Mostly Black Mardi Gras Event Shows A City in Pain

Her hair adorned with ribbons, 8-year-old Kerriyelle Knight gestures for beads from the Zulu krew at the Under the Bridge celebration. The route passes her old home at the Lafitte complex, now closed.
Her hair adorned with ribbons, 8-year-old Kerriyelle Knight gestures for beads from the Zulu krew at the Under the Bridge celebration. The route passes her old home at the Lafitte complex, now closed. (By Peter Whoriskey -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 20 -- The Mardi Gras celebration that took place "under the bridge" today wasn't broadcast live on TV. It didn't appear on tourist brochures. Indeed, it hardly seemed to exist, to judge by the absence of attention.

But the predominantly African American tradition that goes on in the shadows of the Interstate 10 overpass draws more than 10,000 people, boasts its own proud and bizarre spectacles -- Zulu warriors, brass bands and Day-Glo feathered Indians among them -- and in its own separate reality offered a stark contrast to the hopeful hype that attended the more official, more publicized part of the city's Fat Tuesday.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) and others touted the ample Mardi Gras crowds and packed hotels elsewhere in the city as a sign of New Orleans's vitality.

"This is what Mardi Gras is about is New Orleans -- it's back, y'all, it's back!" he told a largely white Canal Street crowd to kick off the festivities.

But among those celebrating Under the Bridge, many noted the far smaller crowds in that area compared with pre-Katrina years, a product of the lingering devastation in African American neighborhoods. Moreover, people said, among those who have returned, the sense of celebration often masked the personal hardships of post-Katrina New Orleans.

"All that other stuff -- all that they're saying on TV about us coming back, about us rebuilding -- it's just a front," said Bennie Pete, the tuba player and band leader for the Hot 8 Brass Band, a local institution, a few hours before taking the stage beneath the overpass. "It's terrible here. People are struggling. Just look around."

He pointed to the nearby Lafitte housing complex, which has been closed since the storm. Metal shutters cover the windows of hundreds of units to prevent residents from returning. Notices posted warn passersby that anyone entering could be fined or jailed. Within view, many other buildings have been similarly abandoned.

"People need places to live," he said. "Now ask yourself: Why can't they reopen that?"

For the day at least, people at Under the Bridge where hugging and dancing and watching the peculiar spectacles, intentional or not, that abounded.

Crawfish could be had for $4 a pound, turkey necks or pigs feet for $3; other cooks stirred roadside vats of gumbo. Brass bands, a local tradition, played. Men sporting bright feathers -- a tradition supposedly started to honor the American Indians who once aided runaway slaves -- roamed and periodically shimmied to the music. Members of the Zulu krewe, whose parade ends nearby, sashayed about, wearing Afro wigs and grass skirts.

Beneath the masks and costumes and smiles, however, lurked tales of post-Katrina dislocation and ongoing struggle.

Jack Humphrey, 58, a construction worker who had just finished parading with the Zulu krewe as a "walking warrior" -- he was dressed in rabbit and cow skins, a grass skirt and a helmet affixed with bullhorns -- lost his home. "It's been really rough," he said.


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