Helen Fish grew up experiencing Carnival the Metairie way. She remembers watching the Krewe of Caesar near Bonnabel Boulevard with her folks, and she still takes her own family to see Caesar every year.
But when she finally decided that she wanted to ride with a krewe herself, she chose Muses in New Orleans, not a suburban parade. The past two years, she has ridden with Iris on the main Uptown route.
"When you put so much time and money into your ride, it's even more fun to see the streets lined with families and tourists," said Fish, 42. "There's nothing like the ride on St. Charles Avenue."
The gravitational pull of the main Uptown route, where this year's parades started rolling on Friday, has been draining some of the luster from suburban Carnival celebrations for years.
But the trend looks particularly acute this season. Jefferson Parish will have only 10 parades, one of those a children's krewe, plus two truck krewes. Only one procession rolls on the West Bank.
That compares with nearly two dozen Jefferson krewes back in the 1990s, when parades in Metairie hit the streets nightly with a more family-friendly approach than what was going on downtown.
These days, membership in Jefferson's krewes is sagging, and those that remain are having a harder time paying their expenses, especially for big-ticket items like marching bands.
"It's tough, it really is," said Norman Bourgeois, a captain of the Krewe of Centurions. "It's tough to get membership. I think younger people are very hard to attract."
In Orleans Parish, krewes have proliferated and attracted thousands of new members, many of whom live in Jefferson. Whole Mardi Gras organizations that used to parade on the West Bank, including Alla and Choctaw, have shifted to Uptown.
The problem is alarming not only to those who look back fondly on the more family-oriented Carnival of the suburbs, but also to the government officials who rely on the annual celebration to bolster Jefferson's bottom line.
Officials are actively looking for ways to help the krewes. The annual Family Gras festival has helped bolster celebrations in Metairie. In 2016, it drew a reported 110,000 attendees. This year's two-day event was headlined by acts like Cyndi Lauper.
In 2014, the Parish Council started Rhythm on the Route, a contest that offers prize money to the best marching bands in each Jefferson parade. Money for the prizes comes from council members' district funds. Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken said she felt it was a good way to help all the Jefferson krewes lure marching bands to their parades.
The Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday allocated $25,000 each to two Carnival krewes that one councilman said are key to helping lure touri…
In the past, the Parish Council had offered aid to some krewes, but this year it reached a new height: $85,000 in public money was doled out to four krewes. Athena, Caesar and Centurions each got $25,000, and Adonis, the lone remaining West Bank parade, got $10,000.
This year, at least, captains of all four krewes said the money would go to helping them recruit and pay for marching bands to fill out their parades and let them meet parish regulations, which require at least eight bands in each parade.
Representatives of two other Metairie krewes, Pandora and Isis, told WVUE-TV they felt the subsidies are unfair if they aren't given to all.
More changes are in the offing. A route change is likely for the 2019 parades — another measure that officials hope will help reverse the trend of declining crowds and riders. A task force will also be gathering public feedback on ways to lure parade watchers back.
"It's not going to be an easy task," Van Vrancken said. "But I do think it's worth exploring."
One recurrent complaint from krewes is the Metairie parade route, which includes a loop along Bonnabel Boulevard. Attendance along that part of the route, which is largely residential, is sparse, especially given the late hour at which most parades reach it.
"It's not the greatest route down there," said Bob Carnesi, captain of Caesar. "You can't park down there."
Parish President Mike Yenni agreed the route needs to originate farther west along Veterans Boulevard. Parades may start closer to Transcontinental Drive, which is also a residential area, he said, but it would be at the start of the parade, rather than near the end. Some of those changes could be in place for next year, he added.
Caesar is one of Jefferson Parish's largest krewes, with about 550 members. That's far less, however, than the 800 or so it had before Hurricane Katrina.
"Everybody's having trouble in suburbs," Carnesi said. Change can't come just from the government, he said. Krewes may have to look at making their own changes.
For instance, Caesar, which is an all-male krewe, may have to study whether to accept female members.
"Maybe we got to change that," he said. "Something has to be done, that's for sure."