This sleepy college town on the Central Coast would never be mistaken for the Big Easy, except maybe for the weekend each year when Mardi Gras comes to town.
People like to boast that their celebration can compete with anything west of New Orleans. Two years ago, the parade and festivities drew 35,000 people to a city of only 45,000.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of the retirees and ranchers who live here, as the event has grown in popularity it has begun attracting some of the same behavior as the New Orleans celebration. Young women bare their breasts for beads. Young men follow them with video cameras.
As a result, the Little Easy has become distinctly uneasy with its home-grown celebration. This year, in fact, the city tightened restrictions, leading to a nasty court fight and this week--with the parade set for Saturday--organizers canceled it..
“There is no point in throwing together something ragtag,” said Mardi Gras spokeswoman Carol Pimentel.
The decision Tuesday night was something of a surprise, since the Mardi Gras planners had won an injunction blocking the city’s tough parade ordinance. U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins said the ordinance was too broad and threatened the right to free speech in public areas such as streets and sidewalks.
But Pimentel said the fighting between the parade committee and the city had gone on so long that it would have been impossible to put on the kind of spectacle people are used to.
The Mardi Gras celebration in San Luis Obispo started in 1978 and over the years has developed its own traditions. A king and queen are chosen, and dozens of floats motor down the one-mile route along Marsh Street.
The theme of last year’s parade was “Too Hot to Handle.” That describes the city’s feelings about the event. “What we’ve always worried about is the potential drunken riots after the parade,” said Jeff Jorgensen, the city attorney. As the crowds grew rowdier, families began staying home, he said.
Last year, there were numerous arrests after the parade, according to Jorgensen. A pedestrian was hit and injured by a car fleeing revelers. He said the city is being sued by the victim.
After last year’s event, the city wrote to the Mardi Gras committee, consisting of local businesspeople and longtime volunteers, and said it was not inclined to issue a parade permit for this year. If it did, it would remove the usual $10,000 cap on the service charge for policing the event. That alarmed parade organizers, who feared the bill could total $100,000.
Through the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mardi Gras committee went to court, attacking provisions that imposed the stiff fees, as well as language giving a city official the ability to decide what is and is not a 1st Amendment-protected activity.
Judge Collins issued a temporary restraining order against the city last month, then a preliminary injunction this week.
Organizers were planning to hold a small daytime parade, but on Tuesday night, the parade committee voted to abandon that plan, fearing that a second-rate event would tarnish the celebration.
Even though the Mardi Gras parade will not be held, the ACLU’s Carol Sobel said the court fight was worth it. “The injunction is important because the committee can start planning for next year’s parade,” she said. Also, she said, other event organizers will benefit from the lack of restrictions.
Pimentel said other Mardi Gras events will still be held Saturday. They include a daytime festival for children and a nighttime masked ball that typically draws more than 400 people. Prizes are awarded for most elegant, most whimsical and most alluring costumes.
After that, Pimentel said, planning will start on next year’s parade. She expects it will be a spectacle, since it will be the 25th anniversary of the celebration in San Luis Obispo.
But, she emphasized, “it will not be an invitation for a drunken bacchanal.”