With Mardi Gras Parades Canceled, Floats Find a New Home
By Annie Flanagan and Akasha Rabut
NEW ORLEANS – The sunset streamed through the warehouse windows where René Píerre had carved styrofoam float supports, and carefully added dozens of decorations for this year’s Mardi Gras celebration on Tuesday.
Mr. Píerre owns Crescent City Artists and has been a Mardi Gras Float Artist for 34 years. But this time he had to find a new way of doing things. The parades were canceled by the city to prevent large crowds from gathering, leaving him and other celebrities decided to build floats in front of people’s houses instead.
It was mid-January and just a few weeks before the celebration, Mr. Píerre’s clothes and hands were covered in paint. Two float artists and an experienced float carpenter worked alongside him. “I’m running on steam now,” said Mr Pierre.
Mr Píerre was not sure whether the celebration would take place at all.
As the coronavirus spread, tourism was one of the first activities to go away. That’s no more obvious than during Carnival season, which usually brings millions of dollars to New Orleans every year.
The loss of parades is both financial and spiritual. Since the first New Orleans Mardi Gras in 1857, elaborate floats have roamed the city on the last Tuesday before Lent. Thousands of people fill the streets, and marching bands and dance teams come from all over to perform. Their horns and drums echoed off buildings. Social clubs and groups of artists and organizers, known by names like Krewe von Orpheus and Krewe von Musen, spend practically every month of the year preparing floats and celebrations.
But not this time. Marching bands won’t march. Bars all over the city are closed. When the parades were canceled, dozens of float artists and carpenters were laid off.
But the city wasn’t ready to give up. Shortly after the cancellation was announced, a woman, Megan Boudreaux, said on Twitter: “It’s decided. We’ll do it. Turn your house into a car and toss any pearls from your attic and neighbors who walk by. “
The idea came up and Krewes like Muses and Red Beans started working on houses almost immediately.
Ms. Boudreaux founded the Krewe of House Floats, which keeps track of the number of installations she and others have built in the city. There are around 3,000 house cars in the New Orleans area.
“I think it really speaks to how desperate people were for something positive to look forward to,” said Ms. Boudreaux. “It doesn’t matter if your budget is zero and you recycle cardboard boxes or if your budget is tens of thousands of dollars and you have a mansion in St. Charles. We want everyone who wants to do this to take part. “
Krewe from Red Beans has provided frontline workers with meals and found work for unemployed artists. It is said to have raised nearly $ 300,000 and created nearly 50 jobs so far for one of its programs, Hire a Mardi Gras Artist.
“It’s New Orleans to take a bad situation and turn into a positive one,” said Kelli Starrett, who had Mr. Píerre install a float in her home. “We won’t have a parade? OK, we’re going to decorate houses and find a way to employ artists and raise money for charity. This speaks for the resilience of the people in the city. “
This year’s floats will not all be solemn. Some will pay tribute to members of the Mardi Gras Indians, known for their intricate hand-sewn suits who have died. The community is black and its traditions are rooted in African culture.
As in other parts of the country, the virus has ravaged black homes in New Orleans, and black patients accounted for more than three-quarters of those hospitalized with Covid-19 in the city last spring.
Five house poses, all within blocks, each show a three-meter-long portrait of a deceased Carnival Indian.
For Mr Píerre, 54, house cars brought hope.
His wife Inez had already lost her job as a psychiatrist when the parades were canceled in late November. “We tried to find a job that is safe for us to survive,” said Inèz.
But while the parades could not go on, the wagons could. Mr. Píerre began offering to build house cars for others. “The light bulb went out,” he said. “This is our ticket out.”
Less than a month before Carnival, three of Mr Píerre’s employees huddled in a U-Haul truck and crossed the city to build equipment. Mr. Píerre has worked on 60 house poses in the greater New Orleans area.
In a house with a cart dedicated to the actor Dolly Parton, Inez Píerre leaned against the fence and watched as workers put up large painted panels.
“Sometimes I have to sit and think about how easily tradition changes,” she said. “We are part of it; Our names are in the books. This is a dream come true. “
Annie Flanagan and Akasha Rabut are New Orleans photographers.
Correction: February 13, 2021
An earlier version of a caption with this article mischaracterized one of the Krewes. The Krewe of the Muses is an all female Krewe, but not the greatest all female Krewes.