There's no doubt in my mind that everyone in the Greater New Orleans area has some type of fond Mardi Gras memory from their early years. Carnival is so ingrained into our culture and our very identity that it's hard not to have experienced it in some shape or form, like having house parties, drinking with loved ones in the city, and especially going out to take part in the beautiful parades that roll for this festive occasion. New Orleans holds some of the most spectacular parades of the season like Endymion, Zulu, Rex and many more that have special places in people's hearts. However, for me, my most treasured parade experiences were always where I grew up—on the Westbank.
Having been born in Gretna in the early 90s, I remember, even vaguely, that my family and I were able to trek around most of the Westbank to see almost all of the parades that were close to us. I recall waving my hands in the air, screaming to the heavens, and getting hit in the head by beads from Grela, Aladdin, Choctaw, Poseidon, King Arthur, Adonis, Marc Anthony, NOMTOC and Ulysses. Of course, there would never be a Mardi Gras season for us unless we made sure to hit up two of the biggest parades we had on the Westbank: Cleopatra, an all-female krewe, and Alla, which used to be an all-male krewe and will be celebrating its 85th anniversary in 2017. Our favorite go-to spots for these parades were near the Burger King on Terry Parkway in Terrytown and underneath the Westbank Expressway after walking there from Garden Park. As a kid, I was enthralled and terrified by the giant decorated floats that would pass us by. I would shiver and shake to the rhythm of the drum cadences from the local high school bands and would give off a happy squeal whenever I successfully caught some Mardi Gras beads, then proceed to get a crick in my neck from proudly wearing all of my loot for the rest of the parade.
By the time I started attending Archbishop Shaw High School, the number of krewes parading on the Westbank had already started to dwindle. King Arthur moved to Uptown in 2001 and Aladdin, Marc Anthony, Poseidon and Ulysses are sadly no more. I joined the marching band in high school and our band director always made it a point to have us participate in some of the local parades that were going on each year (he also bribed us with a free pizza party if we marched in all of the parades for each season). These parades usually included Endymion, Druids, Thoth and, much to my glee, Cleopatra and Alla. I can hardly describe the feelings I had when I found out that I would be marching in two of the parades I had grown up watching. I would be in the parades that had given me such childhood happiness.
If you've never ridden in a float or marched in a parade for Mardi Gras, then you are missing out on an interesting experience, especially if you are participating in a parade that's rolling near where you grew up. Marching through Gretna and Terrytown for five years during my high school career, it was very weird to see myself from an entirely different perspective. I went from cheering and having the time of my life on the sidewalk to being cheered at while playing music in the middle of the street. While the promise of free pizza was like being offered solid gold to my teenaged self, I think what honestly made me continue to march in Cleopatra and Alla for five years was seeing all of the crowds that came out for the parades.
Having been to all of the different Westbank parades as a kid, it didn't finally strike me how these parades can draw a community together until I was away from the crowds. All of the parades brought the Westbank together in a big way. During my time in the band, I saw hundreds of people, most of whom I didn't know, but I could always pick out at least one familiar face every time we marched. And they all came together to have a great time as a community. They drank their water or alcohol from their personal coolers, let their children get up close to the throwers who gave them all of the best throws that could be caught, gave roaring cheers and called out the names of all of the bands that past them, and occasionally threw beads or beer cans at us if they were having a bit too much fun. It was a beautiful sight to see and encompassed what I believe is Mardi Gras's greatest defining role: to bring together strangers in a community, where everyone—adults and children alike—can have a great time with each other.
Unfortunately, since having graduated from college in 2015, I've witnessed the number of parades that are still on the Westbank decrease even more. Cleopatra, Choctaw and Alla have since moved their routes to Uptown and Grela hasn't been parading since 2012, leaving NOMTOC and Adonis as the only Westbank parades that are rolling for the 2017 season. The biggest reason I see that these parades keep moving to the other side of the river is that they're not getting the local support anymore. Many Westbankers are either going to the Eastbank to see parades or are not going out at all. These Westbank parades were rolling through empty streets and they just couldn't support themselves if hardly anyone showed up to see them. The sense of coming together as community that I saw when I was younger just isn't happening anymore and it's hurting Mardi Gras for everyone on the Westbank.
However, there can still be a future for Mardi Gras on the Westbank if the local communities from the Westbank, and even the Eastbank and beyond, come out to support the parades that are still here and are still running—Adonis and NOMTOC. As of this writing, Adonis is scheduled to roll on Saturday, February 18, at 11:45 a.m. and NOMTOC is planned for Saturday, February 25, at 10:45 a.m. Also, the Krewe of Athena has been planning and requesting to move its route from Metairie to Terrytown for the 2017 season. *Editor's Note: a new Westbank parade, the Krewe of the Culinary Queens of New Orleans, is now rolling in 2022.
The Uptown and Mid-City parades are a sight to behold, but we can't forget about the other parades that are putting in the effort to give us a fun Mardi Gras for everyone. It truly does hurt to see local communities no longer going out to the parades they once so loved to take part in. Go out and show your support for these parades so that, in the future, we as local Westbankers can still have a reason to bring our children out to have a real good "Carnival Time" on the Bestbank.