Newcomers to the city may find it strange, but not too many years ago New Orleans measured the success of Carnival by a strange metric: the amount of trash picked up off city streets. In 2002, then-Mayor Marc Morial boasted that the city had set a new record by picking up 4,548,000 pounds of beads, cups, food wrappers, crawfish leavings and other Carnival refuse. The following year, in his first year in office as mayor, Ray Nagin announced that Mardi Gras would no longer be measured in tons of litter. "We're just not going to continue to reinforce that trashing the city is a good thing," Nagin said before asking, "That's how we measure success?"
We agreed with Nagin then and we still agree: Measuring Mardi Gras in terms of trash is not a good thing. No one would measure the success of a party in their home by the amount of garbage left in their backyard. There are better ways to measure Mardi Gras' success. Here are a few:
• Hotel occupancy. Measuring the number of visitors by hotel room rentals ("room nights" in the trade parlance) may strike some as a rough metric. It doesn't factor in the number of people in each room, for instance, and it completely excludes friends and relatives taking up residence in spare bedrooms or on air mattresses in countless living rooms. Still, it's a good measure of Carnival's economic impact. As of last week, Kelly Schulz of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) said the CVB was still culling occupancy numbers for 2013, but she told Gambit that Mardi Gras typically brings about a million people to town.
• Krewe membership and ridership. In Orleans and Jefferson parishes, 39 major parades rolled this season. That doesn't count Hera and Zeus, Jefferson Parish's traditional Lundi Gras parades, which canceled their rolls due to weather concerns. In 2006, as the city was just beginning to recover from Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures, Mardi Gras guru Arthur Hardy told CNN there were only 28 parades. Perhaps the most remarkable growth in Carnival in the years since Katrina has been the explosion in the number and variety of walking krewes, whose D.I.Y. spirit exemplifies what Carnival is all about. Traditional groups like Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Club (back this year for its 53rd appearance) have been joined by wildly creative groups such as the krewes of Chewbacchus and 'tit Rex. And anyone in the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday couldn't help but see groups ranging from a few people to a few dozen people marching under banners old and new.
• Overall economic impact. Trying to figure out just how much money Mardi Gras brings to the city is something economists can only estimate, but this year those rough totals are even more difficult to measure because Super Bowl XLVII was sandwiched between two weeks of Carnival fun. And, of course, personal economic impact is even more variable; a person who sells beer is more likely to see it than a person who sells antiques. Final economic impact estimates are forthcoming, but all the numbers in the world don't outweigh personal experience for New Orleanians.
• Beauty. One of the most important aspects of Carnival is also the most unquantifiable: its beauty. New Orleans puts on Mardi Gras for the sheer pleasure of doing so. That fact was in ample evidence this year, from the glittering parade displays (see Rex Duke's™ assessment of this year's parades, p. 27) to the breathtaking suits of the Mardi Gras Indians. Beauty mixed with wit abounded as usual in the Faubourg Marigny, which has become Costume Central for locals on Fat Tuesday. In fact, it's tough to find revelers who are not in creative costumes between Franklin and Esplanade avenues. Beauty also can be found along suburban parade routes, where costumes and floats may not be as glittery, but Mardi Gras tradition lives on every time someone hands a child his or her first string of colorful beads. It's all beautiful, and it's all Mardi Gras.
By whatever measure, we hope this year's Mardi Gras was memorable. And now, with two weekends of Carnival and one extremely successful Super Bowl behind us, it's time for New Orleans to take a little rest. Not for too long — spring is almost here, and that brings festival season. We never stop celebrating for long, and we thank goodness for that.