Sixty years ago as a trumpet player in the Beauregard Junior High School marching band, I discovered what was so special about Mardi Gras.
For 16 years, I saw it firsthand in scores of parades as director of the Brother Martin High School band. And for the past four decades that I’ve been reporting on Mardi Gras in print, on radio and on television, the most significant observation that I have made is this: Mardi Gras brings people together in a way that is completely unique. There is simply no other event in the world where such large crowds gather peacefully, day after day, to enjoy the free entertainment and each other. And that is why a recommendation from the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Advisory Committee on March 22 to rename Lee Circle as Mardi Gras Circle makes so much sense. Mardi Gras is the city’s signature event, a unifying celebration that represents our culture and diversity.
Historically, we have celebrated together on the streets in good times and in not-so-good times, such as during the Great Depression, after World Wars, and, most recently, after Hurricane Katrina. The city can force a krewe to cancel a parade; it can’t force a krewe to roll. After Katrina, krewe members — private citizens — decided that there would be a Mardi Gras, signaling to the world the resilience of New Orleans.
Even when the celebration itself was under attack in the early 1990s when reaction to an anti-discrimination ordinance caused temporary battle lines to be drawn, it was Mardi Gras parades that brought the community back together. I’m betting that Mardi Gras Circle will have the same healing effect as we move past the recent controversies over statues and monuments.
As New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial, it is worth noting that Mardi Gras has been an essential part of the city’s history for more than half these 300 years. Street masking and private balls occurred in the late-1700s. In 1857, the Mistick Krewe of Comus presented the first organized Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.
In 1874, 10 years before the Robert E. Lee statue was erected in New Orleans, Rex paraded past the area, then known as Tivoli Circle. For 142 years, families have gathered in harmony to enjoy hundreds of Mardi Gras parades that have passed the site. For decades, the city erected official parade-reviewing stands at the circle. Today, all 34 New Orleans parades roll past this location.
The name Mardi Gras Circle would not invite the public controversy that naming the landmark after an individual surely will: “Why Tom Benson Circle and not Fats Domino? Allen Toussaint and not Leah Chase? Andrew Higgins and not Pete Fountain?”
Finally, Mardi Gras Circle would fill a long-standing need for a monument in downtown New Orleans that commemorates the city’s oldest and largest local festival and world-class tourist attraction. Visitors to the city are amazed that as important as Mardi Gras is to our image and our economy, there exists no monument to it other than a fountain on the lakefront, four miles from downtown where the parades roll. Mardi Gras Circle could itself become a tourist attraction.
Perhaps a monument design competition could be held in which the city’s rich community of artists and designers can participate.
With more than 100 krewes in New Orleans, some of which parade through the streets, and others which stage private balls, finding support and funding for the project should not be difficult. Either at the participant or spectator level, hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists, and scores of businesses, are involved in the celebration every year.
Mardi Gras is New Orleans' gift to the nation, our most vibrant and lasting contribution to American life. It deserves its place on the pedestal.
Arthur Hardy is Louisiana's best-known historian of Mardi Gras.