NEW ORLEANS - A growing chorus of critics, concerned that throwing a massive party would be unseemly and impractical when much of New Orleans remains in ruins, are pressuring authorities to do the unthinkable: call off Mardi Gras.
City officials and tourism leaders have pledged to use an abbreviated carnival this winter as a springboard, a way to reintroduce New Orleans as a viable city. Their October announcement that Mardi Gras would go on despite Hurricane Katrina met with an enormous cheer.
But many community activists — particularly leaders of poor, black neighborhoods that were destroyed by the floodwaters and have sat virtually untouched since — have turned against the idea.
"We're not against Mardi Gras. We're against their priorities," ChiQuita Simms, a displaced New Orleans resident who is organizing a protest, said of city leaders. "It is not a time
to conduct party planning."
The protest is scheduled to be held in Atlanta — where a large number of displaced New Orleans residents are living — when the Saints travel there for a "Monday Night Football" game against the Falcons.
Other community leaders have threatened to launch a petition drive and to put up billboards urging a boycott of the festival if it cannot be derailed.
"Every ounce of their energy and money, everything they have, should be focused on rebuilding the city and the lives of its people," said Simms, who is a marketer and event planner. "How are you going to have Mardi Gras when you can't tell people when the lights are going to get turned on? It's an insult."
Holding the carnival, Simms said, would give the nation the false impression that New Orleans has recovered from the storm. And the problem is not merely one of image, she said: "Who is going take care of the people who come in? Who is going to clean your hotel room? Who is going to take your luggage at the airport? Who is going to clean up afterward?"
Mayor C. Ray Nagin leapt into the fray Tuesday. Although he said that he still believed Mardi Gras should go on, he called upon the hotel and tourism industries to devote a portion of the money earned to programs that would help rebuild the city.
"I want to see the industry step up and say we're doing Mardi Gras not just for our profits and for our bottom line, but to support the rebuilding effort," Nagin said. "If they do that, I think the noise will go down."
Many business leaders insisted that staging the famed carnival would be essential to the rebuilding effort. Before Katrina left the city depleted and broke, tourism was a $5.5-billion-a-year industry — almost a fifth of that was attributed to Mardi Gras — and supported more than 75,000 jobs. Officials estimate the city has lost $15.2 million every day in direct tourism revenue since the storm.
"It's critical that we put on a great Mardi Gras," said Dan King, general manager of the New Orleans Sheraton, a 1,110-room downtown hotel. "I know there are those who are questioning whether we can have a celebration when so many people don't have homes. But if we really want to help rebuild the city, one of the best ways we can do that is to bring business back, which creates jobs and tax revenue and primes the pump."
Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the first Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. Plans call for an abbreviated, eight-day celebration culminating with Fat Tuesday — the traditional climax, the day before Ash Wednesday — on Feb. 28. There typically are almost two weeks of parades.
The hotel industry emerged from Katrina relatively intact and has made one of the stronger pitches for moving forward with Mardi Gras. Before the storm, there were 36,000 rooms in New Orleans. There are 25,000 today — although most are occupied by government officials, contractors, insurance adjusters and the like. There will probably be 30,000 rooms ready by Mardi Gras, King said. City officials anticipate that many of the workers now occupying hotel rooms will be gone by then.
Arthur Hardy — a New Orleans resident who has published the Mardi Gras Guide, a popular festival handbook, for three decades — said there were legitimate questions about the scope of the carnival and how the city would cater to visitors. But if Mardi Gras were canceled, he said, "it would be an announcement that New Orleans is not open for business."
"People may come to support the city. They may come for curiosity. We just don't know," he said. "But we have to go on and do our best."
It is a crucial business decision, he said; convention organizers have told tourism executives that they are going to see how New Orleans handles Mardi Gras before determining whether to return. But it's not just about money, Hardy said.
"It is entirely correct that we do it even if not one visitor shows up," he said. "It's like group therapy. We need something to cheer about."
But Jerome Cosey, 25, a New Orleans native and rap artist who goes by the name 5th Ward Weebie, isn't in the mood for celebration.
Three generations of his family's homes were damaged or destroyed in the flood. Like thousands of others, he is in exile, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Houston.
"Our spirit is down, man," Cosey said. The rapper, who is planning to take part in the protest next week, said Katrina had exposed the true nature of New Orleans — a tiny tourism hotbed full of fancy restaurants and boutique hotels, surrounded by impoverished black neighborhoods with terrible schools and no jobs.
To urban blacks, he said, holding Mardi Gras would be "a kick in the face."
The divide over the carnival rests largely along racial lines. That is hardly unheard of in New Orleans, where blacks, who comprised the majority of the population before Katrina struck, have had a complex and standoffish relationship with the city's windfall event.
White krewes and social clubs that make up the majority of parade participants fought into the 1990s against calls to integrate, even while Mardi Gras serves as a celebration of a culture — food and music, mostly — brought to New Orleans largely by blacks.
"In New Orleans, everything is about race at the end of the day," Cosey said.
"Who will they be holding this party for? They shouldn't be preparing for Mardi Gras," he said. "They should be trying to get families back in neighborhoods. They should be trying to get New Orleans back on its feet."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times