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.
Blair Conerly, 33, a barber and Mardi Gras Indian, had to commute from Dallas, where he now lives.
Pete, the tuba player, comes in from neighboring Kenner because his home in the Ninth Ward was destroyed. Just a few months ago, in the midst of one of the city's crimes waves, a member of his band was shot and killed while driving with his wife and child.
Asked whether the hard-hit Ninth Ward would ever come back, Pete exhaled forcefully enough to billow his cheeks.
"If it ever does, it will be a really, really long time," he said. "The answer is, I really don't know."
The city is still half-empty, by most estimates, and the toll has been heaviest on black residents. The proportion of African Americans residing in the city is estimated to have slipped from nearly 70 percent before Katrina to about 55 percent now.
The Lower Ninth Ward remains almost desolate, with only a handful of trailers to signal any intention of residents returning. On some blocks nearest the canal-wall breaches, nearly all of the homes already have been torn down.
In New Orleans East, once a vast area of middle-class African Americans, there are just a few more trailers and a lingering wonder about whether the community will come back. On one typical block, only about four of 24 homes are occupied.
"We're pioneers out here," said Leroy Thomas III, a cable installer fixing up his New Orleans East home. "We don't really know what's going to happen here. But right now, I don't have time for Mardi Gras."
Even among those who have returned, the struggles in post-Katrina New Orleans have cut any appetite for celebration.
Ernest Penns, 74, a church deacon living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in a nearly deserted street in the Lower Ninth Ward, said he couldn't think about Mardi Gras now -- at least until he could get back into his home or at least get the heater fixed in the trailer.
"There's no peace of mind for us yet," he said.