When Will Mardi Gras Be Back to Normal?
Every year at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the troops of Mardi Gras Indians dance under the Claiborne overpass on the edge of the Treme neighborhood, one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the country. Thousands of people eat and dance as the colorful troops show off their intricate hand-made costumes of thousands of feathers and beads. The troops originated when Mardi Gras parades in the rest of the city were a white only affair and the African-Americans in the city celebrated Mardi Gras while giving a tribute to Native Americans that housed run away slaves. This, not the huge floats that roll down Canal Street is seen by many as the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans. You won't find drunk tourists flashing for beads here. This is where you go to dance and sweat and experience the incredible culture that has grown out of neighborhoods that are still struggling to rebuild and bring those culture bearers home. It's also where you go to see the 12,000 homeless men, women and children that are living in tents throughout a concentrated area of downtown.
That 12,000 figure doesn't even count the 'untraditional homeless' - folks living doubled up still after 2 and a half years with aunts and cousins, or those folks who have moved back into unfixed and unsafe houses. There's still a huge mismatch between housing costs and incomes - both rentals and homes for sale are sitting on the market for months because people in the low wage tourism economy of New Orleans can't afford them. A large part of the problem is much of the housing stock provided by HUD prior to the storm isn't being rebuilt. In fact, HUD has yet to release a comprehensive plan for the rebuilding the 12,000 units that housed the elderly, the disabled and families making less than $16,000 prior to the storm.
The largest homeless encampment abuts where the Mardi Indians celebrate every year - I have no idea what will happen today when these two groups collide. But people in New Orleans are used to uncomfortable juxtapositions in their hard work to rebuild. They are desperately wanting to celebrate. We can't truly celebrate until we finally see neighborhoods fully rebuilt and families moved off the streets and into houses. But for a day, maybe the Mardi Gras Indians can remind us of the real New Orleans we all love -- and still miss.