New Orleans is currently alive with celebrations for the annual Mardi Gras festival. As ever, the celebrations end on Fat Tuesday, the last day before Lent begins, which means that it falls on the same day as Shrove Tuesday in the UK. Tuesday 21st February marks the occasion this year, and will see tourists and locals alike flood the streets to dress up, watch the parades and catch the beads thrown from the floats.
Although the history of Mardi Gras is uncertain, it is generally thought that the celebrations originated in Europe and were brought to America by French settlers who set up camp 60 miles south of the city that is now New Orleans. They named the area ‘Pont do Mardi Gras,’ commemorating the annual celebration that took place in their home country. The French influence in the city meant that masked balls became popular, and although the festival was briefly outlawed during Prohibition, it has remained an annual event ever since. Many of the elements which are now associated with the carnival have been prevalent since the late 19th century and, although the festival has changed with the society and culture that surrounds it, it remains a highlight of the year for both locals and tourists alike. Today, Mardi Gras consists of nearly 3 weeks of celebrations, culminating in the final weekend before Fat Tuesday when there are multiple parades and balls. Streets are closed to allow for parades and there is an unrivalled atmosphere in the city.
Unfortunately, recent Mardi Gras celebrations have been overshadowed by a high crime rate and a reputation for drunkenness and debauchery, despite the festival being intended as a family event. The French Quarter is often the area that is highlighted by the media during the celebrations, and is known to be dangerous, with even the official Mardi Gras website warning visitors to take precautions in the area. Although no parades take place here, the area has become associated with the event because of the after parties and, as such, ‘adult’ behaviour and petty crime is common. Visitors are advised not to carry large amounts of cash or valuables, and to make sure that their pockets and bags are secured. A year-round 8pm curfew has been imposed on minors in the French Quarter, in an attempt to ensure their safety, although visitors are not recommended to bring their children to the area at all during the celebrations. Bourbon Street is known for its party reputation year round and it is understandable that this mentality increases during Mardi Gras: by concentrating on the binge drinking and flashing that is only present in the French Quarter, though, the media threatens to overshadow the true nature of the event.
Given that Mardi Gras brings an average of 1 million tourists to New Orleans each year, and generates over $1 billion dollars for the economy, it seems a shame that it’s popularity could be threatened by rising crime in the city: the murder rate in New Orleans rose by 14% to 199 in 2011, making it the highest homicide rate in the USA. During Saturday’s parades there were 69 arrests and, although many were for public intoxication, there have also been reports of at least 3 shootings and one fatality over the weekend. Although the festival is intended to bring the city together in celebration, problematic media coverage and worrying levels of crime seem to overshadow the realities of the event, and threaten to spoil a much loved tradition.