This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
They'd gathered at Beauregard Circle by the entrance to City Park, a crowd several hundred strong, tooting horns and shooting video, tossing beads and waving Saints hats.
The steady "bwomp, bwah bwah" of a brass band marked the cadence we quickly fell into, dancing around the vintage St. Charles streetcar with the throng on the median, or "neutral ground." They'd gathered to cheer us on, a krewe of 60-odd costumed revelers, temporary freaks and ambassadors who climbed aboard the streetcar, bedecked in purple, green and gold.
We were in Mid-City New Orleans, with the Phunny Phorty Phellows social krewe, to kick off Mardi Gras 2007. It was Jan. 6, aka Twelfth Night, when legend says wise men bestowed gifts upon baby Jesus, and New Orleans' Mardi Gras season begins.
I was riding with Anna and Kristian, two New Orleaneans walloped by Katrina but fighting back. We squeezed to the front of the streetcar, grabbed window space and some beads. The band, stuffed in the rear of the car, kept on blowing.
In the 18 months since Katrina became a four-letter word in this town, New Orleans has struggled to recover. Despite red tape and doubters, a hardy core has returned to make a stand and rebuild this unique American city.
It's not been easy. Normalcy is hard to fathom when half a city remains uninhabited, when empty homes line once-vibrant neighborhood blocks. Crime fears have crystallized around the recent slayings of filmmaker Helen Hill and drummer Dinerral Shavers, prompting public marches on city hall. Government has been ineffective, insurance companies evasive. Nobody's sure about the levees.
But progress is evident. The riverfront neighborhoods - the French Quarter, Central Business District, Garden District and Uptown - are fully functioning. Great food and music are served up nightly. Magazine Street is thriving. Katrina's silver lining was its sparing the city's tourism industry - the top economic driver before the hurricane, and its best bet for recovery.
That's what makes Mardi Gras and New Orleans' spring celebrations - the French Quarter Festival, Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
In the city that's mastered communal celebration unlike any other, public parties now symbolize progress, a reminder of good times past and a promise of better fortune to come.
We saw this firsthand in Mid-City, a broad, middle-class borough that flooded but now is returning in fits and starts. As our streetcar clanged down Carrollton Street, away from the kickoff crowd, smaller clusters lined the neutral ground, awaiting our approach. They'd wave and bellow, "Throw me something"; we'd whoop and shower down beads in return.
We had the perfect front-window vantage of upcoming groups, some standing, some in lawn chairs, all ages and ethnicities represented. As we approached, they'd erupt in joy.
Though stereotypes paint Mardi Gras as a raucous show of drunks going wild (which they do, on Bourbon Street), for New Orleaneans it connotes much more. Mardi Gras is about families, and generations, gathering for reunions; neighbors reconnecting at favorite parade-route spots, year after year.
The conductor noticed the turnout. "So many people," he said as he worked his dual-levered magic, angling the streetcar left onto Canal Street for its dash to the French Quarter downtown. Truth be told, the crowd wasn't huge, but in a city striving to repopulate, parade-goers were a welcomed site.
As we rode through our final leg downtown, a king cake appeared, and we munched the ceremonial pastry of Mardi Gras. Our beads depleted, we stumbled off at Royal Street, barely noticed by weekenders despite our elaborate masks and clownish costumes - in itself, a small symbol of normalcy returning to New Orleans again.
If you go
* The 2007 Mardi Gras season runs through Fat Tuesday, Feb. 20, when the police sweep Bourbon Street at midnight and Ash Wednesday begins Lent. Popular parades include Endymion (Saturday, 4:30 p.m.), Orpheus (Feb. 19, 5:45 p.m.) and Zulu (Feb. 20, 8 a.m.). For trip-planning details, visit www. mardigrasneworleans.com.
* Festival season continues throughout spring in New Orleans. Favorites include the Tennessee Williams Festival (March 28-April 1, www.tennessee williams.net), the French Quarter Festival (April 13-15, http://www.fqfi.org) and the granddaddy of American music happenings, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (April 27-May 6, http://www.nojazzfest.com).
* Down-home Mother's (401 Poydras St., 504-523-9656, mothersrestaurant.net) dishes fluffy biscuits and "heaping debris" po' boys. Palace Cafe (605 Canal St., 504-523-1661, http://www.palacecafe.com) masters horseradish oysters, velvety crusted duck and unreal desserts.
* The Central Grocery (923 Decatur St., 504-523-1620) birthed the muffuletta, a mega sandwich stuffed with ham, salami, provolone and olive tapenade. One fills two.
* A great French Quarter value, the 1830s-era Place d'Armes (625 St. Ann St., 504-524-4531, doubles $59-$254, www.place darmes.com), features several buildings around a communal pool and courtyard.
* The Canal Street Guesthouse (1930 Canal St., 504-266-1930, doubles from $289/week, http://www.bestguesthouse.com) shrugs off Katrina with its watery murals and festive ambience.