of success, he said.

"I'm very optimistic that we are making the right moves," Blount said, "and that we are doing, as a city and as a business, what we should be doing to get out of this natural disaster."

The rest of America may know Mardi Gras as a "girls gone wild"-style bacchanal featuring overserved crowds and general debauchery spilling out of the narrow streets of the historic French Quarter.

But for Antoine's, and for New Orleans, Mardi Gras is like the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Olympics, with a few national political conventions thrown in. In a normal year, the two-week celebration kick-starts a $5.5 billion local tourism industry, fills the city's 38,000 hotel rooms and helps guarantee full employment for more than 80,000 hospitality industry workers throughout the rest of the year.

Every day without tourism costs the city's economy an estimated $15.2 million in lost revenues, tourism industry officials say. That's why they desperately want to displace the images of New Orleans lodged in the national consciousness in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: the flooded neighborhoods, the terrified victims stranded on rooftops, the tiny children clinging to exhausted mothers outside the Superdome and the convention center, waiting for days to be rescued.

"So many people think the entire city is devastated and still under water," said Sandra Shilstone, chief executive of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. "They do not realize the old city--the places that visitors loved--has been spared and rebounded much quicker. This is the authentic part of New Orleans, the historic 18th and 19th Century buildings."

Tourism officials know that beyond the high-ground areas most familiar to tourists, 80 percent of the city's land area was flooded, resulting in the ruin of more than 110,000 homes.

"But you know what?" said Anding of the convention and visitors bureau. "That's a part of the city that you never would have gone to before the hurricane anyway."
   
Carnival's 2 faces reflect city's divide

There are really two Mardi Gras celebrations every year, although most visitors to New Orleans never perceive it.

The public Mardi Gras, with its parades, floats, high school bands and costumed "krewes," or parading clubs, tossing beads and trinkets to frenzied crowds, is the Mardi Gras recognized around the world and heavily promoted by the tourism industry. It is an all-inclusive festival featuring dozens of multicultural krewes celebrating everything from gay pride to doctors to Elvis to dogs.

But there is another, private Mardi Gras that is the province of New Orleans' white upper classes--a season of exclusive dinners, masked balls and debutante cotillions to which outsiders are not invited.

This Mardi Gras, presided over by half a dozen old-line krewes with names such as Proteus, Comus and Momus drawn from Greek mythology, has its roots in white supremacy, the Confederacy and resistance to post-Civil War Reconstruction. And it is part of the reason that some local black leaders perceive racial friction in an event that, to the rest of the nation, just looks like a giant party.

"Zulu is being used by the white krewes," asserted Belfield, the lawyer who opposes his own black krewe's decision to participate in Mardi Gras this year. "They decided they wanted to have this Mardi Gras, and they said they wanted Zulu to participate because it wouldn't look like a real Mardi Gras without them."

Zulu was incorporated in 1916 as a protest against the racism of the old white krewes; its members still parade in exaggerated blackface and grass skirts to mock the stereotyped ways blacks were depicted in minstrel shows. Though still predominantly black, Zulu's 500 members represent a cross-section of modern New Orleans, and the group's parades and public parties have long since overtaken the old-line krewes in popularity. Zulu now symbolizes Mardi Gras for many locals and visitors alike.

Most of the secretive old krewes, though, still cling to their exclusive ways. Some do not admit blacks or Jews or anyone whose wealth might have been earned rather than inherited, according to local historians and some of the krewe members themselves. When the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance in 1991 requiring any krewe that wanted to use public streets for its processions to certify that it did not discriminate in its membership, several groups quit parading rather than comply.

"The position of the krewes was that we don't discriminate, but we shouldn't be told as a private organization what we can and cannot do," said Robert Monsted, the leader of Comus, one of the krewes that balked at the desegregation ordinance. "But that was back then and it's old history now. We will not reveal the composition of our membership."

There is a way to glimpse the membership of some of those krewes, however: by visiting Antoine's Restaurant. Four of the oldest krewes--Rex, Proteus, Hermes and the 12th Night Revelers--have special dining rooms dedicated in their honor, filled with Mardi Gras souvenirs, costumes and memorabilia displayed in glass cases. Hundreds of photos line the walls, showing the krewes' members, their honorary "kings" and their debutante daughters--every one of them white.

Those krewes, and several others, also hold their private Mardi Gras banquets at Antoine's, where they are served by cooks, waiters, bartenders and managers who, by virtue of their skin color or their working-class station, could scarcely hope to become members. In New Orleans, social rank is strictly enforced and class lines are kept rigid.

Even though Blount, Antoine's CEO, has New Orleans roots stretching back five generations, "I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks," he said. "My mom explained to us as very young children that there were bluebloods and there were not bluebloods. And we weren't blue. It was well understood by the time I was 10 years old that there were places in life I just could not go."

So while Blount's restaurant is a renowned city landmark central to the traditional Mardi Gras celebrations, he never has been invited to join any of the high-society krewes he serves.

(Thiis piece originally ran on Feb. 9, 2006)

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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