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Mardi Gras Unease in the Big Easy
Words by Julian Drury
Image by Gretchen Gales
When one thinks of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is perhaps the first phrase that comes to mind. Carnival season has come to define New Orleans more than anything else. Millions of people flock to the city every year to take part in the festivities. For the tourists that visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras, nothing but excitement and revelry is said about the holiday. Many locals, however, have developed a strikingly different attitude toward Carnival season. For the locals of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is not a period where the good times roll. Rather, it is a season of unease and exhaustion.
Whenever parade season begins, I often roll my eyes. This is a shame. It is hard for me and many others to enjoy the days of partying. These parades are well done to be fair. The colorful bands, floats tossing parade fodder and beads, the music and food, all are great to partake it. That is, if you have the time, money, or convenience to participate. More often then not, the main benefactors of these parades and parties are tourists. Mardi Gras, these days, is associated mainly with tourism by the locals.
New Orleans’ economy is dominated by tourism. Due to this, the main job market in the city is the service and hospitality industry. Bars, restaurants, and hotels are the main job providers for the locals. These jobs are plentiful yet have mixed records on what the workers earn. Some of these establishments try and pay their workers well and offer them benefits. Other places don’t, however. There are no laws or regulations that require employers to give workers a living wage in the city or state.
The minimum wage in New Orleans is still $7.25 an hour, the federally mandated minimum wage that’s been in place since 2007. Despite the record number of tourists and profits that pour into the service industry, their workers haven’t gotten a raise in almost 12 years. Servers and bartenders make way less per hour, around $2.15 an hour. That is based on their main source of income being tips. Yet, anyone who’s worked in the service industry as a server or bartender will tell you, tips are not a stable source of income. Certain times of year can be very busy, and workers making decent tips. During certain months, in the summer, business slows down. This also means that tips slow down. During Mardi Gras, however, money can be quite good. Servers and bartenders can make great tips, and hourly workers can make good hours due to the high volume of business. There’s a catch: they’re working ALL THE TIME.
The volume of tourists coming to New Orleans during Mardi Gras is enormous. In 2017 alone, some 18 million tourists visited New Orleans. Millions of that number visited specifically around Mardi Gras time. Because of that high volume of people, the service industry finds itself incredibly busy and sometimes strained of resources. Servers, bartenders, cooks, and hotel staff will be working very long hours to accommodate the tourist traffic. Despite the amount of revenue the city makes from tourism, the working poor in New Orleans don’t often share in that prosperity. This can be good for earning a paycheck. Yet, this often leads to overwork and exhaustion. Working long, erratic, hours as well as being exhausted from that work inhibits these workers from enjoying the same festivities that they’re working to perfect.
Cost of living in New Orleans is also high, as compared to what most of its workers earn. Many locals are being priced out of their old neighborhoods. Rents can easily run 1,000 a month for a one-bedroom shotgun apartment. This may not sound like much to other, larger, cities. But since the wages in New Orleans are low by comparison, this is problematic. This condition forces the service workers to work as much as they can to pay their bills. Mardi Gras is an essential time of year for that work. This has left many locals unable to attend the parades, or to enjoy them to their full extent. This makes Mardi Gras an exhausting time of year, without a lot of time to enjoy the parades and parties that the tourists can.
There is another aspect to Mardi Gras that becomes straining for locals; street shutdowns. The parades are large in scope and take hours to complete. Many of the main streets between uptown and downtown are shut down for vehicle traffic. St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street are where most of these parades take place. They are both shut down to vehicle traffic at least two hours before the parades begin. On certain days you could have three parades, taking hours to complete. If you are someone who must get to the uptown or downtown area for work, school, emergencies, and so on, you had better plan to leave at least an hour or so earlier than the two-hour shut down period. Say you have to be at work at five pm and your job is in that parade zone, the streets shutdown vehicle traffic at three pm. So, you’d have to leave at least around two pm or sooner to avoid not having a way to get to work. Don’t even get me started about parking.
These factors usually create frustration for many locals, simply trying to go about their daily routine. The city doesn’t shut business down for these events, nor does life shut down. Mardi Gras becomes an added inconvenience for a lot of locals. This, in turn, becomes resentment. The tourists can enjoy themselves feely, without worry of jobs or other commitments. This has led to a perception that Mardi Gras is purely a tourist holiday. This makes locals, like me, feel resentful. Mardi Gras is supposed to be a New Orleans holiday, meant to be enjoyed by locals as much as tourists. Yet, the locals are treated more like theme-park employees in their own city. New Orleans, especially for Mardi Gras, has become an adult Disneyland.
Tourism is not a bad thing, to be fair. Everyone loves going on vacation, seeing new places, having new experiences. Yet, when a city’s entire economy becomes dependent on tourism, it makes the festivals and “culture” of the city seem fake. The locals know these festivals, like Mardi Gras, are only to reel in and cater to tourists anyway. Every year, a new festival seems to be created to pull in more tourist dollars. Many of the “authentic” New Orleans festivals and parades tourists witness, are devoted mainly to cater to them. They are about as spontaneous and cultural as Mickey Mouse greeting you in at Disneyland.
It is also worthy to note that there is an ecological issue associated with Mardi Gras. Millions of tons of plastic beads and trash accumulate over the years of these parades and festivities. The plastic beads are the worst of these. They are made with toxic chemicals that are not degradable. These beads get lodged into street drains, which cause a lot of issues with plumbing. It gets worse. 90% of these beads wind up in landfills and waterways that are eventually dumped into the ocean. One year 93,000 pounds of beads were excavated from St. Charles Avenue storm drains, which had caused flooding issues.
Mardi Gras is supposed to be a holiday for everyone in New Orleans. Yet, it has become dominated by tourists seeking an “authentic” New Orleans experience. Mardi Gras today is about as authentic as those beads the floats toss at you. Locals like me resent these circumstances, yet it seems impossible to change it at this point. New Orleans depends on tourism. Sadly, this makes many locals trapped in a service industry economy that overworks them, underpays them, and frustrates them when they should be in just as much celebration as the tourists they serve.
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