Metairie Mardi Gras at crossroads, with higher standards, more fines, route proposals

Krewe of Caesar Parade
(Gallery by Peter Forest)

Mardi Gras in Metairie has reached another of its occasional crossroads. Down one path lies the upholding of such Carnival parade customs as masking and marching bands, as well as a unified route for krewes to follow through New Orleans’ most populous suburb. Down the other potentially lies the survival of some financially struggling krewes, as well as some changes in the current route and perhaps the designation of an alternate course as well.

The turning point came into view during the final week of Lent, with two developments that could affect the pre-Lenten festivities next year:

  • Jefferson Parish officials disclosed that they had fined six krewes, including two that parade on the West Bank, a total of $6,000 for violating the parade ordinance during Carnival 2013. That’s more than four times the fines of 2012, reflecting some new rules that were adopted in November and signaling stricter enforcement of regulations.
  • The Parish Council completed appointments to a new committee that will study whether to change the current Metairie parade route, and to offer an alternate course that krewes might choose. Some krewes want to stay on Veterans Memorial Boulevard, albeit with new westward loop replacing the Bonnabel Boulevard loop near the end. Others seek a more sociable route on Metairie Road.

Taken together, the 2013 violations reports and the establishment of the route committee portend a year of soul-searching before it becomes apparent how many krewes will be able to roll in 2014, and where.

“Metairie Mardi Gras needs a makeover,” Mardi Gras Guide publisher Arthur Hardy wrote on his blog after Carnival 2013. “The quantity and quality of most parades continues to decline.”

Carnival customs have evolved steadily since New Orleans’ first parade in 1857. Just in the past 50 years, doubloon throws have been invented, surged in popularity and faded into relative obscurity, even as floats have super-sized and bead throws have grown longer, heavier, more colorful and more coveted.

Krewes appear and disappear regularly, only some enduring for decades. Jefferson Parish at one point hosted 23 parades; this year, the schedule had 15, three of them subsidized with public money.

In Metairie amid see-sawing economics over the past 20 years, krewe leaders and residents have debated the comparative value of having fewer parades with higher standards, or more parades with fewer rules for floats and bands. Depending on the financial fortunes of the krewes and the political figures in office at any given time, parish officials have alternately raised and lowered the standards, and alternately talked tough on violators or looked the other way.

“It seems like the Carnival ordinance was never really enforced,” said Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, who took office in 2009 and whose district includes the Metairie parade route. “You would hear it from the captains themselves.”

Of late, the trend has been to raise the standards and enforce them as written, in hopes of reversing what Krewe of Zeus logistics officer Brian Landry calls “the deterioration of Carnival in Jefferson Parish over the past 10 years.” Beginning in 2012, krewe members riding on conventional floats were required by law to costume and mask. Beginning in 2013, that rule was extended to truck parades, and the minimum number of marching bands started rising one per year until it reaches 10 in 2019.

As a result, the Krewe of Jefferson was fined $2,500 this year for having 500 unmasked riders in its truck parade. Metairie’s other truck krewe, Elks Jeffersonians, was fined $1,800 for having 300 unmasked riders and other violations. Thor’s fine was $900 for unmasked riders and too few bands, Atlas was hit up for $500 for too few bands – its second consecutive year for financial sanctions -- and Adonis in Terrytown was dunned $200 for insufficient masking and other violations.

Among the three krewes with unblemished records the past two years – Caesar, Centurions and Excalibur – Caesar captain Bob Carnesi thinks the current requirements help improve parades. “We’re in favor of the status quo,” said Carnesi, whose krewe regularly puts on one of Metairie’s premier street shows.

The route question is a different matter, however. Caesar and six other krewes have proposed changing the Veterans course by eliminating the loop around residential Bonnabel Boulevard. They suggest starting their parades by rolling west from Houma Boulevard to Transcontinental Drive, then doubling back for the long eastward trek down Veterans.

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The change would bypass a residential area where crowds of late have been thin, Carnesi said, but it could draw new spectators from communities to the west, such as Kenner and Destrehan. One challenge will be securing state permission to close Clearview Parkway, a state highway that the parades would cross in each direction.

On the other hand, Zeus, Hera and Argus have proposed abandoning Veterans altogether, said Landry and Carnesi, both of whom have been appointed to the east bank parade committee. These three krewes took their case to the Metairie Road Business Association on Monday.

“It’s like comparing an airport runway to an oak-lined lane,” Landry said.

The downside to Metairie Road is that it’s narrow, three lanes at its widest point, with little right-of-way and few sidewalks for spectators and limited parking in adjacent neighborhoods. Nearby homeowners, while already enjoying or at least enduring the annual St. Patrick’s parade, might not cotton to the traffic and noise of three more parades in late winter and early spring.

Landry sees the upside: The family-friendly atmosphere of rolling up a quaint, attractive road a la St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. “Wouldn’t you rather attend a house party in Old Metairie and walk to the parade,” he said, “than stand outside a Burger King on Veterans for one?”