Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Save the Bonfire: a fiery public meeting

Posted By on Tue, Dec 23, 2008 at 2:55 AM

Some 150 Mid-City residents met tonight at Grace Episcopal Church on Canal Street for an "informational session" with members of the New Orleans police and fire departments -- as well as City Councilmembers Arnie Fielkow and Shelley Midura -- to discuss the banning of the area's annual New Year's Eve bonfire in the neutral ground of Orleans Avenue.

The cancellation of the decades-old tradition (which was announced less than a week ago) seems to have galvanized many residents of Mid-City, who showed up with photographs of bonfires past and tales of the celebration, which, according to one longtime resident, stretches back to World War II when neighbors would pile kindling in the street to welcome in the new year. And public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of continuing the bonfire.

NOFD superintendent Charles Parent began by addressing the group, saying that the bonfire had gotten out of hand in recent years, and that the ban was suggested by his firefighters: "They saw the potential for someone getting injured. In recent years, my firefighters were assaulted with bottle rockets and rocks. It ties up my equipment and manpower on a very busy night. We know somebody's gonna get hurt, somebody's gonna lose their house." His bottom line? "A bonfire from Christmas trees is not gonna work. If you want to have a function with a band..."

Would that require a permit? someone from the crowd shouted. Yes, was the answer. "It's nine days away!" someone groaned. "Why didn't y'all bring this up on January 10th?" shouted another man.

Midura also addressed the crowd: "Although this is a longstanding tradition, I'm going to support public safety first." She suggested a different event, but was shouted down by a resident who demanded to know "You've never been, have you?"

The crowd seemed willing to accept restrictions -- no fireworks, appropriate safety measures, even a possible move to the larger neutral ground on Marconi Blvd. near Delgado College -- but would not budge on their bonfire. Neither would the police or fire officials.

Some saw the officials' point and concurred that there were problems: the New Year's crowd had grown in size over the years, some brought fireworks (which are illegal in Orleans Parish) and weren't too careful with them, and that recent years have drawn partiers from outside the area who weren't as respectful of the neighborhood as are its residents. But one woman drew applause and calls of "That's right!" when she pointed out that New Year's Eve created fewer problems for Mid-City than did the hordes who descend for the Krewe of Endymion parade.

Resident Benjamin Kappel also got a hand from the gathering when he presented Midura and Fielkow with a "Save the Bonfire" petition, which had drawn more than 1,000 signatures since its inception last week:

Let us Celebrate The Bonfire on Orleans Ave, our friends, our family, our good health, our cheer and our life in New Orleans lest we have none that remains other than the negative, sterile, boring existence that you wish to impose.

But the crowd's biggest response was for Gina Montana. "I am a single mother who grew up in the Seventh Ward," she began. She and her son have been attending the bonfire for more than a decade. "You don't know how safe I feel walking up Orleans Avenue that night," she says. "We didn't have to worry about falling bullets."

Montana -- who is also Big Queen of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe of Mardi Gras Indians ("I'm sewing for Carnival right now"), said that quashing the bonfire was "kind of a similar analogy" to police skirmishes with past Mardi Gras Indian events.

"I'm a Mardi Gras Indian, and what happened with the Indians is kind of a similar analogy," Montana continued. "This is important to the cultural tapestry -- to make New Orleans what it is." Some in the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

The question and answer session devolved to shouting matches at points ("This is ridiculous!" yelled Midura), before Fielkow proposed a solution: the crowd should form a committee and meet with officials in the next day or two. "We need to get a grip and set some parameters," he said. "We've got to figure out a way to keep the tradition...so a week from now we're not losing this."

"We can form a committee and do it now!" yelled one man, a solution that seemed acceptable to the crowd, but the councilmembers and the police and fire officials didn't go for that.

Instead, the meeting was broken up and a group of eight hastily arranged to meet at Midura's office tomorrow morning to see if a solution could be worked out. (Among the committee members: Gina Montana.) And the crowd went out on Canal Street to talk some more, and smoke, and fuss, and exchange numbers to see what the next day's meeting at City Hall would bring.

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