New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is one of those legendary events about which everyone you know either has an outlandish story, or wishes they did. From the glitz and glam of celebrity-studded super krewe parades, to the insane Superdome ball headlined by performers like Pitbull and Steven Tyler, to the low-key, campy, and occasionally Star Wars-themed walking krewes, Mardi Gras’ weeks of parades, balls, and partying have a top spot on many a traveler’s bucket list.
But in a post-Katrina landscape where so much of New Orleans’ culture has been uprooted and replaced by something more cautious, more white, and more gentrified, is Mardi Gras still the same?
Though events like Mardi Gras helped New Orleans set record-breaking numbers for visitors and tourist spending in 2016, critics worry growing regulations aimed at cutting down on parade times and partying on the sidelines are slowly ruining the local flavor of the famous festival.
And then there’s the hipster effect. Demographic shifts in post-Katrina New Orleans have led to some unwelcome trends. For example, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of the indie band Arcade Fire (New Orleans residents since 2014), have started their own Mardi Gras krewe, Krewe du Kanaval, to benefit Chassagne’s Haitian relief organization, KANPE. The duo is eschewing traditions like the annual krewe ball and typical opening ceremonies in favor of a founder’s brunch and an open-to-the-public “Afro-Caribbean block party sound system.”
It’s part of a series of moves by the Arcade Fire-duo that, as the Gambit’s Alex Woodward put it, have sparked “some debate over appropriation and cultural exchange and the appropriate depths of [the band’s] immersion in New Orleans traditions.”
Those debates—and the buzzkilling regulations—probably won’t end anytime soon, but neither will the traditions. And while beads, music, and adults in costumes are all very good reasons to keep Mardi Gras alive, there’s an even better one: Many New Orleans’ krewes are year-round organizations that perform charity work beyond the Carnival season.
The parades are free to attend, but krewes still earn revenue through annual memberships (ranging from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 or more) and ticketed events like balls. Some of that revenue goes toward putting on parades and events, but members largely provide their own costumes, beads, and other “throws” given away during a parade. This leaves a big chunk of krewe proceeds to support charities and community involvement. Unlike Arcade Fire’s Krewe du Kanaval, for the most part benefiting organizations are local.
Through charity work and community involvement, krewes lift up the neighborhoods and people that need it most. Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the city’s oldest krewes with deep roots in historically black neighborhoods like the 9th Ward, tosses out hand-decorated coconuts during its Mardi Gras day parade and then spends the rest of the year donating to scholarship funds, giving out bikes to needy children, and hosting an annual Christmas event that benefits low-income families.
Through the Pro Bono Publico Foundation, Rex, one of the city’s biggest krewes, awards grants each year to New Orleans-area schools. The grants help local schools open new buildings and take on new students. Since inception, the foundation has issued more than $6.5 million in grant funding. In the 2017-18 season, 63 grants were awarded to schools serving some 34,000 students. The New Orleans public school system, long in dire straits, struggled immensely after Katrina. Most public schools became charters, which have thrived in the last decade, due in no small part from grants by groups like Rex.
Beyond being an all-female krewe in a male-dominated tradition, Muses is also heavily involved in charity work benefiting women and children, running fundraisers throughout the year through their foundation. During the Carnival season, the krewe ramps up its efforts, leveraging the undeniable appeal of the krewe’s official symbol—a shoe. Hand-decorated, highly-coveted shoes are tossed from parade floats and auctioned off by charities like the St. Bernard Project, which assists in building housing for low-income families. Once a year, one parade float is given to local charities like Newcomb College, Grace House (a residential substance abuse treatment center for women), and Dress for Success. And in every parade, a local woman is rewarded for her public service and given an honorary ride at the front of the parade in a 17-foot tall, fiber optic, high heel.
And it isn’t just the super krewes with oversized parades getting in the helping spirit. Smaller, quirkier walking parades also do their bit. The Mystic Krewe of Barkus, the city’s only krewe for canines (and some honorary feline members), was originally dreamed up in a French Quarter bar. During Carnival, the Krewe of Barkus walking parade features adoptable pets from local shelters and culminates in a pet adoption and animal welfare event in Armstrong Park.
And that investment in the local community is really the reason that Mardi Gras is still a worthwhile party, hipsters and regulations be damned.